FreshBox Farms is about to take the indoor farming movement to new heights.
The Millis company and its parent firm in California have struck a $40 million joint venture with the catering operation of Emirates airline to build the largest “vertical farm” in the world in Dubai: rows of lettuce and other greens growing in hydroponic containers stacked 50 feet high.
Corporate parent Crop One Holdings last week disclosed the deal with Emirates Flight Catering to build a 130,000-square-foot indoor growing facility near the Dubai airport that promises to yield as much as 6,000 pounds of greens a day, from kale to parsley.
The Emirates airline serves 220,000 meals a day, and FreshBox Farms chief executive Sonia Lo said the indoor farm will significantly reduce transportation costs and ensure quick delivery of fresh greens to airline customers.
“They have an issue in the local Dubai market — true of most of the Middle East— which is that they import 98 percent of their food,” Lo said. “I think that creates supply chain vulnerability and a freshness issue. And vertical farming can solve that pain point for their customers.”
The company grows its greens in modular setups that Lo said take up much less space and use far less water than traditional dirt farms, and it does not use pesticides or herbicides. Greens from the Millis farm are available at local food stores, and Lo said the business has been profitable.
“We are the low-cost farm producer and we have an intense focus on operational efficiencies,” said Lo, adding that the company’s costs made it attractive to the Emirates. “We just try to run our farms better.”
The local food movement and technology advances are giving the indoor farming movement something of a moment; last summer, for example, Plenty, an indoor farming company in San Francisco, raised $200 million from SoftBank Group and other investors to build out a network of growing facilities.
William Masters, a nutrition and science policy professor at Tufts, said a significant portion of salad greens under commercial cultivation could come from indoor vertical farms.
“It depends on continued high demand for salad, which I think is very likeable and desirable because it’s clearly a nutritional gain, especially green leafy vegetables,” Masters said. “This wave of innovation is very much fueled by the availability of low-cost capital.”
Crop One also expects to sell some greens from the Dubai facility in retail markets in the United Arab Emirates, under a local brand name. Lo said the initial agreement states that Crop One will sell at least one-third of its harvest to the airline, with the right to sell the remaining two-thirds.
There are other hydroponic facilities in Dubai, but none at this scale. Lo said the output of the Crop One facility will equal 900 acres of farmland.
Lo expects the construction to begin in November and be complete in a year, and the company hopes to begin supplying the airline and surrounding retail markets by December 2019. Lo said the company also plans to open three new US growing facilities in the next two months, two in Connecticut and one in Texas.
“In terms of market attractiveness, we love that this is a scale opportunity,” Lo said. “With a big food service customer, such as Emirates, you end up with a big anchor customer who can guarantee a certain amount of volume.”