UP Vertical Farms: Unconventional in every sense
Nothing is conventional about UP Vertical Farms. There are no field workers. There is no sun. There is no rain. There is no dirt. There is no waste. There are no pesticides. Plants sprout as close as the hairs on your head. Various leafy greens are mixed at planting, not after harvest. Soon, consumers across a vast continent will be buying fresh “locally grown” UP Vertical greens.
After a decade of planning and research, this month UP Vertical Farms is selling its first leafy greens. Based in Pitt Meadows, B.C., the highly sophisticated indoor high-density, vertical farming operation is now shipping to large Western Canada retailers. Working with its sales and marketing partner Oppy, the firm’s first production facility will soon be expanding sales to the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
UP Vertical Farms is owned by Fresh Green Farms, an agriculture technology company founded by brothers Bahram and Shahram Rashti. As the first shipments were leaving his splendid operation, Bahram Rashti spoke in depth with FreshFruitPortal about the many features and benefits of this highly sophisticated Controlled Environment Agriculture operation.
Within years, UP Vertical expects to be operating as many as ten production facilities to serve retailers across Canada and the United States’ East Coast and Midwest.
The unique production concept has long been tested. Bahram Rashti says that going forward with an aggressive expansion plan, building new facilities will be a matter of “cut and paste” of what took ten years to fine tune.
The facility is fully automated. Human workers’ purpose at the plant is to assure automation is correctly operating. Greens are seeded, harvested and packed by machines. Customized LED lights, temperature, humidity, water and nutrient-controlled systems are so efficient that yields are 350 times that of conventional field-grown greens. Each year, one facility will produce approximately two million pounds — or 6.3 million bags — of baby leafy greens and leafy greens.
To get to this point, Rashti notes, “We studied the industry to see where the issues were, both in regard to production and distribution. We observed our competitors, learning what we could to improve our own methods.” The Rashti’s worked with their partner, Oppy, which is part of the Dole plc family, the world’s largest fruit and vegetable producer. “We have access to that expertise in the industry and they’re guiding us as to what we can and should do; what works best in line with industry issues. With that, we designed our system to face those problems while also supplying in a consistent fashion year round.”
Bahram Rashti, who identified the need for fresh produce access in remote Canadian communities during his dental residency over a decade ago, says that “Retailers are jumping on board,” for UP Vertical’s first commercial crop. Those buyers understand “the value we’re bringing. We’re providing clean, consistent, pesticide-free food that is affordable for many reasons, with one being its extended shelf life.”
As the firm goes live, it is supplying retail shelves from British Columbia to Alberta, Saskatchewan and all the way to Manitoba. Before long the Pitt Meadows facility will also be serving Oregon, Washington and Idaho. That combined market has a population of 19.3 million.
This business is built on the Rashti brothers’ combined expertise in biology, information technology and business. “Before we started, we knew that the leafy greens market would have issues in the years to come. We did the math then the research and realized there would be an intersection in supply versus demand, especially with the events going on related to climate change and production out of California and Arizona.” Anticipating a period of short supply for leafy greens, “we designed and built a commercial scale solution to capture and replace that market; to fill that gap and contribute to food security issues that are happening in North America as a result.”
UP Vertical Farms built a research facility to produce samples and painstakingly identify and perfect varieties and seeds to please potential retail customers. He stresses “we worked backwards.” The first production was not created in order to visit chains with the message: “’Now that we have this product, will you taste it and please supply it to the market?’ We worked in parallel with Oppy, which has worked with retailers for five years now on our products.” The three-way collaboration got samples in retailers’ hands for feedback to meet market needs such as ideal taste, product length, width and crunchiness. “As a result, we accommodated our systems accordingly so what we are producing now is what the market requires.”
UP Vertical Farms can fully customize packs specific to individual retailers’ and restaurants’ needs. Because crops are grown in a 13- to 21-day period, blends can very quickly be tailored and will keep pace with ongoing trends.
The blends for each SKU are planted on floating foam rafts using an exclusive soil blend, with mixed seeds immediately adjacent to one another. With each seed receiving ideal inputs, there is a very short growth cycle with very high density yields.
When other company’s mixed greens are combined for packaging in a bag, the mixing unto itself bruises the product and reduces shelf life. Rashti adds, “We get over three weeks of shelf life on our product because we figured out how to grow them altogether, very dense, and full of nutrition, without anybody touching the product because it’s all automated. As a result, we just harvest and put it in the bag right away. It is ready for consumption.”
Consistently, UP Vertical checks for microorganisms and other food safety concerns.
Rashti lightly comments, “My wife doesn’t know the true extent of our expansion, but I’ll be busy for many years to come. Our intention was always to build this on a commercial scale and always to grow rapidly. The intent is to go across to eastern Canada right away and then come down south as well. Because at the end of the day we are working with the largest retail chains in North America. They are getting our samples and say they would rather have a reliable supply all year round with people that can produce at this scale and have a national product all across the continent. That’s what we’re doing now. And we’re creating collaborations and partnerships and raising equity. We’re just starting to do that. Because we perfected the model and the system, we can just copy and paste, based on population, demand and the need to expand quickly and provide fresh clean food to North America.”
Historically such production was based on California climate, which has always been a central growing and distribution source for supplying North America with leafy greens and countless other products. Rashti says, “What we have done is decentralized that model and are building to feed specific regions, we can then build facilities near different populations to be able to service the needs of that region and with little transport cost.”
Furthermore, UP Vertical minimizes the time for consumers to receive their greens after harvest. This is important because leafy greens’ nutritional value declines within three days of harvest. “People are not aware of that. So, by the time they’re eating it they may not be getting the nutrition that they’re looking for. Whereas when we grow it, harvest and distribute it right away to the region, people will be able to eat it within a day or two to receive those benefits.”
By minimizing labor, Rashti notes that as labor costs - and other input expenses – rise “we are able to curb that inflation rate on food, at least in our sector, and not transfer it to the consumer because it’s automated.”
Other savings come because the firm avoids a capital cost through the use of 99% less fertilizer salts and 99% less fresh water “because we filter and re-use almost everything and don’t have anything wasted into the ground or just percolating away.” This is all captured in a hydroponic system, with cleaning and recirculation. Because of the enclosed environment, even no CO2 escapes the UP Vertical system. “We just top off what has been used and that’s what differentiates us from greenhouses.” The system fully controls a closed environment with sophisticated HVAC units.
Given very efficient operations, “we have the end product price being what it needs to be and providing it similar to field grown prices, which is uncommon when you grow it indoors.”
UP Vertical branding
Initially, this begins with six UP Vertical brand SKUs. The current range of blends includes POWER UP™ — a power greens mix to elevate salads to the next level, UP & AWAY™ — a delightful spring mix of sweet and colorful lettuces, TOSS UP™ — a chef-inspired 50/50 blend of red and green lettuces, LIVEN UP™ — a zesty selection of flavorful and aromatic arugula, CHOP UP™ — flavorful and sweet baby choi greens, and STAND UP™ — crisp and fresh baby romaine. Private label is available as well.
What about the roots?
In UP Vertical’s hydroponic production, plant roots extend through floating rafts into the water. Rashti notes these roots are completely clean and nutrient rich. They can be consumed by chickens or cows without any adverse effects. “As a result we can provide them to be used in feed or compost. We produce almost the same amount of roots as we do leafy greens. So there is a huge amount of market there that we will be able to give our products to and there is a lot of interest for that as well. That is another business line.” Eventually, “it will complete the circle fashion of what we’re doing in recyclability and sustainability.”
Bahram Rashti is the co-founder and CEO of Fresh Green Farms and UP Vertical Farms. As a dentist he has a background in biology.
His co-founding brother, Shahram Rashti is executive chairman of Fresh Green Farms and UP Vertical Farms. Shahram has expertise in information technology and a doctorate in business administration.