The future of agriculture with Plenty CEO Matt Barnard
We’re in the thick of our CEO Summit here at Pebble Beach where we get elbow-to-elbow with over 150 CEOs in our portfolio and host inspirational leaders like Jerry Yang, founding partner AME Ventures and co-founder of Yahoo!, Victor Koo, Chairman of Heyi Ventures and founder of Youku, and Jeff Housenbold, managing partner Softbank Vision Fund.
We started the day out with Bloomberg’s Selina Wang interviewing Plenty CEO Matt Barnard about the company and its vision. Selina wrote about the company’s recent $200 million Series B funding led by Softbank Vision Fund back in July, which was the largest agriculture technology investment in history and has visited Plenty’s vertical farm herself. She attests that the produce grown there “is in fact tastier than what you get at Whole Foods.” We think so too.
Here are some tasty tidbits from the conversation.
Can you just give us a little context on Plenty and the problems that it’s trying to solve?
What we’re building is hyper efficient agriculture. We are growing food at field scale, inside. Imagine a building the size of a couple of soccer fields and inside there are fields of plants growing sideways off of what appear to be vertical walls. It’s very dense plant life, as far as you can see, growing 20 to 30 feet in the air. The U.S. imports 28 percent of our fruit and vegetable consumption, but without the State of California we’d be importing 75 percent. That 28 percent is rising rapidly because we’ve run out of land where it’s affordable to grow these crops.
There have been a lot of vertical farms that have shut down. The ones that are standing are not attempting anything as ambitious as Plenty. Why is Plenty different?
There are a lot of factors that make us different. Industries as old and established as agriculture take decades to remake. We have been iterating at field scale. Rather than A/B testing at the plant level, we have been standing up architectures for field scale growing, testing, learning, tearing them down and building them anew. The commoditization of core technology commodities like LED lights, IoT sensors, machine learning and cloud computing is moving at such a rate that if you don’t design systems that are flexible to take advantage of those ongoing commoditizations, you get stuck. We’ve built that flexibility into our system.
Why does the product taste so much better?
First, agriculture is a manufacturing business, but outside people are running manufacturing businesses they don’t control. We’ve created a manufacturing environment in which we can impose full control. And we’ve taken the existing field to shelf chain and cut weeks and thousands of miles, as well as many handling steps along the way. We at Plenty eliminate the time, distance and lack of control rather than the flavor and nutrition. So, the first thing that’s different is that we don’t grow the same crops that you’re used to finding in the store, because those weren’t bred, engineered and grown for your enjoyment. They were bred and engineered to travel thousands of miles and weeks in trucks. Plenty grows food for people…we don’t solve for trucks. We will never grow iceberg lettuce, for instance, because it has zero flavor, and zero nutrition. It exists because it can be transported under hundreds of pounds of ice for thousands of miles. Our sweet, nutritious lettuce, would be unsaleable if shipped 3,000 miles. So we don’t. When you cut thousands of miles out of the supply chain, you no longer have to solve that problem. Plenty grows sweet, delicious varieties. We grow strawberries that are high in sugar and acid which makes them exciting to eat. We grow tomatoes that are so addictive you’d eat all of them before you could put them in a salad. We start with different varieties developed over centuries to taste great, then we give those plants exactly what they need to thrive.
Jeff Bezos’s personal VC fund is also an investor. How do you see Plenty’s produce fitting into the future of food e-commerce delivery?
We’re excited. At the moment people see fresh produce as what it is — unreliable. It’s also the most expensive calorie in the grocery store, but it still drives six times more traffic into the grocery store than the next highest traffic driver except milk and its 3x higher than milk. Online though, people are still not buying produce since they don’t trust an unreliable and expensive product that they can’t see with their own eyes. We can drive down the cost of nutrients and calories and deliver a consistently higher quality product that people can come to rely on, which would eliminate the concern that they are wasting their money on an unpredictable product. This is what online grocery needs in order to take off.
What does the future of farming look like in your mind?
It will be a mix. It’s on a crop-by-crop basis. The field, I believe, will continue to exist for all the crops that are there now. But there are crops, like lettuce and strawberries, for which it doesn’t make sense to continue to grow most of the crop in the traditional way. It doesn’t make sense from an energy perspective, given all that dirty truck fuel to cart lettuce heads and strawberries thousands of miles, nor does it make sense to spend 15 gallons of water on a head of lettuce when less than one fifth of a gallon will do the job. The number of crops we can grow at what we call “field parity,” straight up against the field, is growing quarter by quarter. So the answer I have today is very different than the answer I had even one year ago, and I expect that we’ll continue to surprise ourselves.