Crop One Holdings (COH) farms, called FreshBox Farms, deliver fresh produce to stores within 24 hours of harvest. The company aims to address the need for a local, fresh, and sustainably produced food supply through vertical hydroponic farming in Millis, Massachusetts.
With 54 percent of the world’s population residing in urban areas—expected to increase to about 66 percent by 2050, according to the 2014 Revision of World Urbanization Prospect—vertical farming projects strive to expand production on and in buildings and vertical structures. In doing so, growers can reduce their agricultural footprint on the environment and address food security of the urban population.
COH vertical farming units grow modularly and use custom-engineered hydroponic systems to produce their leafy vegetables. They can substitute up to 19 acres of farmland with 29.72-square-meter (320-square-feet) growing units. The units use 1/2500th of the amount of water typically used by field-based growing, and due to their farms’ proximity to their urban consumers, they also have a reduced carbon footprint. The COH’s FreshBox Farms produce are available in 30 locations in the Greater Boston Area within the 100 miles radius from the farm.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Crop One Holdings CEO Sonia Lo about the origins of the organization and how it hopes to solve current food system issues impacting the cities of the United States and go “Beyond Organic.”
Food Tank (FT): What was the inspiration behind establishing Crop One Holding (COH)?
Sonia Lo (SL): Crop One is the successor company to a concept stage venture founded by Jim Wilson, a great visionary who was among the first to propose that crops could be grown in modified shipping containers.
I was an early investor in the company. First, I was intrigued by the potential of using modified shipping structures—it was a ground-breaking idea, no pun intended. But not only was I drawn to Jim’s technological innovation, I had also spent some time as a personal chef, so the foodie in me was hooked as well. So, I stepped in to take the venture to the next level and we rebranded to Crop One. We’ve now built a scale-level farm and are one of only two vertical farmers in the industry running our farm at a profit.
FT: COH uses the hydroponics technology for its crop production. What are some of the advantages hydroponics has over aquaponics or aeroponics?
SL: Hydroponics is the most well proven of the three technologies and the least expensive.
FT: Could you explain the crop production procedure followed at COH?
SL: We are a seed-to-harvest company. Many hydroponic growers use third-party seedlings but we grow our own from seed because we want to be able to select the cultivars we produce for sale and because it means that we know our seedlings are free of pests/pathogens before we plant them to grow out to full height. Our production is entirely based in water, which we dose with micro-nutrient levels (the precise amount that each plant needs), and also plant our seeds in a soil-less growth medium, ensuring optimum cleanliness. We also use no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides—no ‘cides for that matter, at all. Finally, we grow in a ‘clean-room’ environment, mimicking high-tech operations. Our environment is so clean and precisely managed that our waste water comes out completely clean—cleaner than the local potable tap water!
FT: In one of your interviews, you have mentioned that COH products are “Beyond Organic.” Could you explain this label?
SL: Organic produce that is field-grown may not use pesticides but it is allowed to be grown with herbicides and can also be grown with fertilizer that is full of pathogens. Organic also generally uses soil—which may harbor pests and transmit pathogens. Our products are grown in the cleanest, most precise environment as possible and does not use soil. Many people prefer organic produce because of the perception that is clean and healthier but organic produce, for example, is often not recommended for people with compromised immune systems because it’s not as clean as conventionally grown. Our product is ‘Beyond Organic’ in that it is extremely fresh (and by implication, very healthy because phytonutrients in produce start to decay upon harvest—we offer our produce within 24 hours of harvest; most produce is served within 7 to 17 days of harvest across the U.S.) and clean, without the use of chemical controls. We are also unique in being kosher certified as a vertical farmer—this means that we are insect free—and very clean.
FT: Lack of access to food has become a central problem in some of the major cities and urban areas in the U.S. How does COH hope to address such food system problems?
SL: Our food is grown and served within what is known as a hyper-local radius (fewer than 100 miles). Food is considered local in the U.S. if it is produced (not necessarily grown, but perhaps processed), within 400 miles of the point of consumption. Our hyper-local growing allows for distribution, year-round, of produce for even the most inclement of climates. Our unit economics also allows us to be a low-cost provider of healthy greens, something most vertical farmers won’t be able to do.
FT: Vertical farming uses less land area and comparatively less water than conventional farming. What do you think are the major concern areas in this form of production (vertical hydroponic farming) that COH hopes to work on?
SL: Energy is our largest cost. Up to 70 percent of our production cost is energy and we focus on reducing our energy usage every day.
FT: How does COH hope to grow in terms of technology; variety, quantity, and quality of the product; and expansion, in future?
SL: Our scale farms will have a good deal of software and computer vision capability because what we manually inspect today will have to go over to machine based inspection. The quality of the product is always a concern and we will seek to continue to obtain kosher certification for all our farms. Our product offerings are expanding to include packaged products as well. Finally, our geographic expansion will be growing to 9 farms in our current pipeline and then ultimately to over 25 farms across the U.S. as a whole.