Fortune Business Insights estimates that the global vertical farming market will be worth $12bn by 2028, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 24.8%. In the past few years, indoor farming companies growing leafy greens such as Plenty, Gotham Greens, Kalera, and Bowery Farms have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
Given the massive amounts of investment and financial interest in the vertical farming space, it would make sense for a smaller company like Forward Greens to follow a similar operational model which deploys huge amounts of automation, machine learning, and data collection in its production line.
But the Vancouver, Washington-based startup is taking a different approach that Kaneko believes can help the burgeoning industry reach economies of scale on a much shorter timeline.
‘We’re not utilizing extremely complicated and advanced robotics’
Kaneko, who has a degree in material science from Stanford University and worked in research and development at Intel and Apple prior to founding Forward Greens in 2017 (incorporated as West Village Farms at the time), wanted to deploy the same basic methodologies of a CEA (controlled environment agriculture) facilities at its 28,000-square-foot vertical farm warehouse but also build in some flexibility into the model.
“Whenever a company or an operation installs a heavy amount of automation and robotics, the manufacturing line gets ‘hardened’,” said Kaneko.
“Robots are really good at doing one specific thing over and over again, but whenever there’s a disturbance on the manufacturing line, it’s not able to accommodate those changes very well and a result, you need human intervention.”
Instead of reinventing the wheel, Kaneko wanted to create a process that was simple in which humans and basic automation could work together, and be easily replicated elsewhere in the US.
“I really set out to make something that wasn’t 100% perfected but was maybe 90% perfected and could accommodate for all sorts of variances in the manufacturing line,” he said.
“We’re not utilizing extremely complicated and advanced robotics. What we do is we take already commoditized, tried and true containers and conveyors, and leverage things that have already been done in warehouse manufacturing, greenhouses, and basic food processing manufacturing for years.”
The result, said Kaneko, is a vertical farm model that can be replicated across the country and bring fresh, leafy greens to all households.
Forward Greens grows its leafy greens in hydroponic structures 20 to 30 feet high depending on the area of the facility, without the use of pesticides.
Leveraging supermarket distribution centers with co-located growing facilities
Vertically-grown leafy greens are getting more attention at store shelf and as a result many companies are expanding their footprint with new facilities in sections of the country where lettuce usually has to travel thousands of miles to get to the end consumer.
Consumers are already “defaulting” to produce grown in indoor facilities ( many of the products are priced on par with organic, field grown produce), but the way to truly reach economies of scale on the level of field-grown lettuce and greens takes setting up shop with major retailers and their distribution centers, said Kaneko.
“What I really imagine in the end state is that a company like ours can have multiple hubs across the country and not just two or three,” he said.
“We’re hoping to co-locate with Kroger, Safeway, Publix. These national supermarket chains all have several distribution centers across America, which means that each one of those should deserve an indoor farm co-located next to it. That’s the model we’re trying to go for,” said Kaneko who is trying to reach a broad swath of customers.
“If you look at the majority of America, they shop at places like Walmart or Kroger because not only income but this inertia of convenience those retailers provide,” he said.
“My goal in the next year is to be part of that shopping experience.”
Unexpected leafy greens
Further differentiating itself from other vertically-grown leafy green brands, Forward Greens grows and harvests nine products that are a bit more unexpected such as micro broccoli greens, ‘Hot Mix’ mustard microgreens, and pea shoots.
“We try to stay away from things like the typical red oak green lettuce or romaine lettuce. And the reason is that a lot of these CEA companies that are in leafy greens, we are already forced to compete in an extremely competitive commoditize marketplace. There are very few brands that are prominent and highlighted in that product category or on the store shelves,” explained Kaneko.
“We wanted to create a consumer experience that is more joyful, fun, exciting and the way we wanted to express ourselves is to create things that are not typically on the store shelf.”
Room for growth
Forward Greens has a small distribution footprint of around 70 stores, but a facility built to accommodate and service hundreds of more stores with fresh leafy greens in the Pacific Northwest.
According to Kaneko, the company is tapping into less than half of the facility’s 15,000 square feet designate for growing leafy greens.
“We’re prepping ourselves in terms of expanding our presence not only on shelves, but operationally. We are getting ready to massively expand in the next few months to utilize that full 15,000 square feet,” he said.