As CEO of Infinite Acres, Tisha Livingston wants to fix a broken food system through vertical farming, a way to grow plants in small, stacked layers that take up less space and require fewer natural resources. The result is a food source with a lower carbon footprint, producing plants that are organic, pesticide-free.
Infinite Acres’ design shrinks the supply chain; farming, harvesting, packing, and distribution all take place from one location, bypassing multiple middle points. Food gets to the consumer faster, is fresher — and as a result, lasts longer in their home.
Livingston says the company is on track to compete within the traditional food industry. Many of its salads are already in mainstream grocery stores, and the company is growing, with its newest farm — the largest— in construction in Northern Kentucky.
You can hear more from Livingston’s conversation with The Recount’s John Battelle to learn more about Infinite Acres and the revolution it promises to yield, expanding how we think about farming and feeding the world.
Welcome to another Signal Conversation. I’m very excited about this one, a follow up from the Signal Summit, last summer. We’re here with Tisha Livingston who worked in Ohio and is a native of Cincinnati. She worked in the food industry at 80 Acres Farm, and then moved to the Netherlands, where she’s now CEO of Infinite Acres, a subsidiary of 80 Acre Farms.
It’s a technology company whose mission is to provide the best technology available to grow the highest quality produce near population centers throughout the world. Welcome, Tisha.
Thank you for having me.
I’m really excited about this. When I first learned about it, I said we have to go deeper. Because it’s exciting to think of what you’re working on scaling around the globe. For the audience who doesn’t know Infinite Acres and your parent company, give us the origin story of how you came to be and what your mission is.
Mike Salkin and I founded 80 Acres almost seven years ago. We founded this company because we believed that people should have access to fresh, healthy, produce year-round. Our previous jobs led us through a broken food system, a broken supply chain, seeing food grown in the fields, and farmers struggling not to make a lot of money. The consumer was continually disappointed by the quality and the nutrition. We knew that people wanted fresh produce. They wanted to put more fresh fruits and vegetables into their diets. But we knew the food systems we currently had wouldn’t allow for that. We started on a journey.
We started looking for different solutions. We thought we would build greenhouses in close location to different communities that needed fresh food. We quickly realized, though, that greenhouses are hard to manage. They still have a lot of variables. We started researching this crazy thing called vertical farming. When you think about seven years ago, when we started, people thought we lost our minds. Vertical farming, wasn’t really a thing yet. No one could imagine that you’d be able to grow indoors and do it profitably. We traveled all over the world. We talked to some of the foremost experts. We were in Japan, we traveled all over Europe, and we quickly realized there wasn’t a solution yet. We were going to start figuring it out.
We started building small systems, small farms, and we learned what plants liked, what plants didn’t like, what customers and consumers liked, and what they didn’t like. We really began growing our business in a small way. Then we thought that we were confident enough to really start building a system. And this is how I get to Infinite Acres. We met a partner called Priva, one of the top horticulture companies selling climate systems and fertigation systems. They also were very interested in indoor, and they were really on the forefront of the technology six years ago. Mike and I decided to take a bet and partner with Priva on building our first vertical farm. We did and that’s our SD facility. When it came online early in 2017, it didn’t work. It didn’t work at all.
Could you paint a picture of what you built, a food, factory warehouse, with automated technology.
Our vertical farm is two buildings within a building. We had a high-wire system that grew tomatoes on high-wire vines. Imagine seven feet to eight feet high.Then we had a multi layer system, four layers stacking one on top of the other, with short crops, small crops like lettuce or basil will grow in the multi layer. Then we had the single layer. We pick this building on SD Avenue in Spring Grove Village in Cincinnati. It was in need of some love and a future. Mike and I purchased the building, and then we decided that we would build two small growth zones. If you think about it, we’re bringing all the water, we’re bringing the airflow, we’re bringing the light, we’re bringing the temperature into these rooms that’s perfect for a crop to be able to grow in.
Yet it didn’t work the first time.
No, it didn’t work. There was a lot of things about the system that just didn’t sync up. We had humidity problems, where we couldn’t dehumidify and the plants were growing too fast. The cells were exploding and we weren’t getting any tomatoes. We weren’t getting any lettuce and it just didn’t work. Mike and I said, “Well, we have to figure this out.” We went to Priva and we said, “Hey, this isn’t working. We’re just gonna go try it on our own.” Everything we have is tied up in this farm, we have to figure it out. We appreciate that it’s a little bit of a hobby for you.” To the credit of the owner and the CEO, Meiny, she said, “No, this industry is too big, or is going to be too big. This industry needs your help. This industry needs our help. We need to be strong together. Let us help you fix it.” Together, we started working and trying to figure out the problems. Because, a lot of times when you have technology, it looks great on paper. In a pilot, it makes sense. But when you start scaling it, you have all these scale up problems.
What Mike and I were really good at was driving improvement, driving scalability, understanding manufacturability, understanding the client of the customer. What Prima was really good at was creating that perfect climate for a plant to grow. Being able to combine all that together, we decided that we were going to figure it out. We did. When we figured it out, we had a lot of learnings. Let’s put it together in a company so we can take it all over the world and really start changing the way that people eat food. Change the way you grow food, make sure that you can eliminate pesticides, eliminate or reduce drastically the amount of water that’s used. We formed Infinite Acres together, Priva and 80 Acres, this technology company.
Shortly thereafter, there was another company that came in called Ocado. I’m sure some of you know who Ocado is. Ocado is a technology company that started the online grocery world. When you think about the largest online grocery retailer, it’s Ocado, Some people might think it’s others, but for grocery, it’s Ocadoo. They said we want to be able to transfer our knowledge and warehousing and food delivery into vertical farms, and we think you have the best technology, we want to partner with you. We became infinity,
I understand that you opened a big facility in Hamilton, Ohio just last year?
That’s right. It was two years ago when we built the facility in Hamilton. But in 2019, we formed this joint venture between Ocado pre-alpha in 80 Acres. Out of that joint venture, we built what we called our reference design farm, which is the farm in Hamilton, which is the largest automated facility that we had built. That’s the facility that currently is servicing so many of the stores in our region right now in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and in parts of Tennessee.
Give us a little bit of a sense of the scale of that facility in terms of how many people it can feed or to how many stores it delivers its product. Then we’ll get into how that might scale.
We think about it in terms of salad servings. We can do about 5 million salad servings out of that facility a year. But this was kind of our baby plant. When we started, we started small with ST and with containers and then we built our next farm. That’s what we call our 10K Farm and then we built our Vine Farm, and then we built 70K. Now we are taking the learnings from this farm and we’re scaling in Northern Kentucky. Our farm there will be about four times the size of the farm that we have in Hamilton. We’re also scaling in near Atlanta and that facility is going to be 5X the size of the farm We have in Hamilton. We’re taking those learnings, and we’re scaling them up even further. We’re adding new technology, new improvements, lessons learned really codifying.
I can imagine a sort of a high-end business where, you know, consumers who might not be as price sensitive or saying, “Well, I’m willing to pay a little more because this is pesticide free or organic, or, a brand that has a new technology that is closer has a lower carbon footprint, I imagine, and fresher.” I’ve tasted the salad and it’s extraordinarily good. But can this scale economically to the point where you can compete with the traditional food industry?
Absolutely. We’re already there. When you look at the salads that we have on the shelf at mainstream grocery stores, we are at parity with organic.We can continue to drive efficiencies, through control, through knowledge of the crops and through genetics, to get to the right unit economics to be comparable. Often people are questioning the industry. They say, “Well, how could you compare to field grown because the sun is free, and you guys are using LED lights?” The answer I have? Let’s be honest about the full supply chain, and think about every step of the food supply chain that a poor leaf of lettuce goes through to be able to get on shelf in the grocery store. You’re harvesting that, but not everything comes up out of the field, it’s inefficient. Then you’re transporting it to a processor and a cleaner, where they’re sorting through to get the rocks and the dirt and frogs and everything else. They’re washing it, and then they have to dry it and package it. Then they have to store it in cold storage, then they have to get it into distribution. There are many touch points, many issues through that supply chain and temperature abuse, that the quality of the lettuce, that’s becoming your salad, the cost of that the cost of the carbon in every one of those transportation steps adds up. Everybody’s got a margin on it.
When you think about our farms, we are seeding growing, we are harvesting, we are packing and distributing all in the same place.
You’ve collapsed a supply chain, you’ve collapsed the middlemen. You can see how that’d be quite efficient. But how does that scale around the globe? You’re in the Netherlands, you have ambitions to have these kinds of farms everywhere there’s a population center, maybe multiple ones. What is the scope of your ambition? Can you scale to it?
My scope is wide and big. We can build these farms anywhere there is food insecurity, and anywhere you have large population growth. When you think about the Netherlands, and you think about Europe, they’re in a food crisis right now, because of the energy costs. The climate in the Netherlands has changed dramatically over the past 10 years where they’re struggling within their greenhouses. This is not a long-term solution growing in the Netherlands and shipping it all over the world. Being able to provide fresh, healthy produce in these communities.
The other thing I wanted to bring up is, not only is it affordable, and people think that it’s food for the wealthy. But when you think about the amount of nutrition and the fact that it lasts longer in your fridge, when you go through that supply chain, that product is 11 days old before it gets on shelf at the grocery store, before you can take it home. Being in close proximity to where food needs to be consumed, reducing the supply chain, cutting the waste out of the process, and doing things that are better for the earth is what we’re all about.
I am seeing it now, and I am 100% convinced that if you think about Australia and the floods that they’re having, they’ve lost three crops this year, they had fires, they have heat. Even the heat here in Europe, the drought that they had, there are a lot of pressures on our food supply globally. We need to be prepared to scale where the food is needed.
How fast do you think you can scale? If you had no problem with access to capital, and you could scale as fast as you wanted?
We have a lot of lessons learned right now. We’ve incorporated those into the next design. I would say, for us, the thing that would limit our scale is within the supply chain right now, the availability of parts, availability of equipment. But if I could fix the supply chain there, we have great partners that are preparing us to scale. It’s not just this little company out of Cincinnati. But we have the likes of, of Siemens, behind us, Prima, Signify, the lighting company. We have so many partners that are sitting behind us, helping us and wanting to help push us to scale, that it’s much bigger than just us. We have a lot of great partners that they’re going to make sure that we can get this around the world.
It’s very exciting to think of this kind of revolution in how our food is grown and distributed and the impact of that on water systems and energy systems. Not to mention, we just get fresher, better food. I absolutely wish you the best. Tisha Livingston, thank you so much for joining us for the Signal Conversation. I really appreciate it.
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. Have a great day.