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Feeding the Future

This Company Wants To Grow Your Vegetables In A Warehouse

What started as a system to grow hydroponic pot is now being used to grow fresh produce quickly and without access to an actual farm.

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It all started with marijuana. Scott Dittman, CEO of FusionPharm, spent 17 years as the owner of a home-building company, but when the market collapsed four years ago, he realized that it might be time to move on. So on the recommendation of a friend, Dittman—who lives on a hobby farm— invested in a medical marijuana business in Colorado, where he lives. The friend "turned out to be a shyster," according to Dittman, so he got personally involved in the business to protect his investment. That’s when he discovered a business opportunity: a system to help growers more efficiently cultivate marijuana. Eventually, that system spun out into something a little less niche.

"Seeing the cannabis thing and watching guys fail crop after crop, we invented what at the time we called a Growpod—a steel shipping container used to grow cannabis. After perfecting the Growpod, we moved on and got knee deep in a system for growing leafy greens and specialty herbs," explains Dittman. For the past nine months, FusionPharm has been perfecting the latter system (the PharmPod), which consists of stackable steel shipping containers that hydroponically grows crops using a combination of LED and fluorescent bulbs and a simple continuous-flow system ("One pump and gravity runs the system" says Dittman). Environmental controls ensure that temperature, air flow, CO2, and humidity are all at the perfect levels.

There are competitors in the space, like PodPonics, another company that grows leafy greens in shipping containers. But unlike PodPonics, the PharmPod is intended to be placed inside climate controlled spaces—like a warehouse—instead of outside. "We get more production density out of the same space and the same dollar than we think our competitors do," says Dittman. The system can produce 3,400 heads of lettuce a month in a 20-foot container.

FusionPharm is still in the beta testing stage—despite numerous inquiries, it’s still only licensing the PharmPod to VertiFresh, a company that sells greens to a number of restaurants in Colorado. "We’re not going to send the system to someone else until it’s market ready," says Dittman. When it is ready, the PharmPod will be licensed to customers for an upfront cost and a monthly revenue share. Dittman declines to say how much it will cost.

If you live in an area of the world where bountiful produce is easy to come by, hydroponically growing leafy greens and herbs inside shipping containers probably sounds unnecessary. But consider this: Much of the produce in the U.S. is grown in California’s Salinas Valley. Countries that are extremely far from California—like Singapore—still get their lettuce flown in from the state, as PodPonics investor Richard E. Weinstein explained to me last year. FusionPharm’s technology might seem like a niche product in some locations, but it could be the easiest way to access fresh produce in others.

And think about the potential for disaster situations. If, say, a hurricane wipes out the farming capabilities of a small island, the cheapest alternative might be flying in a hydroponic shipping container. "We could ship and set up a fully functioning food factory in a matter of weeks, and we need 5% of the water used to grow crops traditionally," explains Dittman.

Cannabis cultivators, however, will have to look elsewhere. Despite its origins in the space, FusionPharm has pulled out of the industry entirely. "It’s a little too much of a divisive issue for some people," says Dittman.