See Jane Farm sees hydroponics as one of many key factors helping to restore food back to its former self. Hydroponics, however, is not a new concept. In fact, it has a long and storied history. Francis Bacon, the 17th century scientist, famously documented the water-based growing methods in his book, Sylva Sylvarum. Before him, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon from 600 B.C. are believed to have employed one of the first hydroponic systems.
In the years since, it could be reasonably argued that hydroponics has not changed. In the most basic sense, reasons See Jane Farm’s Nate Storey, “we are dealing with biology.” In a hydroponic system, plants live in a soilless environment. In lieu of soil, water cycles through the system to deliver nutrients straight to the roots.
What has changed is our understanding of the biological processes at work. But for many who have invested in hydroponic farming, it’s a critical piece that is often overlooked. “People come to these projects and think we are dealing with something purely mechanical,” says Nate, “but life impacts the mechanics on these systems dramatically.”
See Jane Farm is designing hydroponic farming from the ground up in every sense, optimizing for plant health and production. Occupying a 4” x 4” square area and standing upright, a See Jane Farm tower is designed to grow food in a vertical orientation. Each tower is lined with red and blue LED lights that provide the precise spectrum plants need to photosynthesize.
Below the surface, See Jane Farm is addressing the biological challenges at the root level, specifically as it relates to proper nutrient and oxygen exchange. Recycled plastic mesh, called media, holds the roots in place, acting as the structural replacement for soil.
Media found in hydroponic systems today have only 5-15% porous space, which can pose many problems. “As roots grow and develop, as microbes colonize those roots and surfaces,” says Nate, “things start to gum up and don’t work as you intended.”
See Jane Farm has developed media with 93% porous space, effectively negating all concerns about plant health. “The plant is getting all the water it needs, but in a highly aerobic environment with very fast oxygen exchange.”
By all measures, See Jane Farm has built a better mousetrap, but the mechanics underlying the business are what present the biggest opportunity. “When you’re redesigning equipment like that, it requires that you’re thinking about a dozen things simultaneously – the needs of the plants, plant production, and how roots are interacting with media,” says Nate, but ultimately it comes down to “how we move it, market it and manufacture at scale.”
When Jack first learned about hydroponics and vertical farming he saw the opportunity differently than most. Better food was certainly top of mind, but how to scale and sustain that type of system is where Jack’s career in the paper industry proved most valuable. “From my 35-year career in manufacturing, all the greatest successes were in supply chain disruption. I saw that you could grow in dense urban environments instead of trucking it thousands of miles.”
Unencumbered by the agricultural struggles of growing food, Jack was focused on how to rework the conventional supply chain and build out the business. Densely populated areas were key. If See Jane Farm could target the 100 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the United States, accounting for 80% of the population, then it would be theoretically possible for 100 farms running at scale to serve a majority of all Americans. Instead of a highly concentrated agricultural system, See Jane Farm would decentralize food production. “That’s a complete inversion of the model today,” says Jack.
But that would only take him so far. “If you’re going to be successful in agriculture, you have to be able to scale.” Matt Barnard, a sixth generation farmer with a background in private equity and taking early stage companies to scale, would join Jack as a founding member, helping See Jane Farm map its long-term growth strategy.
As Jack and Matt began fine-tuning the business plan and go-to-market strategy, it was important they have a great product. “I knew I would need an agronomist,” says Jack. “Plants are living. They are not a widget. We can treat them as widgets in the grand scheme of a business plan – and we refer to them as business units – but at the end of the day they are not stamped out like a piece of sheet metal. You have to nurture them.” Nate, the lead designer behind See Jane Farm’s vertical towers, would eventually join the team as the third co-founder.
Between Jack, Nate and Matt, See Jane Farm now had the manufacturing, scaling and agricultural expertise to begin laying the foundation for a business that one day would grow beautiful, nutritious food made accessible the same day it was harvested. Or as Matt succinctly puts it, quoting the company’s mission statement, “Local produce everywhere for everyone.” Today, See Jane Farm is making strides in that direction.
In the spring of 2015, Google invited See Jane Farm to set up a prototype farm outside one of its cafeterias. Housed in a single shipping container, See Jane Farm grows approximately 4,000 plants, including eleven different varieties of herbs and leaf lettuces. Every Monday they harvest the food, which will make its way into employee meals by lunchtime.
While the Google prototype might be the extreme example of “hyperlocal,” See Jane Farm sees a day when their produce will travel less than 150 miles before arriving at the grocery store. “The conventional supply chain,” Matt says, “can’t do local, especially year round. The See Jane Farm business model is predicated on collapsing the supply chain,” promising an order of magnitude reduction in time and distance traveled from harvest to market. That carbon offset alone would be reason enough to see the value in vertical farming, but for See Jane Farm, it’s just the beginning.
To the consumer, the promise of See Jane Farm lies in better tasting food, grown from heirloom varietals, and harvested fresh. Collapsing the supply chain plays a big role in delivering on the promise, but there are other factors at play that bode well for the future of indoor, vertically grown food.
“By moving indoors, we are able to do things that are not possible outdoors,” says Nate. “We can go pesticide-free. There’s no such thing as pesticide-free in a field environment.” Contrary to popular belief, nearly all organically designated farms use some form of pesticide, and are highly susceptible to drift and runoff from nearby farms.
In an indoor environment, See Jane Farm does not have to alter seeds on a genetic level. Whereas most farms today manipulate nature, See Jane Farm manages how plants are nurtured. By adjusting the light spectrum, CO2 levels and nutrient formulas, they can change a single plant’s flavor profile, phytonutrient content and antioxidant levels. From the same arugula seed they can create a classic version or a spicy variety high in antioxidants, all by changing the growing environment. As Nate imagines, “What if eating your salad was your medicine?”
In many ways, it’s like raising livestock. “You can cause the animal to gain weight based on how you treat it and what you feed it,” says Nate. This approach will have a huge impact on the consumer market. “It represents the ability to give customers what they actually want instead of what is available.”
The highly controlled environment has the added advantage of ensuring consistent supply. “One of the benefits of our business is that we are completely reliable,” says Matt. And by reliable he means more than just the trusting sense of the word. “We are decoupling agriculture from the environment. What that enables us to do is generate a completely predictable and adaptable supply chain. If we say there are going to be 100 cases of strawberries on Tuesday, then 100 cases of strawberries should show up on Tuesday without fail.”
See Jane Farm also stands to deliver waste and greenhouse gas reductions that make conventional farms look like oil drilling operations by comparison. Setting aside for the moment that the business does not rely on heavy farming equipment or long-haul semis to freight food across the country, See Jane Farm stands to cut food waste and methane gases by more than half. Today, conventional farming is responsible for 25% of the U.S.’s methane footprint generated from rotting, uneaten food waste. See Jane Farm reduces that footprint because their product is fresher. “We are reducing the number of days in the supply chain by 3-6 days because everything is grown locally,” says Matt, resulting in a 300% longer product shelf life.
The advantages of indoor farming also extend to the amount of produce See Jane Farm is able to grow. On average, a typical outdoor farm generates 1-3 crop cycles per year. With indoor farming, See Jane Farm averages 13 crop cycles. For their next planned facility they aim to optimize production to 17-33 cycles per year depending on the crop. The crop cycles alone dwarf conventional farming, but factor in the verticality of the system, and production yields increase even more dramatically.
Take the Google prototype as an example. A single tower occupies a 4” x 4” footprint. At seven feet tall, a See Jane Farm tower grows 14 heads of lettuce at a time. With an average 13 crop cycles annually, they are able to produce 182 heads of lettuce per year, per tower. In a field farm that same 4” x 4” square area would accommodate only 40% of a single head of lettuce. In that space alottment, an outdoor farm, growing at rate of three crop cycles a year, will only produce 1.2 heads of lettuce annually.
Even at that rate of production, See Jane Farm is utilizing less water than a traditional farm. At Google, it takes 130 gallons a week to sustain 4000 plants. That represents a 98% reduction in water usage compared to the equivalent production outdoors. With the data they’ve collected, they have figured out how to increase that to 99%+ on their next project. “That’s pretty phenomenal,” says Matt, especially “in an industry that’s accounts for 70% of our water withdrawals.”
Because indoor hydroponic systems continually recycle water, the only water loss is through evaporation, or when plants are harvested and leave the facility. Theoretically, Nate says, “If you are doing CO2 enrichment, you can produce water. If you discount the water lost from the harvested crops, you can get it down so you’re not losing water altogether.”
As the cost of water goes up, and the price of solar and wind power drop – all favorable to the economics of See Jane Farm – the team is still realistic about what is possible. “The caveat off the bat is that not all crops will be grown indoors,” says Nate. “Indoors is only good for a certain type of crop, especially ones that have a high water weight, like lettuces, strawberries, certain herbs and greens.” That category will certainly broaden in the future as the price of renewable energy declines and technology improves, but See Jane Farm doesn’t’ expect to replace the big commodity crops. “From an infrastructure perspective, vertical growing isn’t the right answer for that, plus there is so much volume, we can’t compete with the combine today,” says Jack.
Even as the battle lines for the future of food are drawn, See Jane Farm still has to fight a war of perception. Images of clean rooms, LED lights and plants grown inside shipping containers and warehouses do not always mesh with our pastoral vision of life on a farm. To many, it feels unnatural. We have a tendency to romanticize farming with images of red barns, green tractors and a salt-of-the-earth farmer tilling the land.
“The reality is,” says Nate, who was raised in a farming household, “this pastoral, man-in-nature aspect of agriculture hasn’t existed for a very long time. In fact, agriculture has been the enemy of the natural landscape. We’ve gone to the desert and tilled it all up. We’ve hit it with all this fertilizer, sprayed it with pesticides.” Agriculture by definition, he argues, is incredibly unnatural.
“If we can wrap our heads around the fact that we are dealing with a completely artificial system, the goal then is to optimize for environments – minimizing environmental impacts, maximizing human health and safety, and maximizing profits for producers.” As Nate hopes, “If we can do more production indoors, then maybe we can do less production outdoors, and if we can do less production outdoors, then maybe that landscape is something we can turn back to natural landscape.”
Changing people’s perceptions is a long-term challenge. People may not simply accept that indoor produce is more natural than outdoor produce. See Jane Farm is hopeful that once people experience the difference between their product and a conventionally farmed product, they will remember the way things used to be – or for the newer generation – how they ought to taste.
Part of that storytelling is embedded in their name. Before they were See Jane Farm, the team asked Tolleson to help them create a name and identity that would connect people with the way food used to taste. “We needed a brand that could tell that story and connect those dots,” says Jack, “A story that would move people past the idea of indoor lighting and no soil.”
Much like the old “Dick and Jane” books of that era, See Jane Farm was an effort to reconnect to simpler times, when farming was all about the fundamentals. The technology may have drastically changed since then, but for See Jane Farm, those fundamentals – light, water and heirloom seeds – are as relevant today as ever before.
With all the pieces falling into place, See Jane Farm is hoping to make serious inroads in the way food is grown and consumed. “I’m an optimist about the future of food,” says Nate. “See Jane Farm is giving people more choices that they’ve never had access to before. When people love what they are consuming, they will invest in it.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Matt. “The fact that we can grow something that is a far better experience, while also being far better for the environment and less of a stress on the system – that’s pretty exciting.”
For Jack, See Jane Farm is a vehicle for communicating the virtues of quality food. “There’s a great responsibility on us to help people understand what food used to be and can be again. It starts with the baseline of better tasting food. Better nutrition will follow and all the halo effects that come with it.”
“It’s a tough row to hoe,” is an old agricultural saying that the team at See Jane Farm is apt to quote. For them, it’s a reminder of how far they’ve come and how far they still have left to go. But if the past is any indication of what the future can be, Jack reflects, “I’m super hopeful.”