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Building a Better Berry

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June 20th, 2019

By Elizabeth G. Dunn

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Matt Barnard, the CEO of the indoor farming company Plenty, stood at the entrance of a Whole Foods in midtown Manhattan, surveying a mountain of berries.

Inbound shoppers wove around the display — a ziggurat of strawberry cartons, flanked by smaller piles of blueberries, raspberries, and cherries — stopping every so often to peel a container off the stack. In early summer, the strawberries sold here are local, sourced from farms in New York and New Jersey. But for most of the year, they come from California, where 90% of the U.S. strawberry crop is grown. Barnard, who is 46, tall, and slim, with close-cropped grey hair and a crooked smile, picked up a clamshell of strawberries and turned it over in his hand, frowning.

The berries looked pretty good to me — scarlet red and the size of a toddler’s fist — but Barnard’s examination exposed telltale signs of mediocrity. Their green crowns had wilted slightly, and paleness near the stem signaled that the berries had been picked only three-quarters ripe. That improves their durability, but misses out on the burst of sugar and flavor compounds that develop at the end of a growing cycle. (Unlike bananas, or avocados, strawberries don’t continue to ripen once harvested.)

“For a grower to produce a strawberry 2,000 miles away from where it’s consumed, it’s an avalanche of trade-offs,” Barnard explained. Peering into the plastic container, he guessed the berries, organically grown and priced at $5.99 per quart, would be firmer, tarter, and thinner in flavor than a strawberry rightly should. Here was a product ripe for disruption, and his was just the company to do it.

Plenty is one of the biggest names in the nascent vertical agriculture sector. Greenhouses have been around for centuries, but an operation like Plenty’s moves the farm fully indoors, into warehouse-sized spaces where the plants grow floor to ceiling, hydroponically, under LED lights. With over $200 million in venture capital funding from the likes of Softbank, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the company runs a commercial indoor farm outside San Francisco, where it grows leafy greens like kale, tatsoi, and mizuna.

Barnard, who has a background in infrastructure investment and deployment, was drawn to indoor growing first for its environmental promise: Plenty says its farms achieve yields up to 350 times greater per acre than the world’s most fertile cropland, while using less than 5% of the water. The company’s brand new flagship farm, in South San Francisco, runs on wind and solar energy. There are no diesel-fueled tractors to plant and plow and spew carbon into the atmosphere. Simply being able to grow food in or near cities saves the 2,000-mile truck journey undertaken by your average bag of salad greens.

The broccoli and peaches in our grocery stores are no match for Cooler Ranch Doritos and Tropical Fruit Gushers.

Lately, though, Barnard has become obsessed with flavor, which he sees both as Plenty’s biggest opportunity to disrupt the produce aisle, and an urgent means for improving public health. 40% of American adults and almost 20% of children are now obese, a state of affairs often blamed on the proliferation of processed foods that out-flavor their natural counterparts. The broccoli and peaches in our grocery stores are no match for Cooler Ranch Doritos and Tropical Fruit Gushers.

The produce we consume, Barnard argues, is too often withered, wilted, bland, and tough. Arduous journeys from field to shelf and decades of breeding for yield and durability have diluted flavors, and the pleasures they provide. Farmer’s market fare does better, but it’s seasonal, and sells at a substantial premium that puts it out of reach of many Americans. It should come as no surprise that only one person in 10 meets the USDA’s recommended daily allotment of fruits and vegetables.

Barnard believes that Plenty can change that. Freed from the challenges of the outdoors — pests, weeds, storms, droughts — his team of plant scientists think they can grow delicious cultivars too finicky for the field, and then use automation and machine learning to provide an environment perfectly suited to building their flavor and nutrition, 365 days a year. That includes, for example, a variety of kale that tastes “like lemonade,” with sweetness and an acid tang. “We want to make the healthiest foods in the world so fun to eat that people crave them,” Barnard says.

The holy grail: producing the perfect, tender, cotton-candy-sweet farmer’s market strawberry year-round.

But if a company like Plenty intends to make good on its stated ambition to revolutionize agriculture, it will need to expand beyond the leafy greens that have been the staple of vertical farming. That means tackling berries, the most lucrative supermarket produce category behind greens. The holy grail: producing the perfect, tender, cotton-candy-sweet farmer’s market strawberry year-round, and doing over and over again, at grocery store prices.

For Plenty, growing a better berry could mean blowing open the $3 billion U.S. strawberry market, currently dominated by Driscoll’s, a company that sells one out of every three strawberries eaten in the United States (and two out of three organic ones). Barnard thinks that growing the kind of strawberry that you crave, and remember long after it’s gone, could mean more than just market share — it could become a calling card for Plenty as the company expands to take on the rest of the produce aisle.

“Forty-eight weeks a year, strawberries are a disappointment,” Barnard says. “But they’re so fun to eat when they’re at their best, and we can make them at their best. Better than their best.”

“Strawberries are kinda special,” said Nate Storey, Plenty’s 37-year-old co-founder and Chief Science Officer, as he settled into a swivel chair, starting in on the topic that brought me nearly 2,000 miles from my home in New York to the company’s research facilities outside Laramie, Wyoming. Through the windows, a desolate prairie landscape of red rock and sagebrush rolled out toward the sawtooth outline of the Rocky Mountains. Plenty is notoriously secretive about its operations — from its headcount to the configuration of its farms — and believes any iota of information might prove valuable to a rival. (A company spokesperson mentioned, at one point, that Chinese and Russian hackers have tried to infiltrate Barnard’s email.) I was the first journalist to see the company’s operations in Laramie.

“There are few things you bite into and think ‘I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life,’ Storey continued. “Tomatoes are one of those. Strawberries are another.”

Americans consume over a billion pounds of strawberries each year, making them the nation’s fifth most popular fruit, and its most popular berry. They have delighted palates since at least as far back as imperial Rome, when strawberries appeared in the writings of Virgil and Ovid as a wild woodland fruit, symbolic of agrarian purity. In the Middle Ages, strawberries were used as a cure for depression. Illuminated manuscripts depict them as an emblem of perfect righteousness and eternal salvation. (The plant’s three-part leaf was said to reflect the Holy Trinity, its five-petaled flower, Christ’s five wounds, and the downward pointed fruits, drops of his blood).

By the 14th century, King Charles V of France had 12,000 strawberry plants growing in his royal gardens, bearing fruit in shades of white, green, and red, and they soon became a common garden plant in France and England. But strawberries really took off after 1750, with a chance meeting in Europe between a strapping Chilean cultivar and a variety from the East Coast of North America. The two were bred to create Fragaria x ananassa: the modern garden strawberry, now cultivated worldwide.

For all its gustatory delights, F. ananassa is a botanical prima donna: fragile, very prone to disease, and finicky about its climate. That these berries can now be found on supermarket shelves year-round, from New Hampshire to Nevada, is a triumph of science over nature. In the past century, U.S. strawberry production has moved almost entirely to the Central Coast of California, where they’re grown intensively on 37,000 acres, in industrial fields that share nothing in common with the bucolic lyrics of a Beatles song.

Grow beds are dosed liberally by chemical fumigants — including chloropicrin, used as tear gas in the First World War.

Here, grow beds that stretch for miles are wrapped in black plastic and dosed liberally by chemical fumigants — including chloropicrin, used as tear gas in the First World War — to keep fungi at bay. Sandy soil and cool breezes off the Pacific help the berries resist rot and mildew, and the Mediterranean climate coaxes them to bear fruit almost year-round. Centuries of breeding have produced big, handsome berries, pleasing to the eye, high yielding, and firm enough to ship. But the process has also stripped them of much of the sweetness and flavor that made strawberries such stars to begin with.

That’s why a strawberry snob like me sticks to summer harvests, from roadside produce stands and farmer’s markets, the only places where I believe the fruit’s potential can still be glimpsed: glossy and ruby red from stem to tip, with tender flesh and concentrated, jammy sweetness. Like any good foodie, I’ve come to view flavor as an almost mystical thing, a kind of symphony composed by the soil and sunlight, each with its own ineffable, inimitable qualities. That’s the concept behind terroir — the natural environment that lends a plant its particular flavors, aromas, textures — and the foundation of the organic food movement.

But Plenty wants to make the case that science can be just as powerful, and delicious, as nature. Since his researchers can control every last aspect of an indoor growing environment, Storey says they can simply learn all the notes that create an ideal strawberry, and write a better tune. “We know we can do it, and do it cheaper, eventually, than the Driscoll’s clamshell,” he tells me.

Though Plenty’s headquarters are in South San Francisco, much of their research is done here in Wyoming. Storey’s team is tasked with selecting the best plant varieties — what breeders refer to as “cultivars” — to grow in Plenty’s farms. But when it comes to flavor, genetics are only half of the equation: environmental conditions, like day length, light intensity and spectrum, and air temperature, all influence how those genes are expressed. Traditional farms can’t change the climate, but in a vertical farm, every last environmental variable is up for grabs, and can be manipulated to influence a plant’s behavior.

Today, the six-year-old company is still in beta mode. Plenty sells limited quantities of four different types of ready-to-eat greens in the San Francisco area, primarily through the online grocer Good Eggs, priced at $4.99 for 5 ounces — the high end of the salad mix market. Those products generate revenue and provide customer insights, but most of the team’s energy has been focused on designing the high-tech gadgetry and software that will power future farms, and doing the crop research that will enable them to move beyond greens. This past year, the plant science team tested almost 700 plant cultivars across a litany of different crops, including radishes, tomatoes, blueberries, and carrots. But the largest team is focused on strawberries, which they began working with in the beginning of 2018.

Each day, Storey said, the team moves closer to cracking that perfect strawberry, and unlocking potential in other fruits beyond. “The great thing,” Storey went on, “is it’s just physics, and chemistry, and biology, and a little bit of math.”

Across the street from its Laramie offices, Plenty had taken over most of a windowless, two-story warehouse and carved the space into a warren of grow rooms. Here, experiments in various stages of completion occupied every nook and cranny, and the building hummed and whirred with the white noise of countless fans, CO2 compressors, and ventilation systems.

On the upper level, on makeshift shelves constructed from two-by-fours, Parisian carrot seedlings sat under strips of LED lights — the bulb of choice for vertical farming, because they are energy efficient and allow for a high level of control. Chives, squash, bush beans, okra, and cabbages inhabited what looked like a self-storage unit. In a room the size of a studio apartment, rows of newly-bred tomato seedlings, bathed in bright purple light, were being observed for their fruit density and foliage size. In another one, spindly blueberry branches stuck out from floor-to-ceiling grow towers.

Strawberries occupied two spacious rooms on the lower level. Bushy little plants grew out the sides of white towers by the hundreds, their pristine red berries dangling like Christmas ornaments. When I visited, in May, Plenty had just concluded its first round of variety trials, pitting 11 of the most promising strawberry cultivars against each other in a winner-take-all tournament.

In choosing its candidates, Plenty ignored traits like disease resistance and shelf-life — the major concerns of commercial producers — and instead went for berries highest in sugar and the volatile organic compounds that produce flavor and aroma. “A lot of those compounds are delicious, but cause the fruit to be extra soft or spoil quickly,” Storey told me: a deal-breaker for today’s industrial growers. Many were old varieties, and Storey discovered that certain floral qualities, and a depth of sweetness, had disappeared from the modern market.

“There’s two types of tasters: one is like you that says it’s floral, and one is like me that says it tastes synthetic, like Pez candy.”

Michael Baldwin, the researcher in charge of Plenty’s day-to-day strawberry efforts, laid out samples of three different berries to offer a snapshot of the company’s progress. One strawberry, large and seedy, I recognized immediately as a supermarket specimen, provided as a point of comparison. Another, grown by Plenty, was small, perfectly conical, and lipstick red, with taut, glossy skin. When I bit into it, it was soft, translucent pink throughout, fairly sweet, and unusually floral. Baldwin told me I was tasting methyl anthranilate. “There’s two types of tasters: one is like you that says it’s floral, and one is like me that says it tastes synthetic, like Pez candy,” he explained. The last berry, also a Plenty test berry, was larger, crisper, and a touch sweeter. “The shelf life on that one is fair,” Baldwin offered, sounding like a proud father restraining himself. “As far as coloration, glossiness, and seeds, personally, I feel it’s an attractive fruit.”

These berries were just a jumping off point, Baldwin reminded me; some of the most promising cultivars they’ve tested so far, raised in Plenty’s standard indoor growing conditions. The real secret sauce would come down to optimizing those conditions. Behind the strawberry rooms, the company had constructed 29 research pods, about the size of walk-in closets, fed by a dozen types of wires, hoses, and tubing. Each of these pods represented its own experimental environment. Here the team will be able to test dozens of variables — like light spectrum and duration, temperature, or air speed — to see how they influence flavor and nutrition.

Baldwin told me that, in the first strawberry room, his team has logged over 790,000 data points linking minutiae of the growing conditions to outcomes like size, firmness, and sugar content. The pods will add millions more. Once they zero in on an ideal growing environment, the automated systems in Plenty’s commercial farms will be able to replicate them, responding in real time to the plants’ needs.

Early evidence suggests that nighttime temperature is exceedingly important to strawberry flavor. Another major factor is light. The company has hired Tessa Pocock, a leading expert on LED light and photosynthesis, to help Plenty better manipulate light, including designing and building proprietary LED fixtures.

Pocock told me that plants have exquisitely dynamic metabolisms, triggered by what light tells them about what time of day they think it is — blue predominates in the morning, amber in the evening — what season, even whether a storm is rolling in. Each of these factors has implications not just for flavor, but nutritional content. In lettuces, light determines how much of the antioxidant anthocyanin is produced. In kale, it changes the concentrations of the nutrients zeaxanthin and lutein.

Strawberries are known to produce 350 distinct aroma compounds (kale, by contrast, has around 20), and the company is working to determine the perfect balance: an overall flavor that Olivia Nahoum, who leads Plenty’s product design and sensory efforts, described to me as having notes of prune and fresh-cut grass, with a brown sugar sweetness. “Truthfully, I don’t think most people know what a strawberry is supposed to taste like,” Nahoum said. “You want the flavor to invade your entire mouth, and create that strawberry experience from beginning to end.”

For now, Barnard’s perfect strawberry is still theoretical. Progress with the berries is slower than Plenty’s researchers are accustomed to: leafy greens grow a new crop every two weeks, but fruit takes time, and it can take up to nine months to get a handle on how a strawberry plant performs. Once Michael Baldwin’s team settles on a winning formula, the company will need to add dedicated strawberry rooms, and harvesting facilities, to its commercial farms. Barnard and Storey are hesitant to offer a timeline as to when strawberries will appear on retail shelves — that intel could prove useful to competitors — but insinuate that it will be a matter of months rather than years. Blueberries, raspberries, and tomatoes will follow.

When Plenty’s strawberries finally do hit the market, they are likely to do so at a time of increasing demand, and shrinking supply. Julie Guthman, a professor of social sciences at U.C. Santa Cruz and the author of Wilted, a new book on the California strawberry industry, told me that conventional producers are facing unprecedented pressure. Methyl bromide, a powerful fumigant used for decades to shield strawberries against pests and diseases, has been banned by an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol, and California is curbing the use of others that growers still rely on. New and virulent pathogens have emerged, threatening harvests. Labor is also a major problem: strawberry picking is backbreaking work, and immigration restrictions are making it more and more difficult to find enough harvesters.

These and other factors have conspired to shrink strawberry acreage by over 10% in the United States since 2012, despite rising per capita consumption. Productivity gains have made up for some of that, but more and more strawberries are also now imported from Mexico, where they are grown in the colder months. “I think the most innovative California growers will stay in business, but most don’t see a bright future,” Guthman said.

Scaling up strawberry production to make a dent in national demand will be slow going, and capital intensive.

Even if prices rise, Guthman is skeptical that Plenty, with its costly infrastructure, professional labor force, and years of research and development expense could come close to the low cost of strawberries from the Central Coast. Scaling up strawberry production to make a dent in national demand will be slow going, and capital intensive. To expand into any new city, Plenty must construct a costly farm nearby. That means building facilities, yards of LED bulbs, ventilation systems, robotics, and all the rest. And Guthman points out that while Plenty’s system may make its berries immune from most of the pathogens they face in the field — thus, the company farms without chemicals — certain pests, like mites, could still find their way in. “If there’s an infestation, you lose everything,” Guthman said.

But imagine, for a moment, that the company can manage all those challenges. The berries I tried inside Plenty’s facility were not the best strawberries I’ve tasted in my lifetime, but they easily beat anything I’ve had out of a supermarket clamshell — and that’s without the benefit of whatever magic Storey‘s team might conjure to dial up their flavor.

I left Laramie feeling slightly uneasy at the idea that, one day in the not-too-distant future, some of the best strawberries on earth might be grown in automated vertical ecosystems utterly divorced from nature, weaned on a nutrient drip, seeing sunlight for the first time only when they’re unloaded from a shopping bag — a setup that brought to mind, at least fleetingly, the fetus fields in The Matrix.

Back at home in Manhattan, I stopped by the Union Square Greenmarket one Friday in early June. Two market stalls had strawberries for sale, at around $6 per pint; twice the price of the organic berries at Whole Foods. I struck up a conversation with one of the farmers about how the unusually wet weather made for a smaller than normal haul, then picked up two containers. When I got home with them, I took a good look, searching their tender, knobbly surfaces for anything different and superior to the Plenty strawberries. I tasted berry after berry, comparing the farm-grown fruit to what I’d tasted in a far-away lab. The truth is, I couldn’t tell the difference.

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