Moving berries forward

Features - Cover Story

Whether it’s strawberries or other types, the market for controlled environment berries is on the rise.

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August 24, 2020

Photo © Kcline | Adobestock
Blackberries and raspberries growing in a high-tunnel greenhouse
Photo: © Alicia | adobestock

Expanding the berry market

Currently, strawberries are the most common berry crop grown by controlled environment agriculture operations, and the market appears to be growing. According to Produce Grower’s 2020 State of the Industry research, the number of growers producing strawberries increased by 14 percentage points in the last year. Experts in the industry say that products like strawberries that provide the same or better taste as field-grown product, but last longer, are primed to disrupt the market.

“What we’re interested in is beyond the shelf life; we want home life for the customers,” Victor Verlage, senior director of Agriculture Strategy Development at Walmart, said during an Indoor Ag-Con online panel. “We don’t want them to waste produce because it goes bad quickly.”

There are a number of operations — including Mucci Farms, an operation based in Ontario, Canada, and DelFresco Produce, also based in Ontario — that have an established track record of production. There are also production guides — including one from the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, available here – giving growers a detailed look at production costs. Indoor strawberry production, however, isn’t foolproof. A 2017 study from Cornell University that grew strawberries in NFT systems, for instance, found some drawbacks.

“We regularly encountered clogged drip emitters across all systems, which accounted for a majority of the plant loss over the course of the experiment and added significantly to the day-to-day maintenance of the systems,” the study reads. “This, coupled, with the use of synthesized substrates called to question the sustainability of such a practice.” The study also said that the drip-to-drain system was the only one that was successful in aquaponic and hydroponic conditions.

Oishii produces the Omakase berry, created through years of breeding.
Photo courtesy of Oishii

Additionally, the study found that strawberries grown in deep water culture were more susceptible to crown and root rot — issues that strawberry plants are already prone to suffer from.

Other types of berries are on the rise, too. According to our State of the Industry research, growers who are producing blueberries have grown by 8 percentage points, while 8% of growers are producing other types of berries, including raspberries and blackberries.

For blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, high-tunnel container production is the most proven method in a controlled environment vs. field production. While each crop has its own unique growing needs, North American operations are following in the footsteps of European growers, who are already producing various berries in containers.

Oishii recreates the natural ecosystem of Japan's strawberry-producing regions.
Photo courtesy of Oishii

“Raspberry production in Europe has switched primarily to soilless substrate and containers, and you would be hard-pressed to find raspberry grown in field soil,” University of Arkansas researchers Ryan Dickson and Leala Machesney write in a March 2020 e-Gro alert. “This trend is increasing for blackberry as well, and is expanding to North America."

They also noted that growing container berries has similarities to other types of growing.

“Growers of containerized blackberries use soilless substrates similar to those in floriculture, where common substrate components include sphagnum peat, perlite, coconut coir and bark,” they write. “Most crops are watered and fertilized via drip irrigation, with root zone fertility being managed similarly to greenhouse and nursery crops. Crops are typically grown in container sizes up to 30 gallons. Trellising and pruning practices can be similar to those used for field-grown plants, however some growers are experimenting with novel techniques to increase harvesting efficiency.”

However, hydroponic berry production is still far from figured out. In a recent study from the University of Nevada extension, raspberries grown in soil have a 66% survival rate vs. a 33% survival rate for hydroponically grow raspberries. Another note from the study indicates that only 42% of respondents could tell the difference between field grown and hydroponic berries based on taste alone.

In short: There is a clear path forward for various forms of berry production. But, there’s still work to be done.

High-end strawberries

Oishii (Japanese for delicious) is a vertical farming company in New York City known for growing strawberries that cost $50 for an eight-pack. No, really — that’s the actual price.

Founded by Hiroki Koga, the company uses Japanese vertical farming techniques to produce a berry it says has a creamy texture. The company’s primary customers are high-end restaurants, although the berries are available for shipping to certain parts of the city.

We asked Zi Jian Lim, who does business development for Oishii, to answer some questions about the company’s strawberries, their business model and more.

Produce Grower: What is the background of the company? Who started it and why?

Zi Jian Lim: In 2015, Hiroki Koga, one of the co-founders of Oishii, came to the U.S. from Japan and found the produce here to be less flavorful than what he was used to in Japan. After researching the differences, he learned that the U.S. agriculture industry prioritizes yield and shelf life, at times at the expense of taste and nutrition.

Koga found this particularly true of American strawberries, so he set out to bring the finest varieties of Japanese strawberries to the U.S. He knew that because of climate differences, this would not be possible with traditional farming, and embarked on building the first strawberry vertical farm in the U.S. Five years later, Oishii runs the largest strawberry vertical farm in the U.S. and is regularly featured on the menus of the top restaurants in New York.

PG: How does your berry — the Omakase berry — differ from than the traditional strawberry consumers are used to finding on grocery store shelves?

ZJL: Many consumers mention that the Omakase berry looks seedless at first glance. However, on closer inspection, they find that the seeds are deeply dimpled in the face of the berry, giving a richly textured, vivid appearance that varies greatly from a typical strawberry.

Many Americans are taught from a young age that with strawberries, “The redder the better.” This is not the case for all berries. Omakase berries are far lighter than the deep crimson color of most American berries, while featuring a rich luster as opposed to a dull surface.

PG: How did the company develop relationships with the high-end restaurants where the berries are primarily sold?

ZJL: Before launching our product, we conducted countless taste tests with top chefs at restaurants in New York. We let our berries speak for themselves, letting each chef experience the Omakase berry and explore unique recipes to bring out the best of its flavor, aroma and texture. It has been an extremely difficult year for restaurants, especially for their staff. We are working with our partners to weather the coronavirus storm.

PG: What was the initial marketing approach for the berries? How is that different now?

ZJL: Oishii first gained traction in the New York City culinary scene after appearing on the menu of Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, a three Michelin-star restaurant. The Omakase berry attracted gourmet foodies with its exquisite taste and aroma. Word got around on social media, and Oishii quickly amassed a long waiting list of customers looking to try the Omakase berry. Our mission is to grow the best produce possible. We hope to continue to have the product speak for itself and to have delighted consumers share the word to their friends and family.

PG: Could you see the company branching out to sell these in stores or direct-to-consumers in the future?

ZJL: Quality is our foremost concern. In order to ensure the best possible experience, we sell our berries directly to consumers in New York City. For a limited time, customers can pre-order our berries for pick-up at various locations in Manhattan. Going forward, our team is working hard to explore ways of sharing the Oishii experience with a wider audience.