Back in 2019, we predicted that hydroponically grown greens would soon become a mainstay of grocery stores in the U.S. We did not predict that a global health crisis would disrupt the supply chain and make consumers hyper-aware of where their food comes from and what goes into growing it, but that’s exactly what happened. The result? Hydroponic farming’s march into the grocery store has been accelerated.
Perhaps no one is pursuing this shift more seriously than grocery retail chain Publix, whose Greenwise brand has partnered with Brick Street Farms to locate a shipping-container-turned vertical farm at one of Greenwise’s brick-and-mortar markets in Florida.
The 40-foot shipping container (see image above) sits outside the Greenwise market in Lakeland, Florida. Like other vertical farming operations, it uses hydroponics to grow leafy greens without the use of soil or pesticides. Greens are packaged onsite and travel mere feet to reach the produce section of the store.
Speaking on the phone this week, Curt Epperson, Business Development Director of Produce and Floral for Publix, and Albert Gottuso, Category Manager for Produce at Publix, highlighted the advantage of this method over traditional means of getting produce in the store. Most of Publix’ conventional leafy greens are grown in California and have to travel thousand of miles before they reach store shelves. Besides the obvious lower carbon footprint, growing greens onsite also uses less water than traditional farming and means fresher greens on store shelves compared to those that are harvested shipped, and hydrated before they ever reach the produce section.
But hydroponic greens were on the Publix agenda long before the deal with Brick Street Farms. During our call, Gottuso said the company has maintained relationships for years with local hydroponic farmers to sell greens in its stores. For instance, Livingston, TN-based Tanimura & Antle sells its butter lettuce at Publix stores in that state.
“This hydroponic product out of nowhere became our best seller for leafy lettuce,” he said. That in turn led the chain to consider how it could supply hydroponically grown greens to more of its locations.
Multiple efforts are currently underway. Earlier in 2020, Publix partnered with Vertical Roots on a mobile vertical farm customers could interact with. In March, the chain teamed up with large-scale vertical farming company Kalera.
All of these efforts fit into Publix overall hydroponic program, which Epperson says is still testing different techniques in terms of getting indoor greens to local stores.
Gottuso added that the chain is expanding this hydroponic program so that every state has a grower with an indoor farm supporting local stores in its area. “Our goal is that every store that we service has a local hydroponic program that can offer an assortment of variety of blends,” he said.
This push towards local, more sustainably grown greens is happening across the grocery sector. Kroger has a partnership with Berlin-based InFarm, which puts its vertical farming pods in the store’s produce section. And just this week, San Francisco-based Plenty announced a partnership with Albertsons to sell its greens (which are grown offsite in a warehouse) at that retailer’s store.
Publix doesn’t plan to stop at leafy greens. Though they are by far the most popular product to grow hydroponically, Epperson suggests there is potential for cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers, among other produce types.
As to whether or not hydroponic farming could ever replace traditional farming, at least in terms of leafy greens, Epperson noted that the jury is still out. “It’s very difficult to get the yield you would get in conventional growing,” he said. Calling it “blue sky” thinking, he pointed to a day when Publix might have vertical farms located next to all of its distribution centers. And that idea isn’t exactly unattainable — Square Roots is already doing something similar with Gordon Food Service.
The introduction of technology to the greenhouse could also play a big role in making hydroponics more widespread in the grocery sector. Gottuso says technology allows companies to build greenhouses in areas where they historically haven’t been (like the Southeast). These large greenhouses also provide the scale needed to supply the shelves of a major grocery retailer because they are “adept to growing larger amounts of produce.”
If Publix’ ambitions around hydroponics can do likewise and scale effectively, we can expect many more locally grown greens — and other produce types — to hit store shelves in near future.