Fifth Season Advances Vertical Urban Farming in Pittsburgh, While Bringing Fresh Salads to Your Door
By Amanda Waltz
December 8, 2020
Winter is coming, and with it less access to fresh produce. This problem is exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, as more people avoid going to supermarkets and other places to stock up on baby carrots and bagged spinach.
Now one local company is bringing leafy greens to home-bound people, all while proving that growing can be truly green.
Fifth Season, a robotic, vertical urban farming start-up, launched a subscription service that delivers a variety of prepared salad kits right to customers' doors. The greens come from Fifth Season's Braddock-based 60,000-square-foot facility designed to grow crops year-round more sustainably and without the use of pesticides or herbicides.
It's the latest development from what Fifth Season chief category officer, Grant Vandenbussche, calls a “tech-forward fresh food company”seeking to“re-imagine the food system from the ground up.”
Vandenbussche says that the company broke 100 subscribers a few months ago, calling it“one of the fastest growing segments”of Fifth Seasons.
Still, the company, originally known as RoBotany when it was founded by a group of Carnegie Mellon University students in 2016, had no intention of getting into the salad business in the first place.
“We thought we were going to sell technology,” says Vandenbussche. “It evolved into us wanting to sell greens.”
In a 2019 press release, Fifth Season co-founder and CEO, Austin Webb, said, "The goal through our first three years of development was to prove we could bring fresh food to urban customers at prices competitive with conventionally grown produce.”
The Braddock facility was built to produce over 500,000 pounds of lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula and herbs during the first full year of operation, all of it grown on stacked towers and overseen by an automated system combining artificial intelligence, robotics and engineering.
"We have developed fully integrated, proprietary technology to completely control the hydroponic growing process and optimize key factors such as energy, labor usage, and crop output," says Webb. "The result is a vertical farm design that has over twice the efficiency and grow capacity of traditional vertical farms. Our unprecedented low costs set a new standard for the future of the industry."
Vandenbussche says that, by not using soil and recirculating its water, the company claims to use 97 percent less land and 95 percent less water than traditional growing methods.
“Any water that a plant doesn't drink goes right back into our system,”says Vandenbussche.
He adds that the facility is powered by a Scale Microgrid Solutions system described in a press release as combining “distributed energy resources, including a rooftop solar array, a battery energy storage system” and a “natural gas generator equipped with advanced emissions control technologies.”
Vandenbussche says the system, which was installed in January, allows the company to “minimize the amount of electricity that we pull and reduce the overall carbon that our farm produces.”
So far, Fifth Season produce has been sold at local retailers, such as Giant Eagle and Whole Foods Market, and Pittsburgh restaurants like Superior Motors, Honeygrow and Kahuna.
Vandenbussche says they were focusing on expanding into more restaurants, with plans to branch into a direct-to-consumer subscription service years down the road. Then the pandemic hit, restaurants closed or significantly reduced their business, and the demand for home delivery blew up.
“We lost a lot of traction with food service and restaurants providers,” says Vandenbussche. “We took a big bet and said, we know that consumers still value convenience, and people in general still want to eat healthy.”
But, he says, they wanted to do more than create a healthy option for customers.
“One of the things that's been really fun is, how do we take salad and make it fun and joyful,” says Vandenbussche.
Fifth Season hired Brandon Fisher, the executive chef for the former East Liberty hotspot, Salt of the Earth, to create a line of salads. The result is a diverse array of kits like Toasted Tuscan, Spicy Southwest, and Crunchy Sesame, all of which combine Fifth Season's leafy greens with elements like sun-dried tomatoes, farro and bright dressings.
Right now, the subscription service only deliver to homes within 20 miles of Downtown Pittsburgh, but the company foresees expanding that soon.
“We're continuing to expand in spite of this pandemic,” says Vandenbussche.“The demand right now for fresh food is higher than it ever had been. The fact that people working are from home isn't changing that at all.”
Additionally, even before the pandemic, the company announced plans in 2019 to replicate the Fifth Season model in similar-sized cities across the country, which is still a possibility.
Vandenbussche says the Fifth Season team also looks forward to meeting its customers, as well as doing more outreach to the surrounding Braddock community, and inviting people to the facility for tours and special events.
“It's so hard to do that during a pandemic,” says Vandenbussche. “You can't go and hand out free samples to people right now. … Being able to get out there and see our consumers face-to-face, we're really excited for that.”