Global expansion tipped for ‘breakthrough’ indoor farming venture

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Samantha Bergman shows 80 Acres Farms' freshly picked lettuce at high-end U.S. retailer Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio.

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80 Acres Farms' shelf space at Clifton Market in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is just 2.4 miles from the company's farm.

Setting its sights on going global in the future, progressive indoor farming business 80 Acres Farms is about to launch on the mainstream U.S. market with a 12-month offer of locally-grown micro-greens, culinary herbs, leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers that have been bred, grown and harvested for nutrition and taste, rather than transportation. PBUK speaks with co-founders Mike Zelkind and Tisha Livingston, and their first major investor, Shawn Harris from start-up facilitator Orange Wings in the Netherlands.

80 Acres Farms regards itself as a supply chain disruptor; choosing to focus on delivering high quality produce without the food miles by converting indoor urban spaces into ultra-efficient controlled environment agriculture (CEA) farms.

Since its creation in late 2015, the company has worked tirelessly with major U.S. universities and Dutch technology company Priva to fine-tune its hydroponic growing systems. At a time when they saw other indoor growers facing challenges, 80 Acres Farms believes it has made phenomenal progress and is approaching a major breakthrough.

“This is the first real proven indoor farming business that is on the verge of getting the process completely right,” claims Harris. “We can now confidently say that we will be part of this game-changing trend to deliver fresh, healthy produce from around the corner.”

Harris invested in 80 Acres Farms in 2016 and sits on the board of directors. She set up her start-up accelerator Orange Wings after stepping down late last year as chief executive of another firm she founded – Nature’s Pride, Europe’s biggest exotic fruit and vegetable importer.

Having developed four urban indoor production sites with experienced growers in Ohio, Alabama, Arkansas and North Carolina, 80 Acres Farms has been selling its produce commercially for almost a year. In the last few months, Harris says the business has secured early commitments from some highly respected retailers and one of the biggest foodservice companies in the United States.

Using local depots, each production site will pick its produce at the peak stage of ripeness to deliver daily to local restaurants and various regional and national retailers located within 100 miles. Further details have yet to be disclosed.

Ultimately, 80 Acres Farms aims to deliver its accessible, nutritious, tasty and affordable local food concept to other parts of the world, particularly areas that are unable to either produce outdoors or in conventional greenhouses for 12 months of the year. 

Disrupting the supply chain

According to company CEO Zelkind, the key factor that sets the business apart from others is the indoor status of its farms and its product mix, added to the fact that the team not only has food industry experience but has run food companies on a commercial scale. 

Importantly, Zelkind says 80 Acres has built an indoor system that grows affordable produce all year round under a completely controlled environment. 

“It’s the next generation of controlled environment agriculture,” he claims. “80 Acres grows products much faster than in the traditional outdoor environment or even in a greenhouse environment. We can control all the factors, like CO2 levels, and when and how much to deliberately stress the plant to get the right level of nutrition and flavour.”

Co-founders Zelkind and Livingston have spent decades running companies in the food industry. Before 80 Acres Farms, Zelkind was president and chief executive officer of Sager Creek Vegetable Company when it was a division of Del Monte Foods Inc., San Francisco, while Livingston was chief operating officer at the same firm. 

In establishing 80 Acres Farms, the duo say they are bringing back the “backyard fresh taste” of produce to many communities around the United States all year-round.

Livingston points out that currently fresh produce often travels long distances.

“Because of these distances travelled, our food is now being bred, grown and harvested for transportation rather than nutrition and taste,” adds Zelkind. “80 Acres Farms drastically disrupts current produce supply chains.”

Indeed, being local to its customers in four U.S. states means 80 Acres Farms can pick produce when it’s ripe, and plan varieties that are bred for flavour and yield, rather than transportation and survival in an unpredictable environment.

“This is a huge differentiating point,” Livingston says. “We can deliver ‘just-picked’ quality produce to a retailer or restaurant year-round. We have partnered with and continue to partner with commercial and research institutions to gather nutritional information and to grow produce that has much more nutritional value.”

Thanks to the proximity to customers, Zelkind claims the products offered by 80 Acres Farms are also “more nutritious than most organics”. “We view ourselves as the next generation of organics,” he explains. “We don’t use pesticides – organic does.

“We are considering getting organic certification but at this point we are better than organic. We abide by most organic practices but we go way beyond what organic does. We are closer to the customer and we offer fresher products.”

Already, Zelkind explains that the first chef and consumer feedback is about how the produce offered by 80 Acres Farms is much more tasty and fresh.

“I have visited stores with Mike and Tisha and I have heard customers talk about their experience with the products and the taste difference, which is why they keep coming back – it just makes you feel good,” Harris explains.

As such, Zelkind and Livingston believe the company’s target consumer market is wide open to anyone who likes high quality, fresh, tasty and pesticide-free produce, whether that be millennials or baby boomers.

Expansion plans

From its headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, 80 Acres Farms now plans to build many more sites across the US, while aiming to expand globally. Each individual farm will deliver a product mix driven by the needs of local customers. On top of that, the company is building its biggest farm that will use 100% renewable energy when completed.

“80 Acres has very ambitious goals, but there is a lot to prove before that kind of expansion is warranted,” Zelkind notes. “We believe in keeping our heads in the clouds and feet firmly planted in the mud!”

For now, that means scaling with its customer base and striving to delight its growing consumer base. To that end, 80 Acres Farms has an exciting R&D product portfolio in the pipeline that includes root crops, which will complement its current range of micro-greens, culinary herbs, leafy greens and vine crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and hops.

“No one has yet figured out how to grow vine crops profitably indoors, in a completely controlled environment,” Zelkind comments. “We are the first and only ones in the world doing it so far but we can do it better. That’s the most exciting part. That’s the challenge for the next few years.”

Of course, one of the drawbacks of indoor farming is that it isn’t possible yet to economically grow all fruits and vegetables. “You won’t be able to do so for a long time to come,” admits Zelkind. “But there is no intention to replace traditional farmers. 80 Acres wants to work with these farmers and supplement what they can grow locally.”

Getting the process right

While the concept of indoor agriculture is logical and straightforward when broken into its subunits, Zelkind says bringing together all the components is not simple.

Firstly, to achieve the optimal growing environment you need multi-disciplined engineering, an understanding of plant science, and good farming experience. Then to grow crops profitably you must be able to understand manufacturing practices, automation and how to scale production.

Once you have that, you need the ability to brand and sell your products in a crowded marketplace. Plus, to run and build the business, you need the right people with the right experience. To set up the farms in the first place also requires a great deal of capital investment.

So, starting in late 2015 with a small R&D facility, 80 Acres Farms teamed up with international academics and scientists to figure out how to grow high quality plants with the right nutrition and flavour levels in the most effective way.

Since then, the company has developed a strong in-house engineering team and a large pool of data analysts who manage a production system guided by various sensors and other technologies to understand and optimise plant growth and development.

Following much trial and error, 80 Acres Farms is now on the fourth iteration of its production systems, which are installed across its current production sites in four states of the US. From here on, the company remains committed to driving the industry forward.

“This is a new industry and we all have so much to learn,” concludes Zelkind.

What is Controlled Environment Agriculture?

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is designed to optimise the growing conditions for food and aquatic production in an enclosed area, such as a greenhouse or building.

By controlling variables, such as: light, carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity, water, nutrients and pH levels, plants receive the correct amounts of water and nutrients, which often results in greater yields, all year-round. Production technologies include: hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics.

CEA operations can vary from fully-automated glasshouses with computer controls for watering, lighting and ventilation, to low-tech facilities that use cloches or plastic film to cover rows of field-grown crops, or basic plastic-covered tunnels.

CEA focuses on raising efficiency and maximising resources, including: space, water, energy, labour and capital. Given its nature, CEA also reduces the incidences of pest and disease, and allows the grower to recycle inputs like water or nutrients.

80 Acres Farms has developed a CEA system for urban indoor buildings where it claims the growing environment is completely controlled and guided by sophisticated technology. The company uses hydroponic technology to locally produce year-round and pesticide-free commercial volumes of micro-greens, culinary herbs and leafy greens, as well as vine crops, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and hops.
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