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The next juicy strawberry you reach for might come from a vertical farm. So far, most vertical produce farming in the United States has typically concentrated on lettuces, but now multiple companies are now rushing to develop vertical strawberry farms. Start-ups Plenty, Oishii, and Bowery Farming are all entering the market. Last month, OnePointOne, an Arizona-based company, announced it will build three vertical strawberry farms for IMEX Organics, with plans to establish 12 more around the globe. Even Driscoll’s, one of the country’s biggest berry brands, is getting in on the action.
Vertical farming works well for strawberries and has several advantages over traditional farming according to OnePointOne’s co-founder and CEO, Sam Bertram. In a vertical environment, crops are grown indoors under grow lights, with plants stacked atop each other.
“The way [conventional farms are] growing plants right now isn’t sustainable from an environmental perspective and it also isn’t sustainable from a systems perspective,” Bertram says. “[At OnePointOne,] we use less resources. We use 99 percent less land, 99 percent less water.”
The vertical nature means that farms don’t take up as much space and being indoors means that everything can be controlled for the plants’ benefit. Water in a vertical farm can be recirculated, farmers can get a higher crop yield without pesticides, and farms can grow seasonal plants year-round. Farms can be located closer to cities and population centers, meaning fresher products and a smaller carbon footprint associated with delivering produce to stores.
“Because we’re indoors, we have four walls and a roof protecting us from all of the threats that Mother Nature throws at us,” Bertram says. “We give the plant everything it could possibly want for its entire life.”
But not everything is greener with vertical farming. The process takes a lot of electricity – some estimates have suggested vertical farms may consume as much as 30 percent more electricity than comparable traditional farms – and strawberries are even more energy-intensive than some other crops.
“Because the energy density in terms of calories inside of those strawberries is quite high, the plants grow for longer. You have to provide more quality of light to grow a high quality berry,” Bertram says. Strawberries also require a significant temperature difference between day and night, meaning heating and air conditioning systems, which also consume electricity.
Bertram says the quality of the fruit is also much improved in a vertical environment. Behind every OnePointOne strawberry, he says, is $50 million in product development. In the future, vertical farming might also allow farmers to grow different varieties of strawberries, he says, because producers won’t feel limited to only those types that produce well outdoors.
“There are thousands of different cultivars of strawberry that you can find, but when you’re talking about the grocery store there are three or four. You can’t find that much variety,” Bertram says. “They’ve all been bred and selected-against to provide for the outdoor farm.”
That ability to cultivate rare and special berries is part of the idea behind Oishii, another entrant in the vertical strawberry farming market. Oishii’s signature Omakase berry, developed from Japanese seeds and reported to be two to three times sweeter than traditional American-grown berries, is grown in vertical farms designed to mimic the Japanese countryside. The indoor environment provides the light rain, breeze and sun typical of the Japanese mountains.
“As vertical farming has deep origins in Japan, Oishii’s farmers are trained in strawberry cultivation methods thoughtfully developed over the course of decades in the foothills of Japan,” a company representative told Business Insider. “Their farming practices produce the perfect environmental recipe to ensure their strawberries are healthy from seed to berry.”
Though they are currently sold at only a handful of shops and restaurants in the U.S, the Oishii berries have won over some discerning customers.
“Oishii berries are incredibly aromatic from the moment you open their packaging to the moment they hit your palate. The smell is nostalgic of sugar and white florals and the taste is elegantly sweet with a creamy texture unlike the conventional strawberry which these days can be crunchy, watery, and tart,” says Zara Ziyaee of the restaurant Destroyer in Los Angeles, one of just three places in California where the Oishii berries are sold.
The berries – which sell for $10 per berry for the flagship ‘extra large’ Omakase strawberry and come in limited quantities – have become popular on Instagram and social media. Oishii is quite obviously courting customers looking for a luxury experience, but the company says it’s trying to be more Tesla than Ferrari – making a splash with its eye-catching, high-end product, and then releasing more affordable models down the line. The company is currently developing an “everyday” berry that will compete with more conventional options.
“You launch with that super-premium, Omakase-level product, you introduce it to a market which truly understands it, you build this kind of following around it, and then deploy your next varieties,” Brendan Somerville, co-founder of Oishii, told Fast Company.
The pricing hasn’t turned off Destroyer’s clientele. “Our guests have been very happy about the offering as it is a thoughtful, special, and delicious treat. They do sell well. What I have noticed is that even if someone mentions the pricing, they are still curious to try it and do,” Ziyaee notes. (Though, perhaps it should be noted, Destroyer is the more casual sister cafe attached to Vespertine, a fine dining restaurant where dinner starts at $250 per guest.)
Vertical farming enthusiasts are confident that strawberries grown this way will eventually become consumer favorites. That may be especially true in markets like the Middle East, Bertram notes, where temperatures and conditions make conventional strawberry farming difficult.
That international expansion was also on the minds of execs at Driscoll’s when they announced their partnership with Plenty to invest in vertical farming. “As one of the few berry companies with a dedicated global R&D program we believe our proprietary berries, which are focused on flavor, combined with Plenty’s technology leadership will create a competitive market edge as we expand to more effectively meet the future consumer,” J. Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s said in a company statement.
While vertically-farmed strawberries may be a novelty or luxury product for now, Bertram is confident mainstream adoption is on the horizon.
“The beauty of technology is that, though it might take time to beat out the incumbent in terms of quality or price, eventually it will happen,” he says. “And you will have a higher quality product that is more available to more people at a lower price.”