One question we’ve asked for a while here at The Spoon is whether vertical farms will eventually make their way into the average consumer’s home. Versions of these farms self-contained, temperature controlled smart gardens have existed for years now, but they’ve historically gotten the most adoption among startups and independent food producers selling to local retailers.
Of late, however, a number of companies have come to market with indoor-farming devices built not for industrial-grade production but for the average person’s home or apartment. Among them is Rise Gardens, a Chicago-based startup that makes an indoor farming system that looks like a piece of furniture, takes minutes to set up, and can be controlled remotely with a smartphone app.
Rise’s product, among others, is a far cry from some of the at-home farming concepts appliance-makers like GE and LG showed off at CES this year as they unveiled fridge-sized products meant to be built right into the kitchen cabinetry. But it does the same job, and, arguably, in a cheaper, more user-friendly way.
The Chicago-based Rise has been hard at work for the last couple of years making prototypes of its indoor farming device, a standalone console that can grow greens year-round and is small enough to function as another piece of furniture inside someone’s house. The company started selling its product to the U.S. and Canada markets in August of 2019.
Like other consumer-grade hydroponic farms, Rise Gardens’ device is a self-contained system that grows leafy greens in a temperature-controlled environment, with much of the work automated by technology. “If you just use our device without the app, it might still be four or five hours [of work] per week. That’s why we created the app,” says Blondet. “What the app is doing is automating things on the back end that a farmer would do.”
That includes calculating temperature, nutrition and pH levels, as well as determining when and how much to water the plants. Were a user to do this manually, Blondet says, they would need to perform some relatively complicated mathematics to get this kind of information. Rise Gardens’ app works with a sensor (“kind of like a Fitbit but for plants”) to automate such calculations, so that a user simply gets notified when it’s time to re-up the water or nutrient supply, or harvest the plants.
Rise Gardens’ farms are also modular in that they can be added to over time if a user wants more space to grow greens. The console itself, where the farm lives, resembles a standalone cabinet and is assembled by the user. A single-level farm (see below) is roughly the size of an entry-way table and comes with 12 plant pods. Users who want to grow more plants over time can add second and third levels, so that the largest system resembles a bookshelf.
Blondet notes that one of Rise Gardens’ goals in coming up with the product design was to have it fit inside a consumer’s home as easily as most other appliances. In other words, it’s just another piece of furniture, albeit a highly functional one. “We didn’t want to disrupt the home, we want to fit in it,” he says. He adds that an earlier version of the Rise Gardens farm more resembled a refrigerator. As LG showed us at CES this month, fridge-like designs are coming. But not yet. “Right now, no one is going to remodel their kitchen to fit this,” Blondet says of the fridge-style size and design. Rise chose its current design in part to appeal to consumers who would like to keep their greens hyper-local but can’t or won’t remodel a home just to do so.
Rise is one of many companies taking this approach, which seems to be fast becoming a good middle ground between a built-in appliance and a bag of lettuce from the grocery store. Aspara, n.thing’s Planty Cube, Seedo, Verdeat . . . the list goes on, and it’s getting lengthier each month. Another appliance-maker, Miele, is also getting involved in the space, having acquired German startup Agrilution and its wine-fridge-sized Plantcube product in 2019.
As more consumers get familiar with the concept, Blondet suggests a future in which these kinds of systems are ubiquitous, where seed packs can be bought at a grocery retailer like Whole Foods (right now they have to be special ordered), and every kitchen will be designed to accommodate some type of indoor farm.
By way of example, he mentions the dishwasher. “Forty years ago, no one had a dishwasher. And then slowly but surely the dishwasher made its way into people’s lives,” he says. “I think [indoor farming] is the type of thing that will slowly but surely make its way into the design of the kitchen.”