One need not look far to understand that in the nascent industry of indoor vertical farming reside both appearance and reality. Between the two often lie hard lessons learned. Such is the case with the new Bay Area start-up, Farm Ecology (www.farmecology.farm). Born from one of the region’s first indoor commercial operations, Ecopia Farms, the team at Farm Ecology consists of Ecopia founders Phil Fok and Ken Stutzman along with lighting pro Steve Oster and advisor, UC Davis’ plant physiology expert, Dr. David King.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with CEO Fok and CTO Oster for a candid conversation about the operation and what differentiates this iteration from the last. For some detail, Steve provided the hard facts: Farm Ecology is a “working lab” situated in a 14,000 square foot facility addressing the three biggest cost considerations of all indoor vertical farm operations; energy, labor and the facility. As Steve states, “Everyone can speak of being green, sustainable, saving water, using zero pesticides and those are all very important, but it’s really about economics. It also has to make business sense!” For his part, that means driving down the cost of energy consumption, in particular, energy consumed by the LED lights.
Farm Ecology has trade-marked what they call the “AIMS” lighting system – Asymmetric Integral Motion Sequence, or proprietary LED lighting structured for optimal plant health while providing a power efficiency of 3.25 watts per square foot. As Steve states, the key to AIMS is both overall light distribution and proper distribution of the appropriate wavelength levels between the spectrum of red and blue light.
For the current Farm Ecology space configuration of 14,000 square feet, Steve estimates a labor requirement pegged at no more than 6 employees. It’s here where I’ll editorialize a bit: FarmedHere in Chicago recently had to recalibrate their cost structure based on far too many employees. They are now (with fewer employees) working towards profitability, expansion and scalability. Further, the golden child of vertical farming in the United States in 2016 is AeroFarms based in Newark, New Jersey. From all indications, they are employing up to 70 employees for a space of 69,000 square feet. Time will tell if this “employee-to- square feet” ratio is correct or if it’s a real estate play based on the redevelopment needs of a blighted area.
CEO Phil Fok was candid in his assessment of their previous endeavor, Ecopia Farms, and its departure, but also about the new venture. He referred to “Ecopia version 1” and “Farm Ecology version 2” with the latter being the recipient of hard lessons learned from v.1. He further mentioned that although Ecopia Farms was successful in its production efforts, labor costs were far too intensive for a commercial operation.
What really caught my attention however was Phil’s statement about the Farm Ecology use of soil. He used the analogy of comparing the taste of different wines from different regions of the world. Why does a wine grape grown in Napa for example, taste different from a wine grape grown in France? It’s all about the soil. He goes on to say that operators of Farm Ecology systems (which will be sold as a turn-key, licensing/franchise business model) have the choice of using any soil they like. He believes that “There is a place for hydroponics but the natural grow medium for plants is soil.” For many soil purists, this is absolute truth. For those who are masters of hydroponic grow methodologies, there’s a debate. I welcome all who read this post to please share your thoughts on the subject. And I sincerely wish to thank Phil and Steve for sharing their valuable input and the lessons they have learned. Urban Ag News wishes them all success and good growing!