Mike Zelkind and Tisha Livingston, the founders of 80 Acres Farms, knew that food wasn’t what it used to be. So they launched a new kind of farm, one that operates completely indoors using renewable energy and zero pesticides.
Recently, the farm started selling to Kroger in Cincinnati, Louisville, Lexington, Columbus, and most of Indiana.
Cincinnati Future spoke with Rebecca Haders, vice president of creative and marketing, who has been with the company since its beginning, about the journey up to now and where it’s going.
How did the company come about?
Hader: Mike and Tisha worked together in the food industry their whole lives. They got to know farming and agriculture through a company they were working for called Sager Creek Vegetable Company. Along the way, they got to know a lot of farmers. They learned what a tough spot [farmers] were in, because their livelihoods depended on weather and pests and things out of their control. Then they looked at constructing greenhouses but realized that in doing so, they would still be reacting to the environment.
Launching the company involved figuring out a lot of things. We learned that seeds that grow outside don’t necessarily do well in a vertical farm. We had to find out which seeds are the best, what our customers wanted and what our price point would be. We knew we weren’t going to make money at first, but we just kept on going. We built the next farm, and then we introduced automation and robotics.
What makes 80 Acres Farms different?
Hader: We use zero pesticides. Our product is grown indoors and free from pests, eliminating the need for even any natural pesticides. With our hydroponics, all of the water and nutrients are coming up from the roots, meaning that nothing touches the leaves until people eat it.
Tell us about working with Kroger.
Hader: We’d entertained with them a long time. When we started, we were selling to independent retailers primarily, such as Whole Foods, Mustard Seed Markets and Dorothy Lane Market. With the number of the farms we had at the time, we didn’t really have the output to support very many Kroger stores. We’ve built eight farms in the past five years. This newest farm is one that could actually support the volume at Kroger. We started with one, then it went to 10, then 30 and then 300 farms.
We have a 70,000-square-foot barn that can grow 10 million servings a year. Since it’s inside, we can plant and replant about 12 to 13 times a year.
What kind of automation do you use?
Hader: At first we were placing seeds by hand. Now we do it with automation. When the baby plants come out, we move them farther apart so they have room to grow. That’s also done with automation. We have sensors and cameras that monitor every stage of growth — from the water, the nutrients, the lighting, the temperature and the humidity. We have a team of data scientists that take all of the information and figure out if there’s a problem or a way to make things more efficient. We’re doing additional monitoring on plant health, adding more data points to understand root size and development.
How are consumers and retailers responding?
Hader: We don’t have the usual supply chain disruptions. Our product is much fresher and lasts a lot longer because it gets to the customer much quicker. So you can put these farms pretty much anywhere in the world. If you’re on an island or in Antarctica, then you can build these and still have the same execution. The product still comes out as if it were 78 degrees and sunny.
What are some of the advantages of being located in Cincinnati?
Hader: If you think about it, 71% of our lettuce is grown in California. That is 2,000 miles away, whereas 80 Acres Farms is just a couple of hours from our farthest destination.
The other thing is that the Midwest has a lot of talent. It’s also a great place to bring people from other places. We choose to be here. It takes different types of people to run this farm. We have a lot of data scientists and traditional farmers (who have changed careers). You can’t get that just anywhere. This is a new industry, so people don’t necessary go to school to learn it. So it takes people who can think outside the box and can push the limits on what could be. One of our company mottos is that our business takes people who are willing to fail fast with tremendous insights.