Mother Nature Gives Indoor Farms A Boost

Mother Nature Gives Indoor Farms A Boost

Mother Nature Gives Indoor Farms A Boost

By Tom Karst March 14, 2017 | 10:00 am EDT

Tom Karst, national editor

There are times that Mother Nature is just too darn unpredictable.

When everything goes without a hitch, the U.S. typically has an abundant supply of vegetables. But throw in rainy weather, delays that move back planting and harvesting, and all of a sudden you have a case of panicky buyers who are keen to look for more predictable and nearby sources of supply.

Retailers and consumers in the United Kingdom in February suffered a shock when rains in Spain caused some stores to ration their supply of greens. Some California companies saw an opportunity and shipped lettuce to the U.K.

Now it’s California facing rain-related production problems. The Packer has covered the gaps in vegetable supply in California, and various marketers predict it will get worse before it gets better. The rains that brought relief to the Golden State could give buyers a roller coaster ride later this spring.

In the context of these issues, we are reminded of the conviction that one region’s disaster is an opportunity for someone else.

The Packer’s Ashley Nickle covers the issue this week in a story that reports indoor farms are seeing increased demand as weather-related production issues in Arizona and California have affected the supply of leafy greens. 

Nickle reports New York, N.Y.-based BrightFarms, which has greenhouses in Illinois, Virginia and Pennsylvania, has seen retail orders rise in recent weeks.

Likewise, Buffalo, Mich.-based Green Spirit Farms and Portage, Ind.-based Green Sense Farms reported a jump in interest because of supply glitches in the West.

The latest supply disruption helps make the case for indoor farming operations.

The rains that brought relief to the Golden State could give buyers a roller coaster ride later this spring.

I recently visited with Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms about this issue. He said leafy greens buyers are looking for locally sourced and stable leafy greens supply for a number of reasons, including supply disruptions caused by rain and mildew, the pull of overseas demand on U.S. product and even worries about the potential shortage of labor in growing regions.

Supply chain disruptions, combined with what Lightfoot believes is a consumer-led transition from “long distance” to local supply of food makes him optimistic about the future.

BrightFarms secured $30 million in financing last fall that he said will allow the company to expand into about 14 markets over the next four years, growing from three facilities now to 17 facilities in five years. On the immediate horizon is a project in Ohio, he said, followed in short order by a facility in Kansas City.

“We really view that (financing) as our opportunity to build a national platform, to build out in every major market in the Midwest and the Northeast,” he said.

After building out production facilities over several years, Lightfoot said the company may considering expanding commodities offered beyond the current lineup of leafy greens and selected tomato varieties, perhaps to include cucumbers, peppers and even strawberries.

Even if BrightFarms does have a “tiger by the tail,” as Lightfoot says, it is hard to say how much the local indoor farm trend will play out over the next decade.

For now, unpredictable Mother Nature is giving BrightFarms and similar farms an assist.

 

Tom Karst is The Packer’s national editor. E-mail him at tkarst@farmjournal.com.tkarst@farmjournal.com

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