If lettuce grown in California can look a little limp and sad by the time it makes it to New York City, it looks even worse after spending days on a ship to Alaska. So maybe it's not surprising that the same indoor farms that are being built in Brooklyn are now also showing up in Anchorage.
"If you're the sort of person who wants to eat fresh, and likes the taste and texture, it's just not something we can get up here," says Jason Smith, founder of Alaska Natural Organics, a startup that now grows greens inside a former warehouse. "It's across the board on most things. Leafy greens in particular spoil quickly, and they look kind of hammered by the time we get them."
Smith, who used to work as a land surveyor, switched careers after he started eating healthier food and couldn't find much to buy after the short summer season. "We started buying a lot more local, we started buying organic, but then the winter hit," he says. "And in Alaska, trying to buy organic produce in the winter is brutal. It's bad. The following spring, I set up hydroponics on my back porch to see if I could start growing it myself."
It worked, and now Smith's 5,000 square foot indoor farm grows butter lettuce and basil under rows of LED lights. The startup harvested its first crop last fall.
In another neighborhood in Anchorage, a startup called Vertical Harvest Hydroponics (you can read more about both startups in this article from the Times) is designing growing systems that can fit inside shipping containers and ultimately be delivered around the state, including remote communities that can sometimes be cut off completely from deliveries by winter weather.
That means it can even be hard to deliver one of the new hydroponic containers. "If we’d like to deliver a unit above the Bering Strait by barge, we are looking at two chances during the year," says Linda Janes, co-founder of Vertical Harvest Hydroponics. "Backwards planning is extremely important to us to ensure that manufacturing is done in a timely manner to make the shipping window."
Once the shipping container farms are in place, though, they can be a critical source of better nutrition. An astonishing 85% of Alaskans eat fewer than two servings of produce a day, a stat that's even worse than the average American. In remote areas, part of the problem is cost; if a head of lettuce survives the journey, it might cost $8 or more.
"If we can overcome a one-time challenge of shipping to allow a village to produce greens year round for their people, then we’ve created a sustainable option for sourcing produce," says Janes. "If we can reduce energy costs by having renewable energy options, which we do offer, then we’ve also reduced operational costs."
Smith also wants to bring his indoor farms to remote communities. "I think there could be some interesting challenges in trying to introduce organics," he says. "But we're starting to somewhat catch up with the trends that you see in California and along the west coast, where people are a little more aware of what quality produce means and the benefits of organic."
Like most other vertical farm startups, both companies are focused on leafy greens, though they hope to eventually grow other crops. "We’ll be working on R&D to create systems that allow for flowering plants like tomatoes or berries to grow," says Janes. "The biggest thing with these systems is it has to be an economically and commercially viable option. ... Our co-founder and horticulturist/magician, Cameron Willingham, jokes by saying that he can grow you a mango in the CGS, but it will be a very expensive mango."
Smith thinks the startups—along with other vertical farms throughout the U.S. and world—will change how people think of agriculture. "What if, in two or three or five years, we've changed the way the world views where food comes from?" he says. "To have that mindshift on such a huge scale is just so incredible to me."