Can we say FreshBox Farms thinks outside the box with its vertical farming technology? Or perhaps the Millis-based company thinks inside the box, too, as the produce from this technology grows in containers.
However you want to say it, FreshBox Farms is making news. The company is currently undergoing a major expansion designed to help its vertical farm stay on track to become one of the nation’s largest modular hydroponic growers. The sustainable hydroponic farm will increase its capacity by 70 percent to approximately 40,000 square feet of indoor growing space.
The expansion, set to be completed next month, comes in response to growing demand through its new direct-to-consumer strategy via partnerships in the region, says CEO Sonia Lo.
The new space will include the implementation of new hyper-efficient vertical farming infrastructure in addition to FreshBox Farm’s current traditional container-based technology, and will produce 33 percent more crops in the same square footage, and with lower energy and labor costs, says Lo.
“This increased capacity means that while we continue to be the most efficient vertical farming operation in the country, we are on track to continue to work toward being one of the largest,” she adds.
Founded in 2013, FreshBox Farms uses controlled environment hydroponics to create its produce. “Some call it indoor farming, others know it as hydroponics,” says Lo. “We call it the future of farming. Our system uses no soil, very little water, controlled light and a rigorously tested nutrient mix created by plant scientists on staff to produce the freshest, cleanest, tastiest produce possible. Our nutrient mix, in particular, is something in which we pride ourselves because our agricultural waste water is entirely potable and cleaner than tap water.
“Our goal is enhancing our growing methodology,” Lo continues, “and the key to the company’s success is efficiency and cost.”
As for the industry as a whole, vertical farming is a $6 billion market and it is estimated that 50 percent of lettuce/greens will move indoors by 2030.
FreshBox Farms is the first company in the United States to use specialized enclosures, which offer an expected 30 percent-plus reduction in energy use via proprietary combinations of off-the-shelf hardware and more efficient nutrient distribution and air flows, says Lo.
“We are constantly exploring new technologies, new strategies, new avenues to reach consumers, and demand continues to increase as people insist on fresh, healthy and safe foods for their family table,” Lo says. “We’re using great science to grow great food because we care deeply about improving our food supply.”
In other news, while FreshBox Farms’ product line has always been free of genetically modified organisms, it is now Non-GMO Project verified. The organization provides North America’s only independent verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance.
Certification includes required ongoing testing of at-risk ingredients, rigorous traceability and segregation practices to ensure ingredient integrity and thorough reviews of ingredient specification sheets to determine the absence of GMO risk. Verification is maintained through an annual audit, along with onsite inspections for high-risk products.
Product packaging will include the Non-GMO Project logo starting this week.
Lo recently discussed FreshBox Farms with Daily News staff writer Bob Tremblay.
Question: Who is the owner?
Answer: We have 37 investors who have put money into the business to create a truly transformative way of growing produce.
Q: Why was the business started?
A: The business was started to grow cleaner, fresher produce.
Our lettuce in America is sprayed with pesticides, herbicides and algaecides, then washed with saltwater and sometimes chemicals. A chemical residue is unavoidable and dangerous to human health.
The salt residue results in more than 5,000 times a greater salt deposit on the leaves than our hydroponic growing. Also, field-grown greens draw nitrates from the soil, which means that your daily salad can have the same level of nitrates as smoked meats. Soil-less hydroponic growing results in low-nitrate produce.
Most lettuce in the United States comes from California or Arizona, and if you live on the East Coast, this means your lettuce is 12-15 days old by the time it gets to the store, and older when it hits your plate. This is not fresh produce, but an industrialized product that has had its growing centralized and relies on an enormous, carbon-intensive refrigerated distribution infrastructure. We grow locally so that our customers can have lettuce that is no more than a day old when it hits the grocery store, and fresh at restaurants and food delivery companies.
Q: Why did you choose your current locale?
A: We chose the Boston area because it is the furthest major metropolitan center away from California, hence it has some of the worst and most expensive lettuce in the country.
Q: What did you do before you started this business?
A: Our team pursued a number of different passions before joining FreshBox Farms. We have investors, entrepreneurs, lighting experts, plant scientists and former chefs among our leadership team.
Q: What does your company do or sell?
A: We grow baby lettuces, spinach, arugula and herbs.
Q: What makes you different from the competition?
A: Our lettuce is fresher and free of all chemicals. We are also environmentally responsible in our water use with less than 1 percent of the water use as traditional, field-grown agriculture.
Q: What is the price of your product or service?
A: We sell packaged greens in clam shells. These retail for $3.99 per unit.
Q: What is your yearly revenue?
A: We are currently growing our sales at double-digit percentages every month. That trend will only pause while we wait for more production capacity to come on line.
Q: Any future plans?
A: We intend to expand at the Millis site until that farm is at the top 5 vertical farming industry scale size. After this, we are looking at constructing large farms in the New York City, mid-Atlantic and San Francisco areas in the next year. We also intend to broaden the vegetables and herbs we grow, and include fruits.
Q: How many employees do you have?
A: We have 22 employees.
Q: Any news to report?
A: In addition to the Non-GMO Project verification, we received certification by the Commonwealth Quality Program for food safety.