Website Link (Article by Ashlen Wilder)
When The Spoon last wrote about Crop One in 2018, the company had just announced that they were building the largest indoor hydroponic farm in the world. The farm, based in Dubai, is set to be 300,000 square feet, three stories high, and capable of producing up to 6,000 pounds of food a day.
This week, I spoke with Deane Falcone, the CSO of Crop One, to catch up on how things are going. He said Dubai is set to open sometime early next year in 2022. Crop One has been steadily growing its team during the past few years and brought on a new CEO, Craig Ratajczyk.
In our conversation, Falcone explained to me how Crop One’s protocol and technology produce extremely clean plants that result in very little waste. Here is a transcript of part of our conversation:
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ashlen: Can you discuss how indoor crop production reduces food waste?
Deane: Sure. You know, there are numerous metrics for just indoor production, but I’ll focus on things that are I think, unique to us at Crop One. So the first thing is that it’s going back to that plant first concept. What we’re really trying to do at the end of the day is grow a very, very high-quality plant. When you grow high-quality plants, I mean all the leaves that I get on the plants are on a, you know, spinach or kale or lettuce, you want all those leaves to be high quality. And so that’s what we really aim for. So that’s the beginning of the process.
In other words, there’s not a leaf or there are far, far fewer leaves that might be discarded, because they’re not at the right development stage. They might have some yellowing or something like that. And so all the systems contribute to that high quality. So at the very beginning that of the process, what you’re wasting, so to speak, is reduced. So that’s an important concept to keep in mind.
The other really important concept is the cleanliness factor. So we talk about this a lot, you know, we grow in sealed rooms, it’s filtered air, grown on purified water, we have pretty elaborate water purification systems. And so what that gives us is a plant that’s very, very clean. And you may or may not know from previous discussions with us, but no one touches the plants. If they are touched by hand when they’re transplanted or they’re harvested, it’s people being wound up wearing gloves, so only a gloved hand touches the plant. Not even water touches the surface of the plant that you eat. So I’m going into that because that results in again, a clean environment, filtered air, etc, etc.
That gives us what we refer to as a very low microbial load on the surface of plant that has very little fungi and bacteria on the surface and plants, the surface of leaves. But we’ve had this tested, we set up the labs and stuff like that. And so the reason why that’s important is that these are not disease-causing pathogenic microbes but it turns out that when you as soon as you harvest the plant, as soon as you harvest that leaf, the fungi and bacteria, which again is a natural part of the environment, that’s what causes the breakdown of food, so we start seeing food decay is because of these.
The presence of fungal spores and whatnot that that break down the product. And so that’s a really big determinant as to the shelf life. So our shelf life is it’s at least three weeks the refrigerator So it is largely because of that. Now of course, it’s the freshness aspect that is, apart from getting close to a population center so that the delivery to the final consumer is very short. But it’s very fresh, but really the thing that gives us that long shelf life is the cleanliness of the product. Again, it just stays in very good shape over a long period of time.
The packing occurs in a cold room onsight so the delivery time to the cold room as you know, is a few minutes away right in the same building, that it’s packed. It’s been kept in refrigerated temperatures the whole time.
So there’s really no waste except for the occasional you know, there might be a piece of stem or something that we don’t want in the product and so that simply won’t be passed. For all of those reasons the food waste is really, really low. Again it starts on “the field”, that is in the growth rooms. The plants are very high quality so there’s little waste there. A little sorting waste, and then it stays low throughout the entire process.
This is a really important issue as I’m sure you know, because the statistic I’ve quoted for years now is ⅓ or about 33% of all food produced is wasted, particularly agricultural crops. Just a few days ago in fact, I read another article that it can go as high as 40%. So 33 to 40% of food produced is wasted which is astonishingly high.
Ashlen: Thank you for breaking all of that down. You might have mentioned this already, but I’m guessing seeing everything is pesticide-free as well?
Deane: Absolutely. And just so you know, our new CEO is always asking why do we only say pesticide-free? What about herbicides? What about the fungicides? He’s an ag person by the way. He comes from the ag approach. He has a very good perspective on what really has gone on for outdoor agriculture. So nothing touches those leaves and nothing is in the water either as far as chemicals, only mineral nutrients to the plants.
Ashlen: Have you ever had a problem in the past with pests entering the facilities or is that pretty easy to manage on your end?
Deane: Yes. So we’ve been in operation for over six years now, What I mean by the operation is the whole process of growing the plants harvesting, packing, and selling. The honest truth is you have to have good protocols so everything’s kind of double door. And we’re actually in a warehouse. So insects can get into the warehouse. If you aren’t careful with the double door system, that is. Don’t open the inner door when the outer doors are open, it’s really as simple as that. If you don’t adhere to that pretty soon you can get in second position. And exactly as you say, you know, without the use of pesticide that’s a lot of nice material for the insects to take. So they’ll take it over pretty rapidly but I have to say in the last, maybe pushing four years, but certainly the last three and a half years, we have not had a single insect infestation. It’s really, you know, well-trained people. People put their gloves on, we clean the shoes. The insects by the way are oftentimes almost microscopic, they’re very, small and so they can adhere to your clothes. And they just like to eat plants. It’s just very common and so we really have to keep an eye on that. But again the last three to four years, we haven’t had any insect outbreaks. So that’s literally the main thing keeping those doors shut.
Ashlen: Can you speak about the nutrition component of food that’s been grown outdoors versus something that would be grown indoors?
Deane: So this is a huge interest to us. We’ve evaluated, everything we grow. The nutrition is at least as good, as what we’re trying to see is where we can make it better. And so, there might be ways of just, for example, manipulating what’s the mineral nutrient to the water. So for example, plants need a fair amount of calcium. How much calcium is actually taken up in a queue. related to these, and so we’re really starting to look at that. To see if we can enhance it because the biggest kind of change in perspective indoor growth is that everything is controlled automatically. It’s everything that’s dissolved in the water.
So for example iron, in traditional agriculture, all those components are in the fertilizer or in the soil. In our case, we add them, right so they’re adding very precise levels. And of course, you could add to much, which you don’t want to have, you could have negative plant growth if you go too high with certain levels of other trace minerals. Such as copper; plants require a little bit of copper. Of course, they require a little bit of iron. You can’t go too high in those, and so on. But others like potassium and calcium, for certain species, we can actually increase their abundance of leaves by simply increasing their level in the water. So there’s there’s a lot of opportunities there we’re just at the beginning of increased nutritional content.
So if you think about outdoor grows, it turns out that the metabolites, the mineral nutrients, the vitamins that plants produce, and plants are great at producing an abundance of them. You know, they’re loaded. Almost all breeding plants are loaded with vitamin C, for example. The fact of the matter is those levels. Those levels oscillate very widely outdoors because it’s influenced by the environment. If you have a couple of days of heavy rain or a period of drought, warm days, all that kind of variability, that results in variability of this kind of nutritional aspects of vitamins and minerals and nutrients.
We can actually start to think about saying, oh we have Spinach or whatever leafy green that has x amount of a vitamin or X amount of iron, calcium, or potassium, that sort of thing. So that’s a pretty exciting thing, isn’t it? It’s something that you really can’t say with outdoor growth because again, the environments always changing. At least metabolites change pretty widely in those conditions.
Ashlen: Do you see indoor hydroponic farming as part of the future of food?
Deane: Absolutely. It’s absolutely part of the future. Yes. That I can expand on that if you wish. The first major thing that the industry has to do including us is scaling. And that’s exactly what our farms will show. It is a pretty large operation and produces quite a significant output of the crop. So that actually hasn’t been done to appreciable levels yet and in truth, completely controlled indoor farms, there’s plenty of greenhouses out there that are getting quite massive in producing a lot but they just don’t have that level of precise control nor do they have the density that indoor farming can provide.
Stacked shelves, vertically stacked shelves. They give you a very high output and we’re not the only company doing that of course. Once that becomes established, then it’s just a matter of time for these things to propagate. There’s a lot of companies jumping into the industry because they see the value, right? It’s pretty obvious now.
Our product is particularly clean, we work really hard to use highly purified water to grow the plants and all that sort of thing. And we really see the advantages, as I mentioned before on shelf life, things like that. So it’s really only the beginning. The honest truth is we didn’t know that the shelf life would be so extended just by making a clean product. So as these kinds of realizations come forth, you can really see the industry expanding because it’s going to be a very viable way of providing food in a reliable and continuous way.
Ashlen: Those are all the questions I have for now. Unless there’s anything else you want to share.
Deane: The only other thing to bring up I guess is very important. Everyone knows about the water use efficiency that indoor ag provides. If you look at the West Coast of the US, we’re seeing the beginnings of real severe shortages of water. As I’m sure you know, most freshwater is actually used for irrigation with agricultural crops. So we’re at the earliest stages in this industry and then in this way of growing food, but it’s important because unfortunately, climate change is real and climate change is here. It’s good that we have these alternative means to at least get the maximum water use efficiency that’s possible, and that’s pretty much going to be true for most indoor farms. Mostly, in our case, all the water that you use in the system goes through the plant. It’s transpired through the plant so very little is wasted in that sense.
Ashlen: Thank you for bringing that up, that’s really important. Great. Thank you for taking the time to speak.