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Upward Farms
Microgreens growing in an Upward Farms facility. Image credit: Upward Farms

Q&A: Upward Farms wants to attract more microbes to vertical ag environments

January 24, 2022

US-based Upward Farms is building what it says will be the “world’s largest vertical farm.” Slated to start operations in 2023 in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, the facility will be Upward’s third farm and will provide greens to retailers in the Northeast US and anywhere else within a day’s drive.

Previously known as Seed & Roe, Upward Farms eschews hydroponics in favor of a closed-loop aquaponics system, which allows the company to raise both microgreens and hybrid striped bass in its Brooklyn, New York facility. Manure from the fish is used to fertilize the plants. Recently, Upward Farms started selling its fish for the first time, at Brooklyn restaurant and fish counter Greenpoint Fish & Lobster.

AFN recently spoke to Upward Farms CEO and co-founder Jason Green (JG) about the company’s approach to vertical farming and its focus on the microbiome.

AFN: What came first? The greens or the fish?

JG: It was all together from the beginning. The leafy greens and the fish have always been part of the process for the benefit of producing a microbiome that improves the productivity and stability of the ecosystem overall.

AFN: Both are two industries that aren’t particularly though of as ‘local.’

JG: Correct. Vertical farming and indoor farming [are] certainly seeking to make what is a transcontinental supply chain a more local one. Upwards of 90% of the leafy greens that are consumed in the US are grown in California and Arizona. Most of the leafy greens that are consumed in the US are on the eastern half of the US.

Aquaculture is quite similar. Americans are eating $96 billion worth of seafood annually. Ninety percent of that is imported, and imported fish is in fact one of the most mistrusted foods in America. There are real challenges whether you’re consuming, or are purchasing, even a wild or farmed product. It’s very difficult to make a good decision because of those labeling and traceability issues. And if that’s the 90% in the seafood market, it makes it really hard to make a good choice.

Our approach on the leafy green side is that a local supply chain and a highly perishable product can improve the quality and can improve the shelf life. We can invest in the quality of that product as opposed to investing in the transportation costs. And on the seafood side, not only are those things true — that we’re farming protein in the US as opposed to importing it — but it’s really answering a fundamental need for consumers as much as for climate, which is that consumers want to be able to make responsible seafood choices. And by creating a local seafood supply chain, we can offer quality safeness and product integrity guarantees that are just impossible in the supply chain right now.

AFN: How does the microbiome fit into vertical farming?

JG: This is [a] really interesting tension. The indoor farms are saying, “I have control over everything, therefore I don’t need biodiversity.”

On the flip side, you’ve got the ag biotech solutions like Indigo Agriculture, Pivot Bio, and so on. And they’ve also got very compelling technology. You screen soils, you find microbes that are already occurring, put them onto seeds and put them back out there. But there’s also a real limitation, which is that you see very low uptake of those cultures in fields. And the reason for that is there’s already so much competition, and the microbes of interest might have very particular conditions under which they will successfully inoculate that environment. [The microbe] might need 23 degrees Celsius to be at its optimal growth range, and it’s 26 the day that the seed gets planted.

So there’s this interesting tension between what indoor farms saying, “I have all the control therefore I don’t need the biodiversity” and what’s happening on the broad acre which is saying, “Soil has lost all of this biodiversity, we need to put it back out there, but there isn’t the right level of control.”

We’re putting those two together and saying, “Well, what if we can build biodiversity ecosystems within a highly controllable biological [environment]?”

Ecological Intelligence [Upward Farms’ new “microbiome technology”] is sort of a capture for all of the work that we do around the microbiome. [With] indoor agriculture, the focus is often around whether it’s AI and machine learning, software optimization. Our perspective is that those are table stakes as a manufacturer.

On top of that, what we know is that the microbiome — that invisible layer of bacteria and fungus, other microbes that live in and around all living things — is essential to stability and productivity.

For example, the human genome contains about 22,000 protein-encoding genes, which is a little bit more than a fruit fly. The human microbiome expands that to about 8 million protein-coding genes. So you’re talking about vast differences in terms of the functions that are in the primary genome, the host genome, and then what are in the meta genome – the broader genome including the microbiome.

The same thing is true in agriculture. In a gram of well-managed ecological soil, you might have 1 billion microbes per gram of soil. In a gram of heavily treated soil that’s been poorly managed, you might have 10,000. That’s a 100,000 times difference in terms of the density of biology and therefore, the function that is captured genetically. You also see this at field scale. Biodiversity is correlated with higher levels of productivity and higher levels of stability in those ecosystems.

What we’re doing indoors is putting to work all of that proven science around the productivity and stability of ecosystems. So in addition to all of the classic production optimization of developing climate recipes, we’re thinking about microbiome recipes. How do we create the right environment so that we’re attracting the kinds of microbes that are going to prevent diseases? Bring in genes that improve plant yields through improving their nutrition [and] physiology? All of that is captured in Ecological Intelligence.

There’s all of this proven science around the relationship between plants, microbes, and their environment. What we do is we curate that at scale to deliver high levels of productivity. It’s also a totally natural process. We’re not using synthetic chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides. We’re using naturally occurring microbes [which] are emergent in our system. We’re creating the right conditions to attract them.

AFN: Upward Farms has been a part of the vertical farming industry since 2013. What are some of the most notable changes you’ve seen happen over the years?

When we started the business in 2013, both vertical farming as well as the microbiome were entirely unfamiliar in indoor farming. What you’ve seen over the last several years is there is abundant capital for these businesses. On the on the ag biotech side, the microbiome has gained a massive amount of familiarity.

I think you’ve also seen a consolidation of approaches in some ways. In the early days of indoor farming, there was much more of sort of a free-for-all about what vertical farms looked like in terms of architecture and automation. And I think by and large, you’ve seen a consolidation of that to some to some success. We think that there are some ways to optimize the approaches, which is why we’ve developed a proprietary technology platform, [instead of] buying off the shelf. But I think broadly speaking, you’ve seen a lot more maturity in the overall technology market.

Then I’d say the third thing is on is on the supply chain, the demand side, like grocery store produce aisles are are in many cases empty right now, right now. The thesis going back to early vertical farms, five, 10, 15 years ago [is that this] supply chain doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t make sense for growers. Doesn’t make sense for retailers. It doesn’t make sense for consumers. The concerns that early vertical farms were expressing have, unfortunately come to pass. As we look forward, the climate concerns that vertical farms and other ag tech innovators are, are making a lot of noise about will be the next thing on the horizon.

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