The Future of Farming May Be Vertical

How Two Young Entrepreneurs Are Bringing a Fresh Perspective to Farming

If all of the world’s farms could be combined, they would create a landmass larger than the continent of South America. That’s according to the new documentary film, “Vertical: The Future of Farming,” which follows several urban and indoor farmers in their quests to create sustainable alternatives to traditional agriculture in response to climate change and loss of farming land.

Two of those farmers are Skyler Pearson and Hugh Neri of Portland, Oregon. Also inventors and entrepreneurs, Pearson and Neri own Nexgarden, a commercial vertical farming company that grows leafy greens and other vegetables and sells them to local restaurants and grocery stores.

Like other vertical farms, theirs uses a fraction of the water needed in conventional irrigation and requires zero pesticides. But Pearson and Neri have gone a step further. Instead of sticking with generic building configurations, they designed a facility that is more energy efficient and also supports a wider range of crops under one roof than standard vertical farms.

We spoke to Pearson and Neri about Nexgarden and why technology-based agriculture has the potential to improve — and perhaps even safeguard — our future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. How does the Nexgarden system work?

SP: We use a high-pressure aeroponics system, which, like hydroponics, is an alternative method of growing. But high-pressure aeroponics is unique because it sprays the plants’ roots systems at specific intervals with a super-fine mist of nutrient solution, which allows the plants to uptake the nutrients they need while also getting enough oxygenation in their roots. That combination makes for really fast and robust growing and lots of good, strong flavor within the plants.

Take us back to the early days. What inspired the idea for Nexgarden?

HN: I was in grad school at Portland State University. In their sustainability and social entrepreneurship programs, the students were tasked with taking an idea for a business — a social enterprise — and developing it into a fully functioning business model by the end of the term. I was intrigued by vertical farming at the time and was wondering why that wasn’t how all plants are grown. So I teamed up with Skyler and we decided to find the best, cheapest way to do it so we could give it more mass appeal and reach a greater audience.

SP: Then we entered an intra-school competition called The Clean Tech Challenge in which different sustainably minded business ideas are put against each other. The winner then goes on to compete in the statewide innovation competition, Invent Oregon. In the Clean Tech competition you’re given a certain sum of money to build a prototype, which we did, and that prototype then ended up winning us Invent Oregon in 2017. After we took first place in Invent Oregon we won a nice little chunk of money and from there we were faced with the decision to just walk away or commit to our idea and start a company. So we decided to go for it.

Then what happened? How did you get started building the business?

HN: We used the money from our Clean Tech and Invent Oregon wins to develop our patent. After that we decided to kind of bootstrap and pay our own way to a larger prototype that would produce enough food for us to start to sell it.

We were working with the general manager of Departure and Urban Farmer, two restaurants in the Nines Hotel in Portland. He had been our mentor during the Clean Tech challenge because we had similar interests. He was super into hydroponics and had his own hydroponics lab down in the basement of the hotel. So once we built our second prototype and were looking for a place to store it and to operate out of, it was kind of a no-brainer. We started working in his lab, which allowed us to sell our produce to his restaurants.

So you were actually growing the food for the restaurants in the basement below. What were the advantages to that?

SP: When we harvest, we literally just bring it right upstairs. That quick delivery makes for a significantly longer shelf life and significantly more lasting flavor. So the quality of the product that they’re putting onto a customer’s table is going to be a lot higher. It’s also convenient. If we’re not around, the chef can just come down and take what he needs. Finally, The Nines offers a platform to share information about why local and vertical farming is important.

What should people know about the value of vertical farming? Why is it important?

HN: First, it’s important because its methods — like hydroponics and aeroponics and high-pressure aeroponics — all radically reduce water consumption. Our aeroponics system actually uses 99 percent less water than an outdoor farm would because we are able to recirculate the water, and the only water that is lost is through evapotranspiration from the leaves of the plant. Also, because of how effective aeroponics and hydroponics are at delivering nutrients to the roots, we use about one third of the fertilizer that an outdoor farm would use and absolutely no pesticides.

SP: A big part of it is climate change. The land that we have is slowly going away, and the population is increasing at a rate that current farming methods aren’t going to be able to sustain. Climate change is inevitably going to produce more droughts and pest problems, and it’s going to be harder to grow outdoors. There’s going to be a lot less room for error if a single hurricane or single drought comes through and an entire crop is lost. Farmers will be left with nothing, jeopardizing their livelihoods.

So why aren’t we seeing vertical farming everywhere?

HN: At the moment, hydroponically and aeroponically grown vegetables are a pricey commodity. The capital expense to build a farm is pretty high and that translates into higher vegetable costs. It’s comparable with high-end organic produce in most markets. But we’re trying to get that down to a conventionally grown produce price. With climate change and population increase there has to be another way for food to be grown in the future. And vertical farming is one of the few ways to do that successfully. I think there is a ton of room for improvement in terms of making it affordable for the masses. The work currently being done is going to allow that to happen in the future.

What have you been growing? What’s been popular with chefs and customers?

SP: We’ve experimented with a bunch of different stuff. Leafy greens are kind of an obvious first, and bok choy has been really successful for us. We’ve also grown beets, and radishes, which were super tasty, as well as green onions and basil, mint, and all sorts of other herbs. Experimenting helps us figure out what our limitations are.

We’ve been working on a grocery-ready consumer product of our unique blend of leafy greens. We have four products in the works: Wild Spicy Mini Greens (radish, red mizuna, green mizuna, mustard, and arugula), Mellow Mama Mini Greens (red kale, pak choi, red cabbage, and broccoli), Sugar Snap Pea Shoots, and Radish Greens. We harvest when these plants are about two weeks old, so they’re extra nutrient dense and packed with flavor. We’ve been selling at farmers markets all around Portland this summer, but the season is coming to an end, so we will be offering “on-farm” sales at our new location in Portland’s South Waterfront neighborhood.

We have our “beta farm” for technology testing — we received a $74,000 grant from Business Oregon in 2019 to develop this small-scale farm, about the size of a tiny home. And then we also have a low-tech “shipping container farm” that we are using for greens production. Our farms can be seen from the road, so we plan on opening our version of an urban farm stand where people can buy our leafy greens, and potentially even just grab a quick salad for lunch.

What have been the challenges you’ve faced as young entrepreneurs? Skyler, you’ve also talked to policymakers in Washington about challenges for women entrepreneurs in particular.

HN: Being a young entrepreneur is tough. But even more so, just being a first- time entrepreneur means there are more barriers to overcome. When you haven’t had tons of experience, there is more of an expectation to prove yourself or your capabilities. That can be really hard, and it is a struggle to see doors open for others and not for you.

SP: I had the opportunity to travel to DC and participate in a roundtable discussion with Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) to discuss the specific challenges that women face in entrepreneurship. It was both eye opening, painful, and also empowering to see the other strong women I was surrounded by. Besides the expected gender barriers that come from a male dominant system, we also discussed the social and logistical challenges of being a woman. One example of this is the enormously high cost of child care, paired with the social stigma around being a working mother and a lack of comprehensive maternity and paternity leave coverage from most employers. We know these challenges will be ones we have to grapple with our whole careers, but we feel ready to take them on.

Talk about the support you’ve received for Nexgarden.

SP: We’ve gotten tons of support from all over the community, including from Portland State University and The Lemelson Foundation. We also got a grant from Business Oregon that was huge for us. We wouldn’t be where we are without all of that and we’re super grateful. We’re also participating in PIE, the Portland Incubator Experiment. We get office space through them and then access to a whole network of mentors. And as you can see, one good mentor can really drive development for you.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work and business model?

HN: Working through the pandemic has been very interesting for us and posed unique challenges. We were on track to be generating revenue, but when the pandemic hit, most of our restaurant customers disappeared or significantly decreased their orders, and the farmers markets turnout was extremely low. This caused us to have to shift and completely re-think how we were going to get our product sold and how we would reach customers, which is what has led us to sell directly to consumers at the farm. We are constantly adapting to the changing conditions and it has definitely been tough, but we are making it work.

The Oregon wildfires have also been a major disruptive force for agriculture in the state. Have you seen an affect on vertical farming?

SP: The wildfires have been a perfect example of the opportunity of indoor and vertical farming. During the hardest part of the fires, most farms were at a stand still because it was harmful to be outside. We were still able to operate, seed, harvest, and sell our product to customers despite the erratic conditions. With continued climate change, events like this will unfortunately be more and more common, and indoor farming provides one way to maintain stability in our food supply.

Where does Nexgarden go from here? What impact would you like to have?

SP: Right now we’re building our next beta farm. It’s going to be its own facility — a scaled-down version of what our full farms will be. From there, we will be working on all of the internal automation development that our farms will utilize. We hope to expand our leafy green production over the next year to support our engineering staff and eventually work our way up to building Nexgarden’s first full scale farm.

As for impact, I think that what Hugh and I both really want out of Nexgarden is to build something powerful enough to make a difference. Something that could really change the way that the industry works right now and create a whole new segment within commercial agriculture — something that’s going to be better for the environment, and better for you know, the people of the world.

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