KANSAS CITY - Urban farms check a variety of boxes for today’s consumers: locally grown, sustainable, low carbon footprint — not to mention fresh, healthy and tasty.

And the COVID pandemic has only made them more attractive, as transportation and logistics created huge headaches for retailers, shippers and everyone in between along the supply chain. Kroger, Whole Foods Market and Safeway are just a few of the big-name US retailers to get on board.

Minneapolis-based North Market installed a Freight Farms hydroponic vertical container farm in the summer of 2020, and the retailer followed that up in December with the decision to power its farm with solar panels connected to its roof.

“Now we have a repurposed shipping container, growing the equivalent of two acres of outdoor growing space, using only five gallons of water a day, entirely powered by solar panels, selling into a grocery store located 50 feet away,” said Ethan Neal, food systems manager for Pillsbury United Communities, the nonprofit organization that funded the farm. “It’s creating some of the highest quality produce available in a neighborhood that was considered one of the largest food deserts in the state of Minnesota.”

Built in an upcycled shipping container and controlled by a data-driven IoT platform called farmhand, North Market’s 320-square-foot farm is located in the retailer’s parking lot.  

North Market sources 11 vegetables and herbs from the farm year-round: three varieties of mini compact romaine lettuces, green oakleaf, basil, Thai basil, rosemary, thyme, lemon balm, sage, and mint. 

When the Freight Farm launched, North Market organized a two-week window of educational tours and "meet your farmer" events. Neal said that customers continue to be curious about the produce and ask if they can have a tour of the farm. To help engage the community, North Market applied a wrap to the Freight Farm’s exterior that functions like a self-guided science museum on how hydroponic vertical farming works.

Post-COVID, North Market will expand its educational curriculum to include in-farm learning as well. Micah Helle, Pillsbury United’s hydroponic specialist and onsite farmer, is currently developing this curriculum, and is already working with an intern from the community who is getting hands-on learning, while also managing the farm’s Instagram presence to give the community a digital peek inside the Freight Farm.

Furthering customer education, North Market is creating its own branding and packaging for its Freight Farm crops that will note the produce is hyper-local and grown just outside the store, how it’s grown hydroponically, and “why it's awesome.” 

In January, North Market began selling its crops to other co-ops and grocery stores in North Minneapolis. 

“This project has always been about more than growing produce,” Neal said. “We are creating greater access to the agtech and food production industry especially for the local BIPOC community, including hard and soft skill training opportunities. 

Other benefits of farming on site include: 

  • Elimination of food miles: the crops only travel steps from the parking lot to the store  
  • Consistent reliability: store can produce its own line of crops for shoppers, with year-round consistency regardless of the weather or changing climate conditions in Minneapolis  
  • Quality and freshness: by being grown hyper-locally (in this case, right onsite), produce stays fresh for far longer, reducing food waste for both the store and consumers 
  • Cost reduction: in removing distribution costs from the equation, PUC is able to pass savings on to the consumer  
  • Traceability and safety: the farm’s integrated IoT platform, farmhand, enables complete traceability of crops from seed to harvest 

North Market also sells produce from Pillsbury United Community’s other soil-based farms in the city. To get those crops to the store, bicycle couriers pick up freshly harvested food from the organization’s Southside gardens and deliver them to North Market to be sold. Completing the cycle, they also pick up surplus food and bring it back to the Southside to be distributed in community delivery meal programs. Remaining food is composted back at the Southside gardens. 

Freight Farms’ CEO, Rick Vanzura, said supermarkets are the tip of a huge iceberg representing a complicated logistics system that’s being strained like never before. While grocery retail is experiencing an extreme surge in consumer demand, gaps are growing in the system due to disruptions in transportation, imports, and workforce illness and shortages at both the supply and store level. 

“When it comes to fresh produce, there has fortunately been no shortage of food in this country,” Vanzura said. “But when perishable produce can no longer move efficiently between point A – say, a California lettuce farm or strawberry grower in Mexico – and B, store shelves, delays lead to both spoilage and supply shock.”

Retail test case: Whole Foods

Whole Foods Market customers are now able to purchase a range of fresh produce that has been grown by Infarm, the world's fastest growing urban farming network.

It marks the third major expansion into the UK retail space for Infarm, which launched a deal with Kroger in the US in 2019, as retailers seek ways to reduce the environmental footprint in their supply chain and develop their range of sustainable produce.

Infarm has installed two of its modular vertical farming units in two of Whole Foods Market's London outlets, High Street Kensington and Fulham, so shoppers can buy fresh produce grown directly in store, according to Infarm.

The remaining five London stores will be supplied with produce from a local Infarm growing center in Tottenham, providing flexible supply as and when required.

"Whole Foods Market felt like a perfect fit for Infarm,” said Daniel Kats, Infarm’s vice president of corporate sales. “Its commitment to providing customers with vibrant, sustainable food aligns with our goal of growing produce locally and, in the process, substantially reducing food waste and the environmental impact of what we consume. We hope that in installing our modular farms in Kensington and Fulham, we can help to educate shoppers about the future of food."

Jade Hoai, director of purchasing and operations at Whole Foods Market, said the retailer was excited to partner with Infarm to offer a hyper-local selection of greens and herbs across all of its London stores.

“Whole Foods Market customers can expect to find fresh, unique herbs from Infarm's vertical growing units like Bordeaux purple basil, that are grown locally, have no pesticides, and use a fraction of the traditional resources required to grow,” Hoai said. “We are excited about this relationship for its joint commitment to environmental stewardship and for the delicious, nutritious meals our customers will be crafting at home."

Whole Foods Market shoppers will be able to purchase Infarm's full range of herbs, including Mountain Coriander, Flat Parsley, Basil, Mint, Dill and Thai Basil. Infarm's range of fresh lettuce (Crystal, Caravel, Duo and Red Romaine) will also be available to buy. Whole Foods Market is also set to stock Nero di Toscana, Scarlet Kale, Sorrel and Red Stem Mizuna.

Infarm has partnered with more than 30 major food retailers including Amazon Fresh, Empire Company Ltd. (Safeway, Sobeys, ThriftyFoods), Kroger and many other retailers throughout the world.

Infarm has deployed more than 1000 farms in stores and distribution centers, saved more than 7 million gallons of water and 400,000 square feet of land, while harvesting more than 500,000 plants monthly, according to the company.

High-tech, big investment

New York-based Gotham Greens, a pioneer in indoor agriculture operating high-tech greenhouses located across the United States, has raised another $87 million in new equity and debt capital, bringing the company’s total financing to $130 million.

Gotham Greens operates one of the largest and most advanced networks of hydroponic leafy greens-producing greenhouses in North America. The company plans to use the latest funding to accelerate its mission to decentralize food production and bring more fresh foods to people across the United States through channel and geographic market expansion, increased operational capacity and new product development, said Viraj Puri, cofounder and CEO.

“Given increasing challenges facing centralized food supply chains, combined with rapidly shifting consumer preferences, Gotham Greens is focused on expanding its regional growing operations and distribution capabilities at one of the most critical periods for America,” Puri said. “We’re dedicated to changing how people think, feel and interact with their food while decreasing the environmental footprint of the traditional produce supply chain.”

Gotham Greens has doubled its revenue in the past year, bringing its fresh produce and food products to retailers in more than 40 US states through its network of high-tech, climate-controlled greenhouses. The company’s expansion has driven 80% growth in retail unit sales year over year.

Gotham Greens has doubled capacity in the past 12 months by opening new greenhouses in Chicago, Providence, R.I., Baltimore and Denver. These facilities have expanded distribution of the company’s salad greens, herbs, salad dressings and sauces to new regions, including the New England, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Mountain regions.

Gotham Greens products are available in more than 2,000 retail stores, including Whole Foods Market, Albertsons Companies (Safeway, Jewel-Osco and Shaw’s), Meijer, Target, King Soopers, Harris Teeter, ShopRite and Sprouts. The company’s items also are available for purchase through grocery ecommerce sites, including AmazonFresh, FreshDirect and Peapod.

The brand recently launched several new fresh, plant-forward products, including new packaged salads, cooking sauces, and grab-and-go salad bowls featuring fresh Gotham Greens lettuce, Gotham Greens salad dressing and delicious, protein-packed toppings.

Gotham Greens produce is grown using hydroponic systems in 100% renewable electricity-powered greenhouses that use 95% less water and 97% less land than conventional farming. Through its national network of climate-controlled, data-driven greenhouses, Gotham Greens grows and sells long-lasting, delicious leafy greens and herbs along with a line of fresh salad dressings and sauces to retail, restaurant and foodservice customers year-round.

This story was included in the January 2021 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Read the rest of the magazine here.