By Gregory Daurer | Jan 17, 2021
"We're on a quest to develop a way to provide fresh, organic, and nutritionally-healthy food -- and at the same time reduce use of the earth's water and other valuable resources," says Walker.
Furthering that pursuit, Walker cites his company's Vertical Hydroponic Farm (VHF). Within an insulated steel container -- measuring 40' long by 8' wide by 9' high -- 4,100 plants can be grown within containers that fit into the farms' vertical walls, while another 3,800 plants are in the sprouting stage. LED lights generate the plants' growth, while a computer system monitors the conditions. Drip lines, running down from the top of the walls, provide water directly to the roots of the plants. When plants are harvested, they can be instantly replaced with immature ones, continuing the year-round growing cycle -- from planting to harvest in 51 days.
While measuring 320 square feet of space, Walker says his company's VHF generates the equivalent of "two acres of land." Furthermore, there's "98 percent less water usage than traditional farming." And depending on where the VHF is located, that can mean fresher, longer-lasting produce. Oftentimes, supermarket lettuce, grown long distances from the stores themselves, stays fresh for only about two to three days after a customer gets it home. But Walker says of lettuce grown in a VHF and then placed by the stores into trays in which the roots continue to receive nutrients, "Our experience is 20 to 25 days after we pull it out of our tubes, it's still fresh."
That's particularly appealing for a store like Natural Grocers, which has one of FarmBox Foods' vertical farms on its grounds in Lakewood. Within the indoor farm, the store cultivates romaine lettuce, red fire lettuce, chives, cilantro and basil. Walker says his company is selling Natural Grocers another two VHFs: one for its Wheat Ridge store and another for a location in New Mexico.
And then there's Centura Health, which has a VHF on its hospital grounds at Saint Mary-Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo. Instead of paying more than $1 for a head of lettuce from a food distributor, it can now grow lettuce onsite for around 15 cents a head, according to Walker. A second VHF will be stationed at Porter Hospital, and there's discussions about a third being operated by FarmBox and used to distribute food to two other medical centers, as well as the local community around Sedalia.
In addition to the VHF, the company also sells its Gourmet Mushroom Farm (GMF), which Walker calls "the first product of its kind in the world -- no other container farming company has this [type of] product." According to the company's web site, customers "can grow up to 400 pounds [per week] of oysters, shiitake, lion's mane, and many others, all within a 40-foot shipping container. Everything you need for cultivation is included in our farm: substrate preparation and sterilization, positive pressure cleanroom, and incubation and fruiting space."
Walker says a French company has contracted to buy the very first GMF to supply specialty fungi to its grocery stores in Tahiti. He adds, "If everything goes well, then they'll be ordering anywhere from 10 to 15 containers for the surrounding islands [where] they have grocery stores."
The units sell for around $125,000 each, and the company generated about $900,000 in revenue in 2020. In 2021, Walker anticipates earning will be "around $12 million, because now we're going to scale." Walker adds, "The government and the military are big potential markets for us, as well as hospitals [and hotel chains]." By 2022, Walker says, "I think we're going to be looking at [selling] somewhere around 600 containers a year." For potential customers, the company estimates the ROI on its vertical farm is 15 months, and it's a year on its mushroom farm.
The company -- started by Tony English -- developed its prototypes by repurposing shipping containers. The containers, which will soon be acquired brand new, are presently being outfitted by RK Mission Critical in Aurora. (The computer-control systems are designed by Agrowtek.) Walker says of outsourcing the production, "That's going to allow us to spend our time on [developing] the next generation of what we're going to have coming out." As examples, he cites smaller versions of the VHF and GHF, which he likens to an "IKEA closet," so people can grow their own vegetables or mushrooms at home.
Walker proposes how FarmBox Foods can contribute to the greening, so to speak, of food deserts: "One of our goals it to have these farms sitting in the inner cities of our country, where we can have the communities participate in growing food -- and having nutritious food distributed among those that ordinarily don't have access to that."
He adds, "Our motto is: 'Feeding the world, one container at a time.'"
Challenges: "Our biggest barrier is getting people to see farming in a different light," says Walker. "Most people don't envision farms as existing within a metal box in a fully-controlled environment."
Opportunities: Expanding markets in drought-prone regions. "The Middle East is going to run out of water in ten years," says Walker. "It's going to be bad."
Needs: Walker says the company already has sufficient funding, it has a dedicated sales force, and it has products that corporate customers want. So, the greatest need is simply to actualize the plans the company has already drawn-up. "We just need to go about the business of business," says Walker.