Jacob Pechenik Of Lettuce Grow On The Future Of Modern American Farming
An Interview With Sean Freedman
…. Empathy — To create significant change for the masses, to launch an innovation that completely transforms an industry, and in order for it to be successful, you have to really connect with the individual that is going to adapt to that change. It is important to understand the mindset of the customer, the mindset of your team, and understand the mindset of your community — to have a complete mind meld. It’s a foundational requirement for large-scale success that the change is propagated by the masses.
Modern farming is actually very different from common conceptions. Farming today is dramatically different from the farming done a few decades ago. In this interview series called The Future Of Modern American Farming, we are exploring the modern technological changes that American farms have been making. We are also exploring how farmers are adjusting to the supply chain challenges, the challenges of climate change, and the challenges of sustainable farming.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jacob Pechenik.
Jacob Pechenik is a passionate entrepreneur who’s built a career around questioning and improving industry status quo. Upon graduating from MIT with a BS in Chemical Engineering, Jacob founded and led TechTrader, an early web-based B2B supply chain platform, followed by the development and launch of YellowJacket Software, a peer-to-peer derivatives trading platform supporting a broad spectrum of segments (from weather and energy to agriculture) in 2004. In 2011, he set his sights on the film industry, founding Venture Forth, a film, finance and production company focused on high-quality and impact-driven independent films. His dedication to innovation and socially constructive disruption led to the co-founding in 2017 of The Farm Project, a Public Benefit Corporation on a mission to transform our food system, and Lettuce Grow, an altruistic initiative that aims to reconnect people with their food. Today, Jacob remains committed to delivering healthy, sustainable harvests to every home and enabling Americans to have healthier connections with our planet.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career has spanned across multiple industries. I graduated from MIT with a degree in Chemical Engineering, and founded my first real company 2 years after college. I guess you could call it a web 1.0 company which focused on b2b marketplace. I later developed and launched a peer-to-peer derivatives trading platform that supported a broad spectrum of industries (from weather and energy to agriculture). Then I switched completely to the film industry, where I founded a film finance and production company focused on high-quality and impact-driven independent films.
Everything I’ve worked on has been a new system, a new way of looking at things. I always questioned systems and models in their entirety, why does it work that way?
When I first became a father my focus turned to making sure my kids were nurtured with fresh, organic food. It was the first time I really noticed the high price and inaccessibility of food as nature intended. This ultimately led me on a journey to start an organic farm with the intention of providing low-cost organic produce to the masses.
Through the experience of operating a farm, I learned that we need to change our food system. I saw the biggest challenge wasn’t the growing method (conventional vs organic), but in getting the product from the farm to the people. Distribution was the biggest problem. Most “fresh” produce on grocery store shelves has been dead for days, traveled thousands of miles, it’s likely sprayed with chemicals. Roughly 50 percent is wasted on the long journey before it reaches a table.
This led me to start Lettuce Grow. The vision is to rethink and redefine how we distribute perishable food. I had the idea that if we took the waste out of the system we could reduce the cost of fresh food to the customer by half, and reduce damage to the environment by much more when factoring in water and carbon emissions. We don’t want to harvest the product until it’s ready to eat, we want to ship living produce much shorter distances, we want to re-engage the consumer to take part in our food system. We want to make fresh, healthy food affordable and accessible to everyone.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
It was an experience when I was on my farm in Texas. It was the first harvest and I pulled a radish out of the ground, I wiped the dirt off on my jeans, and I took a bite. It was an incredible feeling. I knew then it was something that I needed to give to other people. I knew it was something that had been missing in my life, and probably in others lives. I realized just how completely removed almost all of us are from nature. There is a sense of bliss when you grow your own food. That feeling can’t be explained in a business plan, but it’s a feeling that is absolutely there, and I want to give people that experience — the feeling of being on a farm, and witnessing the wonders of nature.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The three character traits I think that were most instrumental to my success are:
- Limitlessness — I’m not limited by any mental constructs of what’s possible — whether it be of what I can do as a human, or of what my team could do, or spearheading a disruption of an industry. It’s being aware of, but not being anchored by legacy institutions. When I set out to start Lettuce Grow, people thought it was crazy given I had no previous experience in agriculture or “modern farming,” but I also heard the same “that’s crazy” remarks when I set out to launch my previous company, YellowJacket Software, and just four years after launching the company had 98% market share. I believe it all has to do with being limitless and not seeing boundaries.
- Grit / Perseverance — When you’re trying to drive real change through an innovative start-up, there are many obstacles and at times it can be overwhelming. There are day-to-day problems, which tend to be easy to cross-off the to-do list. Then there are existential problems, which tend to be the problems people end up procrastinating on or ignore. I hit the existential problems head-on. I prioritize the most challenging problems first in order to break down barriers.
- Empathy — To create significant change for the masses, to launch an innovation that completely transforms an industry, and in order for it to be successful, you have to really connect with the individual that is going to adapt to that change. It is important to understand the mindset of the customer, the mindset of your team, and understand the mindset of your community — to have a complete mind meld. It’s a foundational requirement for large-scale success that the change is propagated by the masses.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Start before you are ready.” and “Nothing great comes from not trying to achieve great things.”
I never set out to start a sustainable business, I set out to solve a problem. And the problem around the food system is really one that involves our everyday quality of life, the impact on the environment and ultimately our survival as species on this planet.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
In order to help accomplish the mission to make growing with a Farmstand accessible to everyone, we created Lettuce Give. Through a wide range of community partnerships, school-based initiatives, and our 1-for-10 donation program, Lettuce Give works to provide a fair chance for everyone to live healthier, more sustainable lives.
With the Farmstand, we are not only providing families access to clean, unprocessed food, we are also decreasing carbon emissions, drastically reducing water usage, eliminating food waste and upcycling ocean-bound plastics. Above all, we are reconnecting individuals to locally grown and sourced foods — creating conscious consumers who will lead the transition to a new food system, better for people and the environment.
Also being a dad of two young kids, the Farmstand has changed their lives. They love talking to their little friends about it. This makes me proud that I know I’m doing something right!
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Modern Farming. It seems that most industries have all converted to tech and modernized their old ways. Can you share with our readers a few of the ways that modern farming has modernized? Can you share how tech has improved your business model?
Farming has undergone quite a bit of modernization in the past half century or so. A lot of the modernization has been around our use of chemicals — fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides — and genetic engineering. Many of these techniques have helped create incremental productivity gains for industrialized farming but have come at a cost to our health and the environment. And with the huge amount of food waste in the system, which results from centralized growing, and the far distances produce must travel, there are so many resources spent, so many resources wasted. It’s a disservice to the environment, to the customers, and to the farmers.
We are spearheading a new type of modern farming called distributed farming. This has the potential to create huge efficiencies by looking at the overall systems architecture of where produce is grown and how it ends up where it is consumed. Think solar for food production.
With our model of starting the seedling at the farms, we can achieve tremendous efficiencies. We start baby plants at farms, then send them directly to the end consumer to then finish the growing process in their hydroponic system on-site until it’s ready to be eaten. Because the farms are only growing seedlings, they would be able to grow 100x more produce per square foot. This also means that the farms can be set up easily in metropolitan areas, resulting in less distance traveled and a reduction in carbon emissions. It also means virtually all waste could be eliminated as produce would be living and growing until eaten! You don’t need all the chemicals. Plus the water usage with our hydroponic system is less than 98% of what you’d need for conventional growing.
While this does not apply to all fruits and vegetables (we can grow anything that’s not a tree, bush, or root veggie) our current growers choose from a wide selection of 200+ varieties consisting of veggies (broccoli, bell peppers, zucchini, jalapenos), fruits (strawberries, cucumbers), leafy greens (kale, spinach, bok choy, romaine), and herbs (basil, sage, mint, thyme) to eat from their Farmstand.
Through innovative systems architecture and technology, we’ve been able to make the growing process super easy for consumers to use. It takes them only 5 minutes a week. They are able to grow super easily because we do all the calculations on the back-end.
Do you think modernization for farming is a slower process than for other industries? Can you explain what you mean?
No, I don’t think modernization for farming is slower. It just received less attention until recently. For the past several years there has been a lot of incremental productivity gains (think improvements in quantity) in farming. However, it hasn’t gained as much mainstream attention until now because of the role in climate change, groundwater issues, waste, and the protection of land and our environment.
There is a new, younger, generation that values quality over quantity. They also are asking more questions, demanding transparency, and they have higher expectations. I do think that this is a critical time that we need to be thinking big and taking big steps to change the food industry, like distributed farming.
Where should a young person start if they would like to “get into” farming?
It’s simple to start, and there are different degrees or steps of “getting into” farming. I highly recommend to start when you’re young, and to start growing at home. It’s a large reason why I started Lettuce Grow and engineered the Farmstand specifically to have certain aspects that reflect traditional farming. For example, when you pull the harvest out of the Farmstand, you see the roots and you can understand the plant growth. You can tell a lot from the roots.
If a young person feels farming is the right field for them, I recommend experimenting with other types of growing techniques such as soil-based agriculture. If they want to continue, then find an experienced farmer in the region they want to grow. It can be an apprenticeship for a season or longer since there is a lot to learn. On the one hand, you need to know about different soils, different microclimates, and different varieties that will grow. On the other hand, you need to learn consumers’ tastes/preferences, the farmers market, about the local community, and where there are opportunities in the market. I recommend taking it in gradual steps so it doesn’t feel overwhelming.
If you’re a parent with young kids, then it’s perfect to expose them at an early age. With our Farmstand, this can be an easy on-ramp for a young person to “get into” farming. With my own kids, they are excited from the moment the seedlings arrive. They have fun placing the seedlings directly into our Farmstand. They see this tiny seedling harvest into something magical in about 3 weeks. They love the experience, and it teaches them about patience, about seasons, and to appreciate food in a new way.
The idea of farming has a very romantic and idyllic character to it, especially to some people living in a busy cosmopolitan context. Do you think now would be a good time for younger people with no farming history to get involved in the farming industry? Can you explain what you mean?
Now is definitely a good moment for younger people to get involved in the farming industry. I see farmers as the most admirational profession. They are the true caretakers of our land. They are in-tune with nature, the seasons, and they have a pure instinct to protect the land, and ultimately our environment. And yes, there is a true sense of beauty and magic with farming.
It’s important to note that farming, and to be a farmer, is also like running a small business and being the CEO. I relate it to being an entrepreneur in another field. With farming, there is a lot to discover along the way. It can be unpredictable, you can be forced to make pivots and change directions. You need marketing, sales, logistics — it’s as viable and exciting, as it is tough as any other business. The rewards are those romantic aspects, but those romantic aspects make doing the work worth it. We need more stewards of the land, so now is always a good time to start.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We are on multiple social media platforms including:
Instagram — @lettucegrow
YouTube — https://www.youtube.com/lettucegrow
Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/LettuceGrow/
As well as subscribing to our Lettuce Grow newsletter at www.lettucegrow.com.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.