A Journey From High-tech to AgTech to True CEA
Ahead of Indoor AgTech, Brac Webb, CTO at Fifth Season discusses the key challenges facing technology leaders in vertical farming and the industry as a whole.
From High-tech to AgTech
Since co-founding Fifth Season four years ago and serving as CTO, I’ve become fascinated by the challenge of closing the loop between tech and agriculture to transform our food system. I always wonder where we’d be now in terms of food system change if these industries had become more interlinked and cohesive decades ago. What we’re doing in high-tech vertical farming is the next (and last?) agricultural revolution.
All of this said, with about fifteen years and billions of dollars invested, indoor-grown produce should represent much more of the fresh produce marketplace than it does today. As an industry, we’ve been due for a bit of a reckoning. The key to moving forward and moving the needle is full automation and super-stack software systems. Super-stack is front-end to back-end, to edge computing, to firmware and hardware. It’s applying every aspect of hardware and software engineering to the process – from end-to-end – as much as needed to solve the problems at each step. The effort of connecting high-tech solutions back into agriculture (originally part of the evolution of tech) is like a transcendence I feel each day as Fifth Season’s CTO.
Vision for High-tech CEA
When founding Fifth Season, we sought not only to build an automated grow platform that would produce tasty and nutritious greens, but also we chose to write all of our software in house. We did this hard work so that every facility we operate in the future is run on the same exact system and produces the same exact yield and quality of crops no matter where it’s located. This is why we often refer to our farm as a smart biological manufacturing system. It’s run by our custom software starting at the seeding process and continuing all the way through to supply chain management. As a result, we can quickly put new farms into operation that will produce the same consistency in yield and quality using the same operations, and in turn achieving the same food safety standards of excellence. Vertical farming run by super-stack software controlling every aspect of the environment – or “True CEA” as I say – is how we’ll take advantage of the multitude of trends and tailwinds working in our favor today. These systems are the answer to how we’ll compete on cost with soil-grown produce while maintaining superior quality so that buyers and consumers are getting what they need, which is 100% clean, just-harvested freshness.
Let’s Keep the Momentum Going
This kind of food system change is a big goal and an equally big challenge. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but at this moment we’re seeing a return of faith in the promise of indoor agriculture. So, in the spirit of raising the bar and maintaining momentum, I think it’s important to pursue opportunities for dialogue like we will during the Hands-free Automation panel discussion later this month. On that note, here are some key questions I’m always thinking about and solving for, and looking forward to discussing with fellow technologists framing the future of indoor agriculture:
1. Should we rearticulate high-tech farming for consumers and other stakeholders to make clear what it is, what it isn’t, and its promise for our food system? Do we need a different term and set of standards that represents the kind of biological manufacturing we’re doing at high-tech vertical farms?
We have very different business models and operations all falling underneath the umbrella terms indoor ag and controlled environment agriculture. Full automation and integrated, super-stack software systems are allowing us to go from seed to packaging in one totally clean process controlling every aspect of the environment while creating positive unit economics. This is what I and the team at Fifth Season consider “True CEA”.
2. How can True CEA improve the resiliency and security of the food supply? How do we create consistency – in safety, grow/production timing, in flavor and nutrition – so that the same quality of product is replicated no matter where the farm is, what we’re growing or who is managing operations?
And perhaps most importantly, how can True CEA help us consistently produce the cleanest, freshest food and hold ourselves to an even higher food safety standard? How do we ensure that the cleanliness of our products is consistently far above soil-grown produce?
3. Where should we draw the line? Is the goal to make an automated growing room, or automated seed-to-harvest farming process? Or, are we as an industry aiming to solve all the problems upstream and downstream?
What does this mean for the automation, the software, and for food safety when there isn’t a clear distinction between GAP and GMP?
Fifth Season is a Gold Partner at the virtual Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit! Watch a live panel discussion with Brac sharing his insights on ‘Hands Free Cultivation: Towards Full Automation’ at 13.30 EST on Friday June 25. He will also host a roundtable discussion on ‘Designing a Customer Centric Mindset into your Company from Farm to Table’ at 15.40 EST on the same day.