- Indoor farming has become a trend in recent years because it’s a more environmentally friendly way to grow produce.
- Tisha Livingston is president and cofounder of 80 Acres and CEO of Infinite Acres, two companies that are investing heavily in the role of technology in agriculture.
- This article is part of Changemakers’ Playbook, a series that looks at innovation across different industries.
In 2014, Tisha Livingston was hired to help turn around a canned-food company that had gone bankrupt after it accidentally caused a die-off of a local fish population. The company had been rinsing its vegetables, which were grown with phosphorus-heavy fertilizer, into the Illinois River Basin, rendering the water uninhabitable.
“We needed to build a treatment facility for our wastewater and treat it like it was nuclear waste,” Livingston says. “That was my introduction to the amount of nutrients that must be put on vegetables just so they can grow out in the field.”
Today Livingston is the president and cofounder of 80 Acres and CEO of Infinite Acres, two indoor-farming companies dedicated to revolutionizing the way produce is grown and shipped around the globe. Using the latest automation and data technology, Livingston is working to make the world’s fruits and vegetables more nutritious, climate resistant, less environmentally taxing, and better-tasting.
“We’re using less water and fewer natural resources, reducing the carbon footprint, reducing the miles your food has to travel, and not dumping water or causing any kind of runoff,” she says. “Most important, we’re providing a consistent product that people can really rely on.”
Though Livingston and her business partner, Mike Zelkind, are not the first to attempt large-scale indoor farming — also known as vertical farming for the stacks of pallets in which the crops are grown — they do represent a new breed of entrepreneur using novel techniques and partnerships to scale the practice for a global customer base.
“There’s a lot to learn,” she says. “But we believe that through Infinite Acres and 80 Acres, we have a playbook to make indoor farming economically viable and really be able to make an impact globally.”
The great indoors
Livingston and Zelkind started 80 Acres in 2015 with a single vertical farm in a quarter-acre facility outside Cincinnati that could produce 80 acres’ worth of fruits and vegetables. Today it employs 125 people and operates six farms that provide produce to some of the top restaurants and grocery stores in the US, including Kroger and Whole Foods. Last year, 80 Acres delivered more than 2.5 million servings of its produce.
In 2019, they cofounded Infinite Acres, a global joint venture that comprises 80 Acres, the Dutch greenhouse-technology company Priva, and the Ocado Group, the UK’s largest online grocer. The idea is for Infinite Acres to focus on large-scale innovation — like climate control, lighting, and sensor technologies — so 80 Acres can focus on day-to-day operations.
“It takes more than one company to get into indoor farming and really be successful,” Livingston says. “So we decided that we would take all of our knowledge about plant science, climate, and technology and put it into Infinite Acres.”
Infinite Acres is developing farming projects in Shanghai, Canada, Northern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
The inspiration for both ventures came from conversations Livingston had with farmers across the US.
“They would all talk about how their soil was depleted … how they couldn’t really predict what was going to come out of the earth because they couldn’t control their environment,” she says.
Livingston was also struck by how far the food had to travel to reach grocery stores in high-population areas, which forced farmers to breed produce not for taste or nutrition, but to withstand a 2,000-mile journey.
Indoor farming eliminates many of those problems that have long plagued the produce industry. Because indoor farmers have total control over the environment, they can grow a wider variety of vegetables without pesticides, regardless of the season. (80 Acres started out growing only leafy greens but is now the only US operator to grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplants exclusively with LED lights). They can grow more crops on less land and more accurately predict their yields. And because vertical farms can be almost anywhere, produce can be delivered to city grocery stores within hours of harvesting, allowing the farmer to focus on nutrition and taste rather than heartiness.
“It’s about being able to drive nutrition and the product attributes that you want,” Livingston says. “You can’t do that in nature because nature is so unpredictable — the number of heat units, the amount of water, the amount of other nutrition that you’d be able to buy. We can control all of that, and we can control it the same way every time.”
They can even tailor their vegetables to fit local nutritional needs. For example, if a community is suffering from a lack of potassium, 80 Acres can tweak its growing conditions to produce vegetables that contain more of that nutrient.
“My vision is that we are closing the nutrient gaps globally so people can have healthy, nutritious food in every community that wants it,” she says.
At 80 Acres, Livingston leverages a vast array of technology to further improve and streamline indoor farming. Customizable automated LED light systems mimic daylight and maintain ideal temperatures (while using less energy than traditional lights). Giant robots move plant-filled tables on a set schedule — a job that once would have required an army of workers and a fleet of scissor lifts. Small cameras embedded in the crops’ containers allow the growers to keep a close eye on their progress. And state-of-the-art sensors collect every imaginable kind of data.
“Climate information, yield information, where the seed originated from, what the shelf life is — you build these datasets where you can start running optimization models that help you drive yield, nutrition, whatever it is that we’re setting as the end result,” Livingston says. “That’s really where you get to exciting things in indoor farming.”
Farming into the future
Livingston is still passionate about helping farmers of all kinds improve their operations and gain greater control over their output. By partnering with farmers interested in moving part or all of their operations indoors, Infinite Acres offers those growers options for farming well into the future.
“We’re giving them an alternative way to be able to have a year-round income through indoor farming, so they can continue growing, which is clearly their passion,” she says.
Both 80 Acres and Infinite Acres adhere to a philosophy of “the best idea wins,” which incentivizes everyone to think like an owner. For example, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed restaurants and strained produce supply chains in Ohio in the spring, some 80 Acres workers proposed offering a curbside pickup service for the local community. The result is Veg Out, a new direct-to-consumer service that recently won 80 Acres a $100,000 grant from Barclays and the Unreasonable Group. Livingston says she hopes to make Veg Out a permanent part of 80 Acres.
While Livingston is hyper aware of short-term performance and the need to satisfy stakeholders, her eye is ultimately on long-term worldwide change. The trick is building a business that would continue innovating even in her absence.
“Being able to scale your culture is tricky,” she says. “But that’s one of the things that I enjoy most — having large organizations and figuring out how to percolate everyone’s great ideas and institutionalize them through our culture.”
This post was created by Insider Studios with ING .