This year’s Indoor Ag-Con took place from May 2 to 4 in Las Vegas. In addition to workshops and a trade show, attendees had the chance to hear from different industry leaders on topics such as how to hire staff for urban farms and whether or not aquaponics has gained traction in the produce industry. Some attendees also had the chance to tour a new, high-tech growing facility in Las Vegas.
Hiring for urban agriculture
Like many other parts of the green industry, many urban and/or vertical farms consider labor to be one of their primary concerns. Even in some densely populated areas — New York City, for example — some growers have had a hard time meeting staffing needs.
At Indoor Ag-Con, a panel addressed these two concerns. Two business owners — Tobias Peggs, cofounder and CEO of Brooklyn greens grower Square Roots, and Nona Yehia, the co-founder and CEO of Jackson Hole, Wyoming grower Vertical Harvest — offered their insights into how to combat labor concerns.
According to Peggs, Square Roots has developed an environment that people want to work in and that sets people up for future success. For new employees who may or may not have a traditional horticulture background, Square Roots has a 12-month program that teaches employees how to grow; it comes with a salary, freedom to innovate and the chance to learn from experienced growers. Peggs believes the program is designed to build up people who invest themselves into it, citing employees who have gone to work for start-ups like Plenty or as independent urban farms owners; many employees also stay at Square Roots after the initial 12-month program. As for Yehia, she says turnover is the biggest issue her business faces. However, they work to combat this issue, and find a stable workforce, by approaching it from two fronts. The first is promoting the idea that Vertical Harvest is working to positively impact the world, and the idea that people want to work somewhere that is offering the community a service. Secondly, she says Vertical Harvest engages with Jackson Hole’s community and offers people with disabilities a job that provides them an opportunity to develop real-world skills.
One panel at Indoor Ag-Con asked when aquaponics would gain traction. According to the panel — which consisted of Jason Green from Brooklyn-based grower Edenworks, Tracy Nazzaro from Hilliard, Florida grower Traders Hill Farm and Rebecca Nelson from Aquaponics manufacturer Nelson & Pade Aquaponics — it already is.
Green, whose business is primary customer is Whole Foods locations in New York City, says Edenworks’ model is to rebuild the supply chain with on-demand fulfillment. He says Edenworks can deliver greens in a third of the time it would take a field operation to grow the same amount. Nazzaro says having a sustainable growing method and contributing to the local food economy are reasons why aquaponics work. She also cites Wisconsin grower Superior Fresh, who will soon open the largest aquaponics facility in the U.S., as proof that aquaponics can be a profitable business model.
The key for continued growth, Nelson says, is educating the public about aquaponics and making it accessible. Both she and Nazzaro says new crop development will also be key to aquaponics’ future growth.
The future in plain sight
New to Indoor Ag-Con this year was a tour to Oasis Biotech’s facility in Las Vegas. Owned by Oasis’ parent company, Sanan Bio, the facility uses clean-room grow rooms to produce leafy greens. To enter the grow rooms, workers must wear protective suits that aim to prevent any outside contaminants from affecting the crops. The facility also features research and development labs that will pull data points from different trial areas — starting with propagation and ending with the final harvest — to determine which varieties are performing the best.
Oasis Biotech is still in the trial phase and may not begin taking orders from Las Vegas-area restaurants until this summer at the earliest. But when it does, it will be able to dedicate different grow rooms to different restaurants in downtown Las Vegas that request a specific product. It also already has a retail brand — Evercress — that will launch when the company is ready to take its production out of the trial stage.