Vertical farm competes with conventional ag

Blog Exclusives from Urban Ag News

Originally published in Issue 5

Famgro Farms is using a vertical farm production system to successfully compete with conventional farming to produce healthier, better tasting food.

Steve Fambro, CEO at Famgro Farms in Oceanside, Calif., isn’t your typical farmer. And his “farm” isn’t the typical agricultural operation. It’s located in a 10,000-square-foot building that was previously used to make surf boards.

Prior to starting Famgro Farms, Fambro, who is an electrical engineer by training, raised $30-$40 million to start electric car company Aptera Motors in 2006. While working at Aptera, Fambro and his wife converted to an organic lifestyle.

“After buying organic produce for a few years I started asking myself why are these products so expensive?,” Fambro said. “I determined a large part of the cost of organic farming is the labor, including the weeding, tending to the plants, etc. I hypothesized that if we could think about things differently and design from the ground up with scale and automation in mind, then we could lower the cost of food. That was really the genesis of Famgro Farms.”

Steve Fambro, CEO of Famgro Farms, developed a vertical growing system that he said is more efficient than greenhouse and field food crop production.
Photos courtesy of Famgro Farms.

Building a better production system

Fambro, who left Aptera in 2009, started Famgro Farms in 2010. His goal was to produce a premium line of pesticide- and herbicide-free food.

“We don’t sell hardware. We don’t sell technology. We don’t sell farms. We sell the best food consumers can buy,” Fambro said. “We deliver on that promise of fresh, local, chemical-free, always in season and always available.” In order to realize his aspirations, Fambro said a completely new production platform had to be developed.

“We had to design and manufacture every component of it,” he said. “Trying to use off-the-shelf products like lighting and hydroponic systems wasn’t going to work.

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“In systems engineering, which is my background, you have to think about everything from how is the electrical power delivered to the building to how it is delivered to the circuit boards. Looking at off-the-shelf components, they become a nightmare when connecting all of the parts in a system. From a system’s engineering perspective, whether it is cooling, water-proofing or serviceability, all of it has been designed to work together.”

Fambro said it took three generations of designing and building a vertical farm platform over a 2-year period to come up with an operable system.

“We are currently using the third generation platform and each one was radically different, better and cheaper than the previous platform,” he said. “That’s a rule of engineering, from concept to production usually takes three reps. “The vertical farm platform we developed has been designed to easily change between a substrate and a hydroponic system. The one we are currently using is a hydroponic system.”

Famgro Farms is growing some microgreens and herbs, but kale is its bread-and-butter crop.

Deciding what to grow

Fambro said his company has grown about 100 different kinds of leafy greens, herbs, flowers and pharmaceutical plants in the vertical farming system.

“The platform is easily adapted for many different plants, both flowering and food crops,” he said. “Right now our focus is just on food items. We went through a phase where we had to stop developing the platform. We proved that it worked and had to develop a brand around this locally-grown, chemical-free food.”

Initially Fambro said his company began with too many crops.

“We would contact retailers and offer them five different kinds of basil,” he said. “They didn’t know which one to buy and they ended up not buying any of them. We pared our offerings down to something that we thought we could grow better than anybody else. The one crop we chose to focus on was kale. Our kale, which we have branded as “Sweet Kale”, is tender and sweet. These characteristics are immediately observable to the consumer. The different kale varieties that we grow are as soft as lettuce. We’re also growing some microgreens and herbs, but the kale is our bread-and-butter crop.”

Famgro Farms sells half of its produce to grocery stores and the other half to restaurants. Retailers of Famgro’s products in southern California include Whole Foods Market, Barons, Cardiff Seaside Market and other local grocery stores.

Famgro Farms promotes its products as being free of pesticides and herbicides.

Addressing food production issues

Fambro said the businesses and consumers purchasing his company’s produce are mindful of labels and environmental issues.

“Most of the lettuce produced in the U.S. is coming from California and Arizona,” he said. “The biggest user of water in California is the agriculture industry. People identify with water use and conservation. They want to know if they can buy a brand that is mindful of the environment, mindful of using no chemicals and mindful of workers’ rights. Customers care about those issues.

“The way we produce leafy greens in this country is broken. The system is so labor intensive. That method of production is not sustainable.”

Fambro said his company has plans for expansion, but that expansion won’t occur in California.

“We are in the heart of “America’s Salad Bowl”,” he said. “If we can compete here, and we do, then that is a real testament to how our company’s technology works. We are able to compete with produce that is grown in fields 100 miles away. That whole value proposition becomes even more powerful the further away one gets from California. If we can compete with cheaper produce, more of which is being grown in Mexico, that validates our model.

“We are producing food and delivering it at the exact time and in the quantities that our customers want it. We are radically simplifying cold storage and the logistics. If you compare production systems, ours might use more electricity than greenhouse or field farming, but you have to consider the total energy use. That includes the energy used to create the fertilizers and other chemicals applied in field farming and the energy in the form of fuel used in tractors and other harvesting equipment. If you add all of that up, our vertical farming system is more efficient and more sustainable.”

For more: Steve Fambro, Ocean Holding;

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas;

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