Hallie Golden is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, and the Associated Press.
QFC, a Kroger chain, has added mini-farms to two of its supermarkets and will roll out 13 more in stores around Washington and Oregon.
On a recent Saturday morning, two young girls stood in front of a large case with glass walls in the produce section of a QFC (Quality Food Centers) grocery store in Bellevue, Washington. They stared up at plants arranged under bright lights, then turned to fill a bag with sugar snap peas.
Their curiosity was shared by many other customers as they took in the newest addition to the grocery store: a vertical farm.
Late last month, Kroger, which owns QFC, teamed up with Infarm, a six-year-old startup based in Germany, to install modular vertical farms in two of its Seattle-area grocery stores, in Bellevue and Kirkland, Washington. In these mini-farms, which use a hydroponic farming method, nine varieties of lettuce and herbs are stacked in rows and grown in nutrient-rich water until they are mature enough to be sold in bunches to customers, roots and all.
Unusually, these are small vertical farms inside grocery stores, rather than the larger-scale vertical farms that are more often found in warehouses. They’re among the first examples of hydroponic farming within grocery stores in North America. Although Infarm has more than 500 such installations in stores and distribution centers in other parts of the world, this is its first partnership with a U.S. grocery store.
Kroger hopes to satisfy the American consumer’s increasing hunger for fresh, locally sourced, and nutrient-rich food. “Customers today want transparency; they want to know exactly where their product is from, the provenance where it was grown,” said Suzy Monford, Kroger Group’s group vice president of fresh foods.
Unveiled days before Thanksgiving, the program has already been deemed a success by Kroger. Monford said the stores have been selling everything from kale to cilantro as fast as the plants have been able to mature. In fact, on a couple of recent days, some varieties weren’t available because the crops needed time to replenish. The company has announced plans to expand vertical farming to 13 more QFCs in Washington and Oregon by April 2020.
The growing process at the two pilot stores involves LEDs and an irrigation system with recycled water, according to Kroger. Infarm uses a cloud-based technology system to remotely control the temperature and lighting for each of its farms.
Vertical farming uses much less water than soil-based agriculture and has significantly higher yields per acre. Because Infarm’s produce isn’t being shipped anywhere, that reduces carbon emissions from transportation. But given that transportation is a small part of farming’s environmental footprint and LEDs use electricity, the overall impact is hard to gauge.
It’s no surprise that the venture debuted in the Pacific Northwest, a region with an affinity for health and wellness and a strong interest in environmental issues. Kroger often looks to QFC for ecological innovation, Monford said, noting that it was the company’s first division to eliminate single-use plastic bags.
For Infarm, the ultimate goal is to make local food production mainstream. “For the bulk of the last century, food has been produced far from where it is consumed, generating a supply chain that is environmentally unsustainable,” said Osnat Michaeli, the company’s co-founder and chief brand officer. “Our modular farms offer the potential of turning the supply chain on its head by building the world’s first global farming network.”
Inside the Kirkland and Bellevue QFCs, customers can find farm produce ready for purchase in front of the cases. Each lettuce or herb has been harvested from the unit and costs about the same as Kroger’s private-label organic produce. Freshness was a big motivator for Kroger deciding to incorporate the farms into its stores, said Monford: “There’s nothing that’s more fresh than something that’s still alive.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article said that the Infarm/Kroger cases were reportedly the first hydroponic farms in grocery stores in North America. In fact, the company Vertical Life Farms set one up in Dallas in 2016. Osnat Michaeli’s title has also been corrected.