An agricultural technology (ag-tech) startup in San Francisco, Plenty, plants its crops vertically indoors and outdoors to save space by using AI and robots that use 95% less water with 99% less land than conventional farming. This approach can produce the same quantity of fruits and vegetables as a 720-acre flat farm on only two acres.
Plenty’s vertical farming approach can produce the same quantity of fruits and vegetables as a 720-acre flat farm, on only two acres. This revolutionary agricultural technology is employing AI with robots to use 95% less water and 99% less land than conventional methods. Now
if you think that’s cool, the company states that its ag-tech solution uses a mere 10% of the water and 1% of the land for indoor farming.
Plenty is expanding to San Francisco at Mission Rock, a large mixed-use development by Kevin Maloney’s The Permanente Group (TPG). TPG has a minority stake in Plenty.
Vertical farming can produce 400x the yield of flat farms, making it not just an incremental improvement. The fraction of water use is also critical in a time when environmental stress and climate uncertainty are increasing with every year that passes by. In this short article, Plenty CEO Jeff Storey discusses how new technology approaches such as AI will be game-changers for vertical farmers everywhere!
With over 90% of the world’s agricultural land in use, and productivity rates steadily declining, we need to find sustainable ways to increase food production. Plenty plans to do just that with its vertical farming approach.
The company’s patented technology allows it to grow food using 95% less water than conventional agriculture while utilizing 99% less land than flat farming. The company is currently scaling up its technology at Mission Rock, TPG’s 2-million-square-foot mixed-use project that opened in San Francisco last month. It sits on a nine-acre site with views of the bay and has 125,000 square feet of retail space and 1 million square feet of office space. Plenty plans to grow food in 1.5 million square feet of the site to feed the expected 7,500 people who will work there.
Plenty’s technology uses a fraction of water used by conventional farming methods. Plenty is so efficient at using resources that it can produce leafy greens 22 times faster than soil-based farms while using just 10% of the water.
Plenty’s ability to grow food in closed systems also helps eliminate the use of pesticides while providing consumers with consistently fresh produce and fish, as well as keeping the air clean. The company has grown 100 different crops at its San Francisco facility over the past year, including strawberries, basil, kale, and tomatoes. It plans to raise tilapia in a similar manner at Mission Rock.
Plenty’s co-founder and CEO, Andrew Wong, worked as an early engineer at Google. The other founder, Matt Barnard, was also an early employee of Google and Nokia. The two met while working at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in Berkeley, Calif., where they began exploring different ways to use AI for agricultural solutions.
Wong, now 35 years old, grew up on a farm in central California’s San Joaquin Valley and continues to work closely with farmers there. He says he has witnessed firsthand the challenges that conventional farming faces from droughts and floods as well as dramatic declines in the production of certain crops such as strawberries.
The company has raised $6 million in venture funding from investors including Plenty’s CEO Jeff Starkey, TPG Growth, Data Collective, and AME Cloud Ventures. It plans to raise at least a few hundred million dollars in additional funding later this year to accelerate product development and hiring.
What is Ag-Tech?
Ag-Tech is the application of science, information technology, and data to modern agriculture.
It encompasses a wide range of tools, including precision farming equipment; market intelligence software; IoT (Internet of things) sensors for soil monitoring, irrigation control, and animal tracking; smart farm gates that can report on traffic flow and detect livestock health conditions through RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology; drone mapping of grazing areas, fertilizer use, and crop growth.
In Australia, Ag-Tech has been identified as creating a new industry worth $1 billion by 2018. It is growing at 16 percent annually globally, with the most rapid growth occurring in China.
Currently, there are more than 200 listed companies in the Ag-Tech sector globally, 27 of which are listed on the US stock exchange.
The increasing trend towards precision farming is one example of an Ag-Tech product. A farmer fitted with a GPS (global positioning system) in his agitator can direct it to apply a precise amount of fertilizer at specific locations instead of distributing the fertilizer across an entire paddock.
This reduces waste and increases yields by providing nutrients to plants at times of the year when they are most needed.
According to a report from S&P Global, precision agriculture will improve farm yield for Australia’s main commodity crops such as wheat and barley by 9 percent on average.
Most people look at the tech space and think about companies like Apple or Microsoft but the reality is that many of today’s hot startups build their businesses on top of a number of mature technologies that were developed for everything from medical devices to consumer electronics.
In the agricultural space, there are three core technology drivers that have lead to an explosion of innovation: big data, cloud computing, and robotics. These technologies not only allow startups to reduce costs and increase their service offering but also make it possible for farmers to produce greater yields while using less land, water, and energy than ever before.
The State of Ag-Tech
The number one concern for farmers today is profitability. The price of farmland has increased 400% since 1995 and there are an estimated 96 million acres of farmland unattended that are more profitable to rent than a farm.
We are moving towards a world where farmers will be able to have direct access to their consumers and control the price of their products without any middlemen.
Although Ag-Tech is still in its early stages, there are already some major players making a splash in the industry.
In 2016, Monsanto filed a patent for an autonomous farm machine that uses predictive analytics to make planting decisions.
It is worth noting that Big Ag companies are already investing heavily in this area – the market is projected to grow from $10B to over $100B.
They will bring significant economies of scale and resources to the space – an area where startups struggle to compete.
With the right data, a machine can make better decisions than a person.
Data acquisition is at the heart of Big Ag companies’ strategy for success in Ag-Tech.
Field machines equipped with IoT (Internet of Things) sensors will be able to collect and analyze large amounts of data about the physical properties of soil and water.
This data can be used to determine which locations are more or less likely to yield a profitable crop over time, eliminating waste from resources such as labor, fertilizer, and herbicides.
In 2015, John Deere launched an IoT network for agricultural data management called Blue Sense. The system uses sensors in the equipment that are connected to a cloud-based platform, allowing for machine data analysis. For example, a sensor embedded in a tractor can observe how it is being used and tell you if there’s an opportunity to change operations and save fuel or money.
The next wave of AgTech startups will focus on harnessing this data and turning it into actionable insights.
In 2017, a company called Farmobile launched a product that uses advanced analytics to enable farmers to optimize their operations using connected farm equipment and IoT sensors.
Farmobile has partnered with John Deere and JDLink on the project. The platform is designed for the future of farming which includes electric vehicles, driverless tractors, and drones.
Farmobile is expected to help farmers by optimizing things like the number of seeds planted into a field, the fertilization schedule for crops, and even water levels in certain areas.