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Far from fresh, and farmed from afar

Ask a friend what she looks for as she navigates the produce aisle, and she’ll tell you she wants the freshest produce possible. Consumer research shows that we prize freshness above all else because we know that freshness means better flavor, crisper texture, more potent nutrients and produce (that will last longer in our fridges!).

Perhaps another reason that we value freshness so much is that it is a rare trait. It’s very difficult to get the level of freshness you want when produce has to travel thousands of miles from the farm where it’s grown to the market where it’s sold.

And there’s no question that it does travel that far; from plums to broccoli, research shows the produce you buy has traveled an average of 1,300 to 2,100 miles to reach you. That’s over half the width of the United States. During this long road trip taken by our produce, it loses water and metabolizes itself to blandness.  

So how did our food system get this way? 

 The farmer’s dilemma

Over the decades, farmers have tried everything they can to get good food to people. They’ve introduced new varieties of produce bred for stability in storage and developed post-harvest technologies to help it better withstand long days inside refrigerated trucks, ships, and planes. While this was done to create better access to edible food, over time the well-meaning tactics of hundreds of farms across the world backfired;

 

because in some ways, modern growers

are forced to innovate produce for trucks,

not for the people who are ultimately going to eat it.

 

Now, considering America’s population growth and spread, that’s not a surprise. Over the last several decades, suburbs have spread and the acres of land needed for large-scale farming have been pushed further and further out from population centers.

Add to that effect the fact that the arable (farm-ready) land that is economically viable for growing fresh fruits and vegetables is already depleted and you get a concentration effect; that is, large-scale agriculture is now strongly concentrated in “breadbasket” regions such as California’s San Joaquin Valley. And those fields are a long way from the dining tables of most Americans. The bottom line is that traditional farmers needed better ways to get their crops to our tables. 

 A food system set in stone?

But that’s only part of the picture. There’s also the fact that Americans have gotten used to being able to eat a wide variety of delicious produce that’s not necessarily in season in the area they live in. That means trucking and flying produce in from even further away, whether it’s tomatoes from Mexico, asparagus from Peru, or garlic from China. People who live in cold-winter regions, where growing seasons can be as short as eight weeks, have no choice but to eat long-hauled produce during the majority of the year.

To grow the amount of produce that humans consume, you need arable land in a farming-friendly climate, and there is only so much land that meets these criteria. And what available land there is will continue to shrink — across the globe.

The result: taste & nutrition sacrificed for shelf-life

To see what happens when food travels so far, let’s follow a key nutrient, vitamin C. Research from UC Davis found that vitamin C degrades rapidly after harvest and during storage; losses after 7 days (even at ideal temperature) ranged from 15 percent for peas to a startling 77 percent for green beans.

Another reason for this decline in taste and nutrient density is the time at which produce is harvested. Tomatoes, strawberries, and other soft and thin-skinned fruits and vegetables are commonly harvested when they’re still green to prevent them from being bruised or squashed when packed in layers. 

Knowing all this, it’s pretty clear that closing the distance between farm and market can bring us healthier, more flavorful produce.

Imagine that your lettuce, spinach, and kale could be grown in an indoor farm within one day’s drive of your local market. And that with the help of this enclosed, carefully monitored environment, your produce could be grown entirely pesticide-free, with only ladybugs and other natural insect predators to remove pests.

That’s the promise of Plenty. We use breakthrough indoor vertical farming systems to grow to 350 times that of a conventional farm on a much smaller footprint, safe from storms and bad weather. Most importantly of all, though, is that without the need for acres of arable land or a plant-friendly climate, Plenty can grow crops close to population centers, dramatically reducing the need to prioritize trucking and storage over flavor and freshness.

The end goal of our status-quo breaking methods is to transform produce from the bland commodity that it is to a delicious, smile-inspiring movement. 

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