When Plenty was founded in 2014 by CEO Matt Barnard and chief science officer Nate Storey, it was based on a core idea: Field agriculture was too unpredictable, and controlled environment, high-tech growing was a better way to supply quality food to a world that will need more of it in the years to come.
“There will be an increasing need, both for food in the world, as well as variability around the food supply,” Storey says. “We scaled up over the years. And as we’ve done that, the vision has of course not necessarily changed, but deepened, I would say, to include the idea that people don’t just need access to food, period, they need access to really good food.”
Plenty’s first farm — Storey calls it a container farm — was on the campus of a large technology company in San Francisco, and over time has grown to 100,000 square foot facilities. The business also evolved from its early days, when Barnard was using much of his own money to fund it and Storey splitting his time between his own startup — Bright Agrotech, based out of his previous home of Laramie, Wyoming — and Plenty, to receiving multimillion-dollar investments from investment groups that include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Masayoshi Son, the richest person in Japan with an estimated net worth of $23 billon, according to Forbes.
It was at this California-based tech company the heart of America’s currently booming tech industry, that Plenty found what worked and what didn’t in its system.
“[Starting there] basically give us time to learn, to understand the problems really clearly, and understand how indoor production can possibly solve the [problems] that we were identifying in the field,” Storey says.
How the system works
Plenty, which is currently based in San Francisco, is unlike most other vertical or container farms that grow plants on horizontally stacked shelves. Instead, Plenty uses tall poles to house the plants, which then grow out horizontally. Each pole is a few inches away from the next one, allowing crops to grow densely to the point where they essentially form a wall. The setup also allows excess heat from the lights to rise into the vented ceiling and excess water to drip down to the bottom of the plant towers and into a recyclable indoor stream, with space in front of the walls for workers to check on the plants’ health during the growing process. All of the water is then filtered and recycled back into the farm. As for harvesting, robots can handle at least part of it, but Plenty sees expertly trained human labor as a key part of its recipe.
Plenty, according to Storey, has benefited, and should continue to benefit, from the rapid evolution of growing technology.
“All of these things are dropping, precipitously, and it opens the doors for us to start leveraging that information, and those technologies, in ways that both drive costs out of our model, and make it feasible,” Storey says. “It’s true. A lot of folks who looked at this five, six years ago and said that that is not possible, they were right. It wasn’t possible that day. [It] wasn’t possible at that time, because the technology hadn’t evolved. No one — well, a few people predicted it — but very few people predicted the ways in which the economics of this business would change. And how fast it would change.”
The decreasing cost of technology also helps Plenty work towards another one of its goals: making its products more affordable.
“If our goal is just to produce a premium product we would be a much smaller business,” Storey says. “We would have to be content with being a smaller business. Our goal is, of course, to build a business that is global.”
A story published in Bloomberg indicated that Plenty has global ambitions and, with Son’s backing, has the financial means to expand. According to Bloomberg, Barnard has met with 15 governments on four different continents.
“It’s never going to replace the field by any means, but it’s going to become a really important part of our food production system,” Storey says. “[Our model] is stable, and it allows us to produce some of these high value horticultural products, closer and closer to people. And we just think that’s an important part of the experience, in a lot of different ways. In the next five years, 10 years, 15 years, I think we’re going to see our farms spring up all over the world. I think that people are going to be surprised at the diversity of crops that end up coming out of our farms.”
The diversity of crops is key to Plenty’s plans, which is why the company has a research and development division dedicated to developing genetics for its system because some seeds bred for field are not fit for any indoor growing system, much less one as advanced as Plenty’s. As that part of the business continues to develop, it allows the business to expand.
“We’re working both angles,” Storey says. “It’s important to us that we’re not just finding the appropriate environment for the crop. We want to grow, but we’re finding the appropriate crop and the appropriate environment. We’re kind of having this melding of both sides of the equation, and getting to the best possible place, as fast as possible.”