Kalera’s vertical farm in Houston is part of growing high-tech agricultural sector in Texas.


Jesse Fenn leaned over a row of young lettuce sprouting in neat formation like a farmer crouching over a field of produce – only Fenn’s field extended 25 feet below him.

Fenn stood atop a scissor lift floating over a dozen levels of vertically stacked white trays filled with lettuce. To his left, a worker in a dark lab coat harvested mature lettuce heads from the trays to be moved roughly two stories below for processing.

“When I’m interviewing new hires, I ask them if they are afraid of heights. You can’t be afraid of heights with this job,” Fenn quipped. 

Scaling scissor lifts are a daily duty for a vertical farmer overseeing the growth of about 10 million heads of lettuce annually from Kalera’s 4.5-acre indoor farm located in the Parc-59 industrial park in North Houston. Kalera, an Orlando-based vertical farming company, opened the 85,000 square-foot vertical farm a year ago to supply Texas and Louisiana markets with freshly grown leafy greens – betting that consumer demand for fresher, sustainably grown produce will buoy its growth.

Its lettuces are available in Trader Joe’s and H-E-B grocery stores in Houston, with more locations expected as it expands its national retail footprint by more than 40 percent this year. After going public through a $375 million merger in June, Kalera is gobbling up industrial real estate across the country.

It recently opened a farm in Denver, adding to its existing locations in Atlanta, Orlando and Houston. Next are new farms in Seattle, Honolulu, St. Paul, Minnesota and Columbus, Ohio.

Kalera is part of a nascent but blossoming vertical farm movement. Consumers’ appetite for locally grown produce, technological advances in agriculture and efforts to shorten supply chains are fomenting the growth of the vertical farming in Texas and around the world.

This year Eden Green Technology opened a 2-acre vertical farm in Cleburne, south of Fort Worth, with plans to expand by another 3 acres. South of Austin, German agri-tech firm Infarm is planning a 73,000 square-foot vertical in Kyle. And in southwest Houston, the local vertical farming company Dream Harvest is growing greens sold to Whole Foods grocery stores and Sweetgreen restaurants.

RELATED: Houston’s Dream Harvest secures $50M in funding to expand vertical farming

Globally, the roughly $4.34 billion vertical farming industry is expected to grow by about 25.5 percent annually over the next several years, reaching a projected $33 billion in revenue by 2030, according to estimates by the consulting firm Grand View Research.

More investments are flowing into the sector, too: In 2021, indoor farming startups raised more than $1.6 billion globally across 70 deals, roughly 86 percent more than the capital raised in 2020, according to the Seattle financial data firm PitchBook. Walmart is getting into the game, too, after investing in vertical farmer Plenty.

Investments in the sector could help cities like Houston access better, more sustainable produce, advocates argue. Like much of Houston’s produce, most of the region’s lettuce is imported from out of state,  typically traveling hundreds of miles from California before winding up on a Texas dinner plate. Not only does this create more greenhouse gases, it also means Houstonians are munching on older greens.

RELATED: Why Houston imports most of its produce

Companies like Kalera want to upend this model by opening vertical farms near large cities. The vertical farms can transform industrial warehouses into fields of greens growing under energy-efficient LED lights.

Stacking the greens means Kalera can compress more crops into a smaller footprint. Within its 64,000 square feet of growing space at its Houston farm, Kalera estimates it’s using about 97 percent less space than a standard farm. And they’re more productive, too, because crops grow year-round without exposure to floods, droughts and the vagaries of nature. 

One acre on a vertical farm can produce the equivalent of four to six acres on a standard farm, according to estimates from Columbia University.

Unlike greenhouses, the indoor farms rely on lights, not the sun, along with an elaborate system of sensors and artificial intelligence to cultivate the perfect environment. The crops thrive in a steady supply of nutrient-rich water.

“There are no seasons here,” said Fenn, who is the assistant general manager of horticulture at Kalera in Houston.

There are also no pests, no weeds and no exposure to animal pathogens such as salmonella, E.coli and listeria. At night from his home in Conroe, Fenn opens his smartphone to check on the progress of the crop before he goes to sleep, using Kalera’s proprietary software to monitor the farm’s sensors. He can change the lighting, humidity and temperature with the flick of a finger.

“I like to call myself a farmer,” he said, “but this is the easiest form of farmer.”

Advances in lighting technology and artificial intelligence in have made the high-tech farms possible. But myriad challenges remain. For one, most vertical farms aren’t yet profitable, although Kalera’s Houston facility is almost there, said Aric Nissen, chief marketing officer at Kalera. The company’s upfront cost of setting up the high-tech farms is about $10 million, Nissen said.

Electricity costs eat into its profits, too. Vertical farms on average use about seven times the electricity of a traditional greenhouse, according to a 2021 report from agricultural tech consultants Arigtecture and WayBeyond Ltd. For its Houston farm, Kalera contracts with electric provider TXU Energy to purchase wind energy and renewable energy credits. The company is also exploring the potential for solar panels, Nissen said.

A lack of crop diversity is another hurdle. Most seed varieties bred for vertical farms are leafy greens – in part because they can grow in shorter crop cycles, enabling farms to be more productive, noted Dr. Genhua Niu, professor of urban horticulture at Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Dallas.

Some firms are experimenting with vegetables such as tomatoes and radishes, but they remain mostly in the early stages because the longer growing times make profitability a challenge, Niu said.

“The industry is still in the early stages of developing and improving its technology,” said Niu, “but I’m very hopeful that even though it’s not very profitable right now for most companies, there is great potential,” 

Vertical farms use hydroponics techniques (growing the plants in water instead of soil), but they use up to 95 percent less water than standard farms because they recycle the water. That could make the facilities particularly appealing for drought-prone regions such Texas. 

Firms like Kalera are getting another boost in demand from grocery chains and restaurants seeking to shorten supply chains after the pandemic disrupted transportation and distribution in agriculture, food processing and other industries. 

“Because you can put vertical farms very close to the demand, you could avoid future supply chain disruptions,” said Priscila de Pinho,  an agricultural chemical specialist at the consulting firm  Accenture.  “The amazing thing about vertical farming is that it creates the ability to do it anywhere because you can pick up any building, even abandoned buildings, and put a vertical farm there. You can literally leverage real estate in a way that is completely mind-changing operationally.”

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