SoftBank-Backed Vertical Farm Is Opening Middle Eastern Facility

(Bloomberg) -- A vertical-farming startup backed by Masayoshi Son’s Vision Fund is building its first overseas outpost -- in the United Arab Emirates.

SoftBank-Backed Vertical Farm Is Opening Middle Eastern Facility

Plenty Inc. plans to start selling locally grown produce, including kale and other leafy greens, to communities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai early next year. The startup, which has a farm in its hometown of San Francisco, says the company’s indoor technology is more efficient than traditional operations and well suited to harsh climates.

Last year’s $200 million investment in Plenty marked Son’s first bet on agriculture. The SoftBank Group Corp. chief is interested in how the 4-year-old startup can help nations grow enough food to support the population. Backers of the almost $100 billion Vision Fund include wealth funds from the Middle East, where drought, population growth and lack of arable land are fueling concerns about food shortages and instability.

SoftBank-Backed Vertical Farm Is Opening Middle Eastern Facility

“It’s in the middle of the desert, it’s hot, and these crops do not like heat,” said Plenty co-founder Matt Barnard, who said SoftBank helped make introductions in the Middle East. “There’s a fast-growing population in Dubai and Abu Dhabi that do not have access to fruits and vegetables.”

Plenty’s newest farm in Abu Dhabi will open in phases and eventually comprise as much as 200,000 square feet, which is a little bigger than the average Walmart supercenter. Barnard said an indoor farm of that size is equivalent to several hundred acres in the field and capable of serving several million people. Reaching full capacity will take a few years, however.

Plenty won’t be the only indoor farm in the Middle East. Agriculture technology company Crop One Holdings and Emirates Flight Catering are starting construction for a 130,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Dubai later this year. The $40 million joint venture will produce three tons of leafy greens, harvested daily, using 99 percent less water than outdoor fields, the companies said.

Vertical farms have been around for several years and have not yet revolutionized agriculture. Skeptics say they’re best suited to growing leafy produce, not “rooting and fruiting” vegetables like carrots, beets and cucumbers. In recent years several indoor farming companies have shut down because they weren’t economically sustainable.

While most vertical farms grow plants on parallel shelves, Plenty uses 20-foot-tall columns from which plants grow out horizontally. Plenty’s scientists have also figured out how to more cheaply remove excess heat emitted by LED grow lights and limit the energy needed to deliver nutrients and water. The company said it can yield as much as 350 times more produce in a given area than conventional farms -- with 1 percent of the water.

Plenty has been delivering produce in the Bay Area since June 1. It’s building an approximately 100,000-square-foot farm in the Seattle area that will start serving customers this year. Plenty also has an office in Laramie, Wyoming, with 55 employees. The company is eliminating almost half of the positions there to focus the location on research and development. Plenty will continue to hire employees there who will focus on plant science.

The company’s backers also include funds that invest on behalf of Alphabet Inc.’s Eric Schmidt and Amazon.com Inc.’s Jeff Bezos.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.