Today’s Wall Street Journal dubbed moringa as one of the next hot trends in food. Fortunately, at VERGE16, we caught up with Sonia Lo, CEO of CropOne Holdings, who gave us a heads-up about this high-protein African shrub and its potential to be the next super green. In the above interview, Lo explains that moringa is one example of the many types of vegetables and green they have grown in their climate controlled-containers. CropOne Holdings is a hyper-local radius producer, meaning they distribute within 100 miles of where they grown their food.
Unlike traditional indoor farming, that is custom-built in an existing building, CropOne Holdings takes a modular approach, whereby they outfit used shipping containers to be self-contained, hydroponic gardens. In this way, they minimize upfront investment and have a solution that scales as the market evolves.
The biggest difference may be, as Lo calls it, their “major system integration exercise.” It could almost be considered a massive Internet of Things project, as she explains CropOne Holdings is able to remotely monitor and control temperature, moisture, soil, nutrients, etc. As such each of the containers is part of a larger network feeding a back-end that provides better efficiency than traditional farming techniques.
What this means is that they can predict when things need to be harvested. And the harvest cycle is significantly improved, as Lo indicates that a typical head of lettuce, which would require 65 to 90 days in a field, takes only 18 to 21 days (and as fast as 5 ½ days) with their approach. Being able to control the growth cycle improves efficiency in terms of yield, as CropOne Holdings is seeing yields for lettuce of 99.5%, compared to 28% for traditional outdoor farming.
She explains how the modular approach has resulted in almost a 90% reduction in capital costs for their modules. The productivity in terms of the amount that can be grown in a given volume is amazing, as Lo suggests that, depending upon the crop, one 8’x40′ container can provide the equivalent of 2 to 19 acres, while using as little as 1/2500th the amount of water. From a consumer cost perspective, this means Fresh Box Farms (the name of one of CropOne Holdings consumer brands) can offer its products at the same price as other organic products.
If CropOne Holdings’ model and approach sounds more like a Silicon Valley start-up than agriculture company, it should. Lo says she split the business into software (the plants) and hardware (the physical plant – the containers, network and back-end). Like Lo, CropOne Holdings leaders have the entrepreneurial backgrounds necessary to disrupt in industry.
It is somewhat ironic that its headquarters is located in once was one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions and yet the markets that are most ripe for its offering are in colder climes and sometimes hard-to-reach locations. Of course, these modules could also be placed in an old warehouse, a field or next to a restaurant or supermarket, greatly reducing transportation costs associated with traditional farming techniques.
Unlike even the ideal growing climate of the Valley of the Heart’s Delight, because of its controlled environment, CropOne Holdings doesn’t have to spray its crops with chemicals to kill bugs or fight disease. As a result, their produce is naturally organic.
But the best feature of their product may be the freshness. Lo describes how she was the “salad lady” at Boston-area supermarket during a particularly harsh Boston winter Saturday. People were pleasantly surprised when they tasted the Fresh Box Farm’s lettuce with one person, according to Lo, exclaiming, “This tastes just like I picked it out of my garden.”
Lo says they can grow just about anything (e.g. watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, grapes, etc.), but will be focusing on specific high-value items in five or six categories. She describes a growth plan that includes 25 hyper-farms consisting of 200 containers and 100 to 150 smaller farms consisting of 50 containers. With this sort of build-out, that would be the equivalent of between 20,000 to almost 240,000 acres under cultivation (while occupying less than 100 acres) and an investment north of $400M.
At a superficial glance, these may sound like crazy numbers, but this is Silicon Valley, where gaming apps are sometimes value in the billions. Perhaps though, this is the start-up that will return Silicon Valley to its agricultural roots.