It's very expensive to build and maintain an indoor farm facility, and the end product is more expensive. So only crops that can command a premium price make sense. The pristine freshness and flavor of 80 Acre or Bright Farms' local lettuce, greens and herbs do offer a value some might pay extra for. Plus they grow quickly for frequent harvests. But when it comes to "feeding the planet," it would be very difficult to grow and sell more nutrient-dense foods like potatoes or beans this way because you can't charge a premium for a fresh potato.
"For everyone who's started (in this sector), someone has failed," said Daniel Klemens of Waterfields. "There's so much price pressure from retailers, it's hard to get it right." Waterfields' goal when they started out was idealistic, but in a different way. It was to create agricultural jobs in the city. So they decided on high-margin crops that take a short time to produce. They grow microgreens and some specialty salad mixes. "We are focused on quality and consistency for our customers," said Klemens. Those are mostly chefs who want the decoration and pop of flavor that pretty tiny leaves can add to a dish.
Working with nonprofits like the Urban League and Santa Maria Community Services, they have hired 12 hard-to-employ people and given them good jobs and promotions. And their pretty little red-veined leaves show up on a lot of beautiful photos of Cincinnati restaurant food. They make no claims about feeding the hungry or changing the food systems.
But Zelkind has a lofty vision that includes fresh food in places that don't have it and contributing to a better way of distributing food. He says their precision technology has driven down costs. Their next step is a new facility in Hamilton that will be completely automated. In a competitive field, he thinks their investment in technology will make local food more easily available.