Horti-Facts Case Study: Fifth Season

Fifth Season is a consumer-experience company that is using high-tech robotics and GE Current LEDs to produce leafy greens and herbs in a 60,000-square-foot vertical farm.

Fifth Season, formerly RoBotany Ltd., was the brainchild of company co-founders Austin Webb, Brac Webb and Austin Lawrence. Founded in 2016, Austin Webb first met Lawrence at an entrepreneurship session at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. Lawrence, who grew up on a blueberry farm and has a master’s degree in robotics, told Webb that he wanted to create a robotics system that would grow fresh produce in grocery stores. Austin Webb then asked his brother Brac to leave his IoT startup in California to join a well-rounded co-founding team. Although Fifth Season is not affiliated with Carnegie Mellon, the university has invested in the company and several of its employees are graduates of the school.

This team of entrepreneurs built a small version of their robotics farm in a conference room in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. After receiving seed funding, the company relocated to a former steel mill on the south side of the city. The company converted 40,000 square feet of the building into a R&D space for robotics and plant growing.

When Fifth Season moved into the steel mill, the initial plan was to convert the entire facility into one large production farm. That plan was later changed to do a green field construction and build a new 60,000-square-foot vertical farm operation in the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock. Of the building’s total space, 25,000 square feet is being used for vertical farm crop production.

“Vertical farming is this wonderful solution to solve a lot of global food problems,” said Austin Webb, who is company CEO. “The problem is there is this industry-wide struggle to make the economics work. The vertical farm that we’ve built from the ground up is just the start in our journey to create a whole new era of fresh foods.”

Fifth Season produces an assortment of leafy greens, kale, arugula and herbs that is marketed to a local clientele including Giant Eagle and Whole Foods Market grocery stores along with numerous local restaurants.

Fifth Season’s new vertical farm facility is equipped with 40 different robots. The 25,000-square-foot grow room, which is equipped with GE Arize LED grow lights, has 12 levels with more than 125,000 square feet of production capacity.

“We started with a blank slate and designed our entire system from the ground up,” Webb said. “We designed this robotics system that is fully connected from end-to-end. There is an integration of robotics hardware and software so if we receive an order for spinach the system takes care of the rest.”

Webb said Fifth Season was inspired by the vegetable greenhouses in the Netherlands and the plant factories in Japan.

“We looked at those approaches and were definitely inspired by them,” Webb said. “Looking at vertical farming in North America and most of the world, we really saw these inefficient operations with a lot of labor. The cost of vertical farm labor was much more than the total costs of field production. There was a whole step-wise function of improvement to be made. We took a blank warehouse and designed it from seed to harvest to package.”

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