A couple of days ago, Chris Howard of Fuel Capital said, “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been inverted.” One minute our biggest concern is was whether LeBron can lead the Lakers to a title and the next minute is whether the local Costco has any hand sanitizer left. There’s a good chance that most of you reading this are responsible for ensuring that the country’s grocery shelves are stocked with food. Earlier this month, the FDA assured all Americans that there was nothing wrong with the nation’s food supply chain.
Webinars and back-ups
iUNU is an industrial computer vision company that has developed an AI that helps making horticulture operations predictable and demand-based. The company, and more specifically Carl Silverberg, has reached out to answer the question, what about the horticulture industry and specifically, produce. Nick Greens is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and works with the Dohmen Company Foundation and his focus is on urban farming. “People are doing webinars, all our teachers and the others I speak with are super busy right now. All the seed companies are backed up because of the orders they are receiving, not because of shipping. People want to start their own gardens.”
One of the great fears of the virus is passing it from one person to another or worse, to the general public. How are his greenhouse operations dealing with food safety?
“We already have some of the best safety programs in place and we’re taking it up a notch. Instead of wipedowns twice a day, we now do them seven times a day. We use masks, gowns, hairnets, and gloves but for us, this is normal. This has been our operations process since we started vertical farming in 2014.”
Greenhouses: Rapidly adjusting industry
Switching gears a bit, iUNU wanted to get a sense of how things are going in the more rural areas of America, the places which do not rely on vertical farming. Ohio is in the top five states in terms of greenhouses and is a bellwether of trends in the U.S. not just in presidential elections but more important, indoor farming. Carl spoke with Bob Jones, Jr.
“Our core business is upscale restaurants so that portion of our business is naturally suffering. Many of those restaurants are rapidly changing to a home delivery/take out service. We pivoted here to a home delivery model and while it’s not going to replace the restaurant business, it has allowed us to significantly lessen the reduction and head count we need to stay in operation.”
Bob is CEO of Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio and his farm to table concept has been expanding for over 35 years. He offered a different picture of what many of us are hearing and it’s why the industry will adjust rapidly.
“People are increasingly attuned to their health and wellness. A few months ago, we started to focus on the health & wellness market. We work closely with a physician in the Cleveland area to offer a variety of different health boxes that you can choose from on the health & wellness page of our website. Sales of those have gone through the roof. My advice is don’t overreact, make good decisions and take care of your people.”
Jason Maks runs TrueHarvest Farms in Belton, Texas, a hydroponically grown produce operation using a one-acre greenhouse and has plans to increase his operation further. His farm is about an hour north of Austin.
“We have seen an increase in the need for our product. Demand has surged for groceries and we are seeing even more of a demand for produce such as leafy greens. I think this will open up avenues for us that we’ve been considering but haven’t really implemented.”
So, the obvious question is, what are some of those new potential revenue streams?
“We had a conversation earlier last week with a local restaurant that is changing their model to essentially that of a specialty grocery store. They are using an online presence and asked us to supply them with leafy greens. They’re having tremendous success. They created a premium product, all locally grown and locally sourced.”
Jason is very community-oriented and I felt it was important to pass on what he’s doing not just to keep jobs in his city, but for the people where he lives. “We have a delivery van, refrigerated and all the most up to date climate controls you can get. After we deliver our product to restaurants, we’re also helping out the portion of the population who can’t go out. It gives us an opportunity to deliver food to their homes.”
Recover and expansion
The takeaways from this discussion with Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas indoor growers are simple. Growers are finding ways to develop new sources of revenue that will enable them to recover and expand their businesses once the threat subsides. And, the other takeaway is just as important. The indoor growing industry is not just focused on itself. People are voluntarily taking care of others in their communities in a variety of ways.