As someone interested in consumer behavior, I have to admit a pandemic makes for a compelling case study in how people will react when our normally stable food system gets a shock.
The panic buying. The embrace of processed food. The baking of bread. It’s all fascinating and provides a small glimpse into how consumers could behave when they believe, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that the relative ease with which they’ve had access to food is threatened.
All of which brings to the forefront a larger conversation about food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is something governments and interest groups debate all the time, such as when island countries like Japan worry (rightly) about over-reliance on imports or a lack of native agricultural production.
Consumers, however, usually don’t speak in the language of food sovereignty. That might soon change.
As the coronavirus has forced all of us to think more about our food supply, some consumers have gone beyond just buying a little extra food to store away. Now they are thinking about how we could ensure access to food independent of breakdowns in the system.
While that doesn’t mean we’re all going to buy lots of land and start a farm, it does mean more people than ever are looking into how to grow their own food at home.
That could mean something like raising chickens. According to Google Trends, interest in the topic has shot to an all time high.
More likely though, the notion of food independence for most consumers will mean starting a garden. Interest in starting home gardens has, like raising chickens, jumped to unprecedented levels. Seed sellers across the country are telling new customers they can’t take new orders. Meanwhile, gardening classes are on the rise. One virtual Master Gardener series from Oregon Stage saw registrations jump 12,000 percent over the previous spring.
So while a Victory Garden-esque resurgence in home gardens may be sprouting across the country, unlike those World War II-era home gardeners, we have access to technology can help us grow food nowadays.
The question is will consumers choose to use it?
In pre-pandemic times, the answer of whether consumers embrace tech-powered gardening is mostly a no. Wi-Fi powered home watering systems for the backyard have largely flopped, while smart in-home grow systems have been around for a while but have had mixed success.
That could change with a pandemic.
According to AeroGrow CEO J. Michael Wolfe, there’s has been a surge in interest since mid-March across all of their sales channels.
“Inventories are running low,” Wolfe told me via email. “We have raced to spin up the supply chain in Asia (and they were relatively fast to get back up to capacity), but we have surged so much that the supply we had on hand was not able to keep up with demand.”
Click & Grow spokesperson Martin Laidla told me that the increase in demand has been “substantial.”
“So far, we’ve seen a staggering twofold increase in demand for our products in all markets,” said Laidla.
Smaller smart garden manufacturers are also seeing surging interest. Ava Technologies, which began with a crowdfund campaign for its Byte herb garden, has accelerated a second batch of manufacturing to take advantage of increased interest. According to Ava CEO Valerie Song, visits to the company’s preorder page is up over 1,300 percent versus just a month ago.
The strong demand makes sense. After all, smart gardens take up a small footprint and can grow greens at a pretty fast clip due to a fine-tuned grow environment of high-intensity light, automated watering and nutrients.
But these high-tech indoor grow systems have a few drawbacks, the first of which is price. While low-end AeroGardens start roughly below $50, the bigger systems that can grow a substantial amount of produce start at around $240. The AeroGarden Farm, which allows for 24 “pods” of seeds to be planted simultaneously, start at close to $600.
The second problem, which is directly related to price of the system, is yield. While lower-priced smaller systems from Click & Grow and AeroGarden look good on a kitchen counter and can pump out herbs, that’s mainly it. To actually grow veggies in enough volume to feed you let alone a family, you have to look a higher-end system like the AeroGarden Farm.
But despite the higher price tags of higher yield systems, consumers still seem interested. AeroGarden’s higher yield systems like the Bounty and the Farm are sold out on Amazon and Home Depot, and the AeroGarden has even stopped selling the Farm on their own site as they’ve run out of inventory.
“The Farm sold out in early March,” said AeroGrow’s Wolfe. “We won’t have replenishment for a few more weeks. I expect that we’ll sell out of the replenishment inventory that arrives in a matter of days — and then more will arrive in June.”
So while smart garden systems might not be for everyone, it appears that the arrival of a pandemic might actually push these systems more into the mainstream.
One thing I’m curious about is how this increased demand plays out in the longer term. I could envision a post-pandemic world where, in a more normalized economic situation, new homes come with an option for a home grow system built into the kitchen. Some master planned communities could make vertical farming a big part of the sales pitch.
At CES and KBIS, I counted four major appliance brands who had smart garden grow systems in development, and I could see those plans accelerating and even more brands jumping into the grow system fray.
As for now, if you want your own high-yield smart farm system, you’ll need to get in line. Of course, if you have a yard and you’re the adventurous type, you can always buy a robotic farm for the back yard.