Expert Insights: Advancing Indoor and Vertical Farming Opportunities during COVID-19

The indoor and vertical farming industry has fast-tracked many opportunities to help feed consumers during a global pandemic. The virtual Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit will identify how the world’s leading farm operators found a gap in the market to meet consumer demand and deliver fresh and healthy produce with discussions led by Lipman Family Farms, Gotham Greens and Smallhold.

Here’s what our experts have to say about the current crisis:

Elyse Lipman, Director of Strategy, Lipman Family Farms, USA

Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit -Elyse Lipman, Lipman Farms

Will the legacy of COVID 19 be further automation in the food production sector? Will we ever reach a contactless food system?
COVID-19 has raised awareness about prospects of automation, but it’s also reinforced the importance of people in this business. At Lipman, each and every stage of the value chain requires coordination and care by our team members. The human element of what we do is important for providing food for people to eat – and we know that the quality of our products and sustainability of our company depends on the people behind the scenes. That said, where there are opportunities for automation that make sense such as machines in packing houses and indoor environments. I think it’s fair to say that humans can be relieved of those tasks and refocused on others. To help us stay ahead of the curve on food safety, for example, we use a web-based training platform that helps customize training, track completions, and easily identify opportunities for improvement. COVID-19 has only reinforced how technology can serve as valuable tools, while also creating new roles for people that are still safe and distanced across the food system.

At Lipman, we’ve diversified our farming techniques over the decades with indoor, outdoor, and hybrid growing environments. We know that growing produce in any capacity requires ingenuity, a learning mindset, and constant adaptation. Two years ago we acquired Huron Produce and while our Suntastic hot house brand continues to deliver high-quality products on the retail shelf, some of the most exciting learnings for us have come from the collaborations between teams.  We see indoor ag as both distinct and complementary to our conventional farming practices. I think COVID-19 also revealed to our customers the vulnerabilities of relying on any one supply source, and the value in being able to source from multiple channels.

Viraj Puri, CEO and Co-Founder, Gotham Greens, USA

Demand for local and resilient supply chains is growing, how can indoor agriculture capitalize on this opportunity?
Given current pressures on the U.S. food system, one thing is clear: the importance of strengthening our country’s food supply chain through decentralized, regional supply chains. Our business model has enabled us to remain nimble during these unprecedented times and continue to deliver fresh, locally grown produce to customers and our communities. Growing produce indoors certainly has an increasing role to play in the future of sustainable food production. While indoor farming may not represent the future of all fresh produce production, for certain types of crops like leafy greens, herbs, tomatoes and cucumbers, it will become more prevalent.

Gotham Greens has been rapidly expanding our footprint across the US, including opening four new greenhouses in the past 6 months. Today Gotham Greens operates 500,000 square feet of greenhouse across five U.S. states with more than 350 employees. Just last month we opened our newest greenhouse in the Denver Metro area. Although we never envisioned our Denver greenhouse opening during a global pandemic, we’re proud to be providing people in the Mountain Region and across the country with healthy, safe and fresh food options they can get excited about.

Andrew Carter, CEO, SMALLHOLD, USA

Although somewhat harder to find, consumers are still out there. How have Smallhold gone about finding them?
Strangely, consumers have found us. People who try our mushrooms love them and tell their friends. While we scrambled a bit in the beginning, we kept moving full steam. Instead of shutting down, we implemented South Korean-style measures for our warehouse, farm, and office. Then, we launched a new nationally distributed product that allows folks to grow mushrooms at home rather than travel to the grocery store. Now Smallhold is in homes in every state as we gear up for a national expansion of our retail presence in 2020. The product was featured in Bon Appetit, Vice’s Garage, and HypeBeast and is still going strong, although it is not a core business line for us, we continue to see it grow.

How can a grower best manage the expectations of their investors in times as uncertain as these?
Fortunately, as we mentioned above, things are weirdly going well for us. There was a brief period during which we were uncertain, but once our DTC campaign results came in, we became our investors’ case study for what to do in situations like these. As with many things in life, communication is key. At Smallhold, we’ve always had an open dialogue with our investors, and the pandemic hasn’t changed that. Even as the global outlook changes week by week, we’ve worked to provide our investors with a regular cadence of communication and data alongside a clear narrative and plan of action that makes them feel comfortable with the quick decisions we have to make every day. When the world shifts, success can take many forms, and our stakeholders are happy with how we’ve managed it.