Special Video Series Agents of Change

When you plant a farm in a city, it tastes like the future

From the outside, the warehouse looks like any of the other industrial manufacturing buildings you find in this part of San Francisco. But that’s just a facade. When you walk in, it’s as if you have entered a portal to another world. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. Welcome to the future of agriculture.

Instead of a traditional farmhouse, you’ll find the sort of office space you’d see at Silicon Valley companies like Facebook or Apple. But keep walking and you’ll see the farm. Instead of sprawling fields of crops stretching across acres of Iowa or Illinois farmland, you’ll see a space the size of a Target store that resembles a high-tech luxury car assembly line, featuring vertical tubes that sprout two stories tall, each one packed with leafy greens that are lovingly surrounded by thousands of UV lights.

“We’ve literally flipped the farm on its end,” smiles Matt Barnard, co-founder and executive chairman of Plenty, “We’ve developed technology to deliver all the things plants need–nutrients, water, climate. And we do that in ways that are not only efficient but they also allow us to control flavor to an extent that’s never been possible before.”

The field hands here look more like astronauts than farmers. They wear what resemble full-body hazmat suits, which help maintain an impeccably strict level of hygiene. This prevents any contamination of the plants, since one of the main selling points of Plenty’s produce is that it doesn’t use pesticides. As workers bustle about the warehouse with iPads, checking data points that help them engineer perfect bunches of arugula and kale, you might forget you’re at a farm at all–apart from that one employee over there wearing a cowboy hat. 

“Things that would normally take years on the farm I grew up on take just months here,” says Barnard. “Yield gains that take a decade in a field, we deliver in a few weeks. There’s no way to do that other than data. This new way of farming has really demanded that we be a data-driven company.”

Plenty’s intense focus on data allows it to precisely calibrate its usage of California’s most precious resource: water. The Golden State is the leading producer of agriculture in the United States, and consequently the state with the highest water usage for farming–in fact, 40 percent of all water used in the state goes into agriculture. For the past decade, however, California has been suffering from brutal drought, the driest period in recorded state history. It’s a full-blown crisis that is only getting worse as the planet warms up further.

That’s where the genius of Plenty comes in. The obsessive attention to data allows the company to increase the efficiency of its yield and cut down dramatically on the water necessary to grow it. Compared to nearby lettuce farms in Salinas and Yuma, Plenty is saving approximately a million gallons of water per week. 

In fact, the company argues that it is as much an infrastructure resource as an agricultural enterprise. Because it grows locally, it ensures nearby residents have delicious food to eat–and jobs to work at–all year round, even in barren food deserts, and even during times of severe supply-chain crises (wildfires, drought, ransomware attacks or, say, a global pandemic).  

Because everything happens in an indoor controlled climate, Plenty has no seasons. It can plant, grow and harvest late summer plants like its pristine strawberries every month of the year.

Plenty isn’t just growing food, though. “Because we are able to grow 365 days a year, and grow plants that taste like late summer plants all year round, we get to invest in our people,” says Barnard. “They’re here as long as they want to be here. It’s not seasonal, we know who’s going to be here next year, everyone gets to grow their income and their careers.”

The company is expanding quickly. They have a contract with the berry giant Driscoll’s to start producing strawberries, and they’re building a second farm in the unlikely working-class community of Compton, south of Los Angeles. 

Barnard envision dozens and eventually hundreds of vertical farms across the country. This is where other countries, especially China, are headed fast and Plenty makes a strong argument that American federal and state governments should start planting the seeds of vertical farms as quickly as possible to avoid falling behind.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out their website, https://www.plenty.ag/ and try some of their famous lettuce next time you’re in the Bay area.