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Bringing the farm in-store

Grocers are experimenting with vertical farms. Is this a fad or an effective long-term strategy?

As consumers around the world increasingly look for locally sourced products, a number of grocery retailers are responding by installing indoor gardens to supplement their produce departments.

Many retailers taking the plunge are partnering with vertical farming companies such as German startup Infarm, a company that is perfecting the technology. Infarm has been rolling out its units at food retailers in the United Kingdom and Europe. And just recently, Kroger, the largest U.S. supermarket chain, became the first in that country to feature Infarm’s systems in two of its supermarkets (both in Seattle) with more to come. The stores are under Kroger’s Quality Food Center banner.

The gardens, called farms, are controlled remotely through Infarm’s cloud-based platform, which “learns, adjusts and improves itself continuously,” according to the firm’s website. The platform, which controls things such as lighting and temperature, enables the produce to grow optimally no matter where it is.

Similar vertical farm installations are cropping up in Canada, including at Avril Supermarché Santé. The independent Quebec chain installed a vertical farm in its newest store in Laval, Que. using CultiGo—a vertical farming platform developed by Quebec-based company Inno3B—and the owners say it has been quite successful. The goal “was to give customers an experience” and to overcome the “freshness challenge” of micro-greens, co-owner Rolland Tanguay told Canadian Grocer last year. The installation of the vertical farm accounted for about 10% of the new store’s total cost.

Vertical farming in general is not without challenges—it’s relatively new, of course, so there are bound to be hiccups. According to an article in the The Seattle Times, San Francisco-based Plenty was expected to open a 100,000-sq.-ft. standalone vertical farm, but recently announced the farm was too tall for the facility it had leased. “Some others, including Vancouver’s Local Garden and Illinois-based FarmedHere, folded within a few years of breaking ground,” explained the article, referring to two failed standalone vertical farms. Still, vertical farms are continuing to spring up in warehouses and shipping containers as well as restaurants and grocers around the world.

The jury is still out on the long-term success of vertical farms inside supermarkets. One drawback could be that the farms, so far, are typically limited to greens, which means things like kale, cilantro, parsley, some lettuce—but not much in the way of fruit, at least not yet.

The attraction of the farms, however, is that they can provide fresh, hyper-local produce. And we’ve all become aware that food picked thousands of miles away loses nutrients and flavour in transportation.

Vertical farming is still a high-maintenance undertaking, arguably best suited for low-maintenance, lightweight crops. “How would you vertically grow a pumpkin?” for instance, asks Persis Acworth, manager of the University of Washington’s campus farm, in The Seattle Times story. The article goes on to say: “Lack of crop diversity makes the plants more susceptible to pests, even in controlled indoor environments.”

As for in-store vertical farms, grocers who have installed them seem pleased with the results. Kelli McGannon, a Kroger representative, noted in the article that she expects Kroger’s vertical farms in the Seattle stores to be very popular with consumers. “They want a one-stop shop for their fresh produce,” she says.

That said, for me, “produce” also includes apples, pears, bananas, grapes, mangoes and so on. I can really only use a small amount of parsley or mint. Clearly, I must visit a supermarket with a vertical farm in order to judge whether its produce would be a draw for me or not. I imagine it will be the same for grocers, as they determine whether or not an in-store vertical farm is right for them.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’February 2020 issue.

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