From record temperatures searing vines in French wine regions to widespread flooding across the Midwest “breadbasket” of the United States, extreme weather events exacerbated by global warming have been devastating to agriculture around the world. And yet, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the agriculture industry is ironically contributing to its own challenges as a major contributor to climate change — 24 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stem from farming and land use.
With a global population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, food production will require innovative new methods for producing more food, more sustainably. Here, Darden Ideas to Action highlights one company trying to do just that: Beanstalk, founded by brothers Mike and Jack Ross in 2017. Beanstalk is featured in Darden’s Path to 2060 industry decarbonization podcast on agriculture.
Beanstalk grows produce from heirloom, non-genetically modified seeds in an indoor vertical farm located in Northern Virginia. The company has had an impressive journey since its founding, including acceptance at Y Combinator, the prestigious Silicon Valley-based accelerator behind companies like Airbnb and Reddit. The Ross brothers talk about how their vertical farms are responding to both the needs of consumer and the planet, and the future of farming.
What is a vertical farm?
Jack Ross: Vertical farms start with a controlled environment where we can guarantee that our growing plants have all of the resources that they need to thrive. At Beanstalk, we use hydroponics to supply the level of nutrients that plants need to grow, specifically through an array of shelves where water will flood each shelf on a schedule. This shelving allows us to be more productive given a square foot on the floor as we grow plants in many layers.
What are the benefits of vertical farms compared to conventional farming?
Mike Ross: The biggest benefit is the fact that we are able to produce healthy and nutritious food locally. There is no longer a need to transport goods across the country and borders. Food can now be produced for the local community. This means the food is fresher and more nutritious. Indoor farms can produce crops specific to a local taste and demand, which means there is less food waste. Growers don’t need any chemicals or pesticides because they are grown in clean, controlled environments. The produce is incredibly consistent, as it’s always grown in the ideal climate. Hydroponic systems inherit other environmental benefits, such as water savings.
Where are you seeing demand for vertical farms?
Jack Ross: Consumers are demanding better produce. Vertical farms just happen to be the best way to deliver it. So much of the taste of produce has been lost through industrialization. Vertical farms offer a solution that brings back the taste and nutrition of produce and guarantees supply to any community. Producing locally means we can provide food to consumers more quickly, maximizing nutrition, which naturally decays over time. We also see demand for produce grown from heirloom seeds not traditionally grown on large farms.
Mike Ross: The reason Jack is emphasizing the consumer demand so much is because this is such an incredibly democratic industry. Preparers of food and retailers have to answer to the consumer. They are demanding what their consumers are demanding, it’s a 1-to-1 relationship. We have influential chefs in this country that definitely move the palette of local communities, but by and large, the end consumer is the influencer.
What is the future of farming?
Mike Ross: The future is farming locally in controlled environments. Our vertical farms remove fluctuations in the supply, cost or quality. We can bring back plants that went essentially extinct. We still have the seeds, but until now it wasn’t possible to grow them because the climate is too risky. We can tailor food to a specific community. As technologies and distribution improve, we will see a huge decrease in food waste. Vertical farms will be able to build to demand, turning production on and off as needed and per customer request. Ultimately, there’s going to be a farm in every city producing exactly what that city wants to consume.
Disrupting a complex, slow-moving industry like agriculture is not easy. What did you have to learn as an industry outsider and how was this a benefit?
Jack Ross: Engineering taught me to appreciate a beginner's perspective, to enjoy taking a fresh look at a design or system. Being a beginner in this industry has been one of our greatest advantages, especially in an industry that has advanced iteratively over hundreds of years. We realized as we started this company that the food supply chain has become extremely complex, but it does not need to be. Today’s crops are selected to resist the outdoor environment, but they do not need to be. Produce often tastes bland, but it naturally is delicious.
Sustainability is a core part of your mission. What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs that are looking to establish businesses for good?
Jack Ross: The world needs more industrial startups. Before Beanstalk, I had no idea the sheer scale of industrial companies and how much of an impact one can make by focusing on industry-scale solutions. In our case, farms are massive. For most industrial farms, you need to be in a plane to see the edges. Changing even a small part of these systems can result in massive savings.
My recommendation to entrepreneurs is to look into old industries and areas that have become commonplace. Our world is critically dependent on those industries, which means there is a massive opportunity. Often these industry opportunities are overlooked in favor of flashier opportunities. But when you realize that, each year, farms sell billions of pounds of salad, construction companies pour 10 billion tons of concrete, and 750 million shipping containers are moved between ports, you can better see how big industry is.
It’s about drawing a direct line from an established need to a new way to reduce the environmental impact of that industry. There may be a higher learning curve, but the impact and rate of scale will be great.
More info about Beanstalk: https://www.beanstalk.farm/
To learn more about vertical farms, and the technologies and best practices that have the most potential to decarbonize the agriculture industry, download UVA Darden’s Path to 2060 report and podcast on Decarbonizing the Agriculture Industry.