How GROWx works towards local and sustainable food supply worldwide
GROWx, the first commercial vertical farm in the Netherlands, produces microgreens for our country’s top restaurants. In the next three years, they’re building twenty-five plants across the globe to fulfill their main goal: to supply cities with healthy and sustainable food.
In our podcast Innovative Leaders by INFO, CEO Ard van de Kreeke shares how and why he grows vegetables vertically. He talks about his passion for plants, how he uses technology to grow healthy and delicious food and how vertical farming can help solve the world food problem.
Farm, factory or tech company?
In 2019, organic farmer Ard van de Kreeke takes over the reins at GROWx. A start-up which founder John Apesos founded from a high-tech vision for sustainable food supply. Van de Kreeke brings a new perspective and works from the heart, from his passion for the plant that ends on your plate.
“We’re becoming more and more data-driven and high-tech, but in the end we’re still a farm.”
We’re wondering where our food is coming from in ten years’ time. “From the factory.” is the clear answer. Because according to Van de Kreeke, farms in the Netherlands are being run like a factory. He explains: “Growing greens is being guided completely, meaning you know exactly what you’re doing and that you can influence many aspects.”
Growing greens is a complicated exercise. You depend on nature when growing plants outdoors. With traditional indoor agriculture, like growing tomatoes in a greenhouse, you can steer more aspects. You can switch the lights on when the sun decides to hide behind the clouds. But with vertical farming you fully control the growing environment. Van de Kreeke: “It’s still indoor agriculture, but with even more aspects to influence. In a greenhouse you’re dependent on the sun that influences the climate inside the greenhouse. In a vertical farm you’re in complete control.”
And what does a vertical farm look like, is it a skyscraper filled with vegetables? Van de Kreeke paints us a clear picture of climate cells, each filled with five, ten or fifteen layers of greens. In each layer you can influence the growing environment separately, like water, climate and nutrients. “It allows you to be extremely efficient with your resources, you can steer the plants towards a high vitamin C content or a specific texture or taste.” shares Van de Kreeke.
GROWx uses technology to control and optimize the growing environment, does that make GROWx a tech company? Van de Kreeke doesn’t think so, he sees technology as an important tool to craft great, nutritious and delicious food. “We’re becoming more and more data-driven and high-tech, but in the end we’re still a farm.”
Is GROWx unique, we ask? Van de Kreeke shares that vertical farms have become booming business the last five years and that GROWx is taking the lead in the Netherlands. But vertical farming has its roots in Japan where food safety has been top priority for a long time now. Van de Kreeke explains that food safety means clean and hygienic food production. When you grow greens outdoors, there’s a big chance of bacterial contamination, for example from birds or from organisms living in the soil. With vertical farming you completely exclude this risk.
From microgreens to bags of lettuce
GROWx mostly produces microgreens, garnish herbs for the hospitality sector, small aromatic plants and twigs that grow within two to three weeks. Van de Kreeke: “Chefs use our greens to add the finishing touch to their dishes, to create culinary works of art. Microgreens are high in flavor, look stunning and have high added value.”
Why did they choose microgreens as their launch market? According to Van de Kreeke it’s a matter of choosing the right market to be profitable. “You’re profitable when you can sell your produce in the Netherlands. We’re incredibly efficient in our production in The Netherlands, resulting in the cheapest vegetables in the world.” Growing a head of lettuce in an expensive installation would cost three euros, making the lettuce too expensive for the consumer.
GROWx plans to expand into other markets soon, since the cost price of a vertical farm is decreasing rapidly. In 2017 you needed 4,000 euro per m2 for your climate cells, today cells only ask for 25% of that investment. Energy and labor costs are also decreasing, which altogether brings new perspectives.
Zero waste lettuce
It’s GROWx’s mission to produce sustainable and healthy food. 100 grams of salad grown in a vertical farm provides the same amount of nutrients as 250 grams regular grown vegetables. And those 100 grams grow on a tiny surface: “You only need two or three football fields to provide Amsterdam’s population with healthy food.”
“You only need two or three football fields to provide Amsterdam’s population with healthy food.”
We wonder if vertical farming is the solution for the world food problem? “No, you won’t solve it with a vertical farm,” says Van de Kreeke, “but it’s definitely part of the solution.” He explains that the biggest problem isn’t a shortage of food, but that food is growing in the wrong places. A vertical farm tackles this by producing locally. Van de Kreeke: “Dragging food across the globe is no longer necessary.”
“Dragging food across the globe is no longer necessary.”
Van de Kreeke adds that the ideal location for a vertical farm is right in the distribution center. “Ideally, we’d have a vertical farm in a small corner of the retailer’s distribution center, where we produce zero waste lettuce: tailored to the demand of that retailer, for that day. And we have a tiny footprint, in comparison we’d only need the size of a stamp to produce all the lettuce needed for that location.”
Is GROWx a threat to traditional farms, should they be scared? Van de Kreeke doesn’t think so: “Everybody keeps a function and role in food supply, although we’ll see changes in the ways we fulfill them.” Van de Kreeke also predicts huge changes in the logistics and transport industry, having to tackle challenges like becoming carbon neutral and more local.
Funding is the biggest bottleneck
When asked, Van de Kreeke shares his biggest challenges: liquidity and funding. “You’d like to develop and invest more than you can earn with your running business. You see huge potential to enter markets worldwide, we invented a new technology that brings incredible potential and to realize that you need money. That continues to be the biggest bottleneck in the Netherlands.”
Aren’t investors queuing up to jump on the bandwagon? Van de Kreeke says it has proven to be very hard in the Netherlands, where investors simply don’t have the startup mentality you see in America or England. Luckily, GROWx did onboard a Dutch investor and together they’re rolling out twenty-five plants worldwide in the coming three years. Something that’s easy to do according to Van de Kreeke, since vertical farming is scalable; whether you build one, twenty or hundred farms, the technology stays the same.
We’d like to learn more about the business model that’s going to accommodate this growth. Will GROWx build and run these twenty-plants or will they only deliver the technology? Van de Kreeke shares they’ve chosen for the ‘Farming-as-a-Service’ concept: a model where GROWx builds the farm ‘as a service’ and continues to run it. This allows them to keep access to the data and to keep optimizing the growing environment because “you learn from every plant you grow.” Local partners will be responsible for sales, logistics and human resources, but the farm itself will be completely run from Amsterdam.
“you learn from every plant you grow”
Plans for the future
Van de Kreeke will face new challenges these upcoming three years. “We’ve got the technology and I’m confident about scaling up. Now it’s going to be a matter of having the right organization in place to do the job.” he says. The biggest challenge is going to be growth: “how will I manage our growth, how will I establish our growth safely and how can I maximize our potential.”
Van de Kreeke knows he needs great people to tackle this challenge. His own strengths are his entrepreneurial spirit and business development, now it’s time to create a team of project leaders, operators, people who are going to run the plants.
Ultimately, we ask Van de Kreeke what he hopes to achieve in five years? “To have made a difference in the food chain and food supply worldwide. If we’ve achieved that, then I’m content.”
Would you like to learn more about how Van de Kreeke combines his background in agriculture with high-tech and data, to produce sustainable and healthy food? Listen to the entire podcast Innovative Leaders by INFO here.
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