Even before a global pandemic led to sweeping shelter-in-place orders, the idea of growing food at home was rather en vogue. As far back as 2017, reports showed that one in three Americans were growing some of the food they ate at home.
Now, as the pandemic pinpoints weaknesses in the food supply chain and causes sweeping food shortages, the idea of being a little more self-sufficient is catching on like wildfire. Resiliency gardens – a modern spin on WWII victory gardens – are popping up while Americans reportedly bought a staggering number of chicks this Spring in a bid to have homegrown eggs.
The indoor farming world has toyed with the idea of at-home growing systems for many years. From countertop systems that crank out herbs to more robust appliances that cultivate lettuce, consumers have been charmed with both the novelty and ease that the concept offers. But they’ve taken some time to fly off the shelves.
Now, Farmshelf is hoping to take the idea from a quaint bid at homegrown produce to a powerhouse system that can replace trips to the grocery store during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
“Our plan was always to enable consumers to do this but we accelerated that offering because we had people already reaching out trying to buy for home use and that quadrupled overnight with the increasing interest in more resilient lives and food systems,” founder and CEO Andrew Shearer told AFN.
“We’ve been thrilled to witness Farmshelf’s growth and success since they joined the WeWork Food Labs accelerator program this past Fall,” Menachem Katz, head of operations at WeWork Food Labs told AFN. “At that time, they were rapidly growing their footprint across the hospitality industry, while expanding their consumer base by tapping educational institutions who saw their farm units as a powerful learning tool. With the sudden shift in consumer trends over the last couple of months, it has been exciting to see how quickly the Farmshelf team has been able to pivot their business and launch at-home units.”
Founded in 2016, the Brooklyn-based startup got its start by providing chefs and corporate cafes with on-site growing systems. The company decided to launch a consumer-focused product in response to specific requests and the long-standing interest in locally grown food.
The bookcase-sized system costs $4,950 and requires a $35 monthly subscription fee to cover supplies and the software system that keeps the device running. Users can trim as much or as little produce as they’d like while the crop grows. Like its commercial model, the magic behind its offering lies in The Farmshelf App, which remotely monitors the plants with cameras and sensors. The startup describes it as a virtual green thumb. Custom LEDs, a circulating water system, and a closed environment create what Farmshelf believes to be the optimal plant ecosystem.
The company is currently accepting pre-orders and plans to ship starting in Spring 2021.
“If you look at what you get out of it in a single year, the average person buying organic produce will save $2,500 per year on produce,” Shearer explains. “We will be offering at least three varieties of cherry tomatoes and looking into adding peppers, cucumbers, squash, and strawberries. When we look at offering new crops we focus on making sure we hit a specific level of performance and excellence.”
The indoor farming space saw a renewed bout of interest last year as startups reach maturity and carve out unique routes to market. Although the concept offers a way to grow food locally while using less land compared to traditional farming, startups have had to find the right logistics and route-to-market approaches to make the offerings profitable and sustainable longterm.
When it comes to home farming systems, several competitors in the segment are vying for space in your home.
“There are companies we are also excited about in this industry. It will be a huge industry and there will need to be multiple players,” Shearer says. “We don’t envision a future where everything is grown on a Farmshelf or some indoor farming system. Some companies portray that message or something similar and I don’t think that’s wise.”
Germany-based Agrilution provides vertical home growing systems, Urban Cultivator provides an indoor kitchen garden, and Natufia provides a kitchen garden system featuring ceramic growing pots that costs around $12,000.
Also operating out of Germany, InFarm is targeting supermarkets with decentralized growing systems. The company’s footprint already includes more than 600 cabinets in many European and US cities while recently launching in Japan and Canada during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Carter Hoffman provides a commercial-scale herb and microgreen growing cabinet for chefs.
Time will tell whether home growing systems are a gimmick or grocery store replacement. For now, and especially during a pandemic, the segment has consumers’ attention.
“The way I hear investors and consumers talking about this is as something they’ve been wanting to do. Growing food is something inherent to human desire and it’s just doing it in a meaningful way that has always been difficult,” he explains. “Those who are looking for a hobby or educational endeavor, that’s not what Farmshelf is for. You can buy a small desktop system and have it for six months. This is targeted at people who think quality produce matters. Think of it as a Gameboy versus a desktop computer. This is the latter.”