As the vertical farming industry is maturing and finding its place in the ag space, there are quite a few companies that are still struggling to find the solution for the infamous skyrocketing operational costs of these farms. In a move that may initially sound counterintuitive, Spanish vertical farmer AloAlto is taking a unique approach as opposed to other vertical farms. “Our initial focus has been targeting a difficult product,” says Alejandro Casacuberta from AloAlto.
“We focused on product differentiation rather than optimizing costs.” The main reason behind that, Alejandro explains, lies in ‘unfair’ competition, so to speak. “When you focus on leafy greens, for instance, you are basically competing against all the other outdoor and greenhouse farmers. This means that you’d have to build a huge system with a lot of capex to reduce costs and automate. Bluntly put, when you are competing with costs, that costs a lot of money.”
No competition with no special product
The Barcelona-based vertical farm shifted away from leafy greens towards berries, strawberries to be precise. “We focus on bringing a different, special product. A product that allows us to enter the market and create a brand to grow.” So, the starting point for AloAlto was to set up climate chambers that are adaptable to different crops. “In our case, the star crop is a Japanese strawberry,” says Alejandro.
To select that variety, the AloAlto team traveled all over Japan, traveling over 3000 km and visiting more than 50 different farms. “Usually, European and US varieties of strawberries are bred to grow large, withstand long transportation, and maintain a substantial shelf-life. In Japan, it’s different.” Alejandro explains that breeding efforts in Japan have mainly focused on developing the most flavorful products they could. That’s why, for instance, you get examples of strawberries that sell for close to 400 dollars a berry.
So, AloAlto eventually found a supplier of their selected Japanese variety and started cultivating it on their farm. Aloalto will be the first producer of this variety in Europe. “We are now close to a 100% success rate for plants cultivated. This strawberry is going to be our north star when we hit the market.”
Automation is not just for the sake of it
Of course, that wouldn’t be possible to achieve if it weren’t for the farm that AloAlto’s team has set up. “So, first of all, we have chosen to automate the parts that are most important.” By doing this, Alejandro wanted to address an issue he sees in vertical farms: automating just for the sake of it. “We are not selling to our investors that we automate everything. We automate enough to be profitable to guarantee a certain level of production. For instance, we have automated the irrigation system, as well as the lighting. On top of that, CO2 is automated too.”
While AloAlto has tried to keep costs down by automating strategically, the question of energy consumption comes up naturally. “Lighting is certainly the most energy-hungry part of an operation. Yet, we have designed a recipe that works well and adapts to the different growth stages. Next to that, we have chosen a very efficient climate controller, which allows us to work at very low energy levels per gram. That helps a lot.” Something that helps equally a lot is using renewable energy, which is part of the focus of AloAlto. “We are anyway working right now on upping our energy efficiency.”
Currently, AloAto hasn’t maxed out its capacity, but that will come as their strawberries flood the Spanish market. “It’s important to sell enough volume that allows you to make that jump into a higher capacity and automation. We are taking this step by step to build solid foundations that enable steady growth.”