How Local Roots is Helping Solve the World's Food Waste Problem with Robots and Tech
By 2050, the world needs to feed an expected 9 billion mouths, but agricultural inefficiencies, food waste and climate change are limiting our capacity the feed the world of tomorrow. One Los Angeles company is trying to make inroads in this complex problem.
Ellestad is the CEO of Local Roots, a vertical farming company that uses technology to grow the equivalent of five acres of food in a 40-foot shipping container. They’re part of a growing wave of indoor farmers, who are using hydroponic technologies to raise food on a massive scale, at a fraction of the land required by conventional means.
Los Angeles may seem like an uncanny place to start an indoor farming business, with its Mediterranean climate and year-round growing season. The city of Angels is surrounded by some of the most profitable agricultural lands in the continent. Over a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of the country's fruits and nuts are grown in the state.
“We’re sandwiched between Salinas, the Imperial Valley, and Mexico,” Eric Ellestad says, referring to places of rich agricultural productivity. “It doesn’t get any more competitive than this.” But, he is out to prove a point.
“The reason we chose Los Angeles is because it’s really the market that you need to prove that you can compete and that you can scale anywhere,” he says.
Based in Vernon just five miles south of downtown Los Angeles, Local Roots can grow 20 to 70 thousand pounds of food in just one shipping container. The operation can be powered entirely by solar energy and uses 99 percent less water than conventional farming techniques. All of the technology, from growing algorithms down to the PVC pipes are developed in-house, which makes them unique from their competitors. This move saves them money and makes their operation easily customizable to client needs.
“We realized that we were going to get trapped in a high price market if we just bought the available parts,” Ellestad says. “So we developed all our own technology and standardized those designs.”
Local Roots specializes in, though is not limited to, leafy greens like butter lettuce, arugula and all different sorts of kale. Every variety is programmed to its own algorithm and the efficiency of that makes it so that they can harvest every 12 days (versus 36 for conventional farming methods). The entire operation is confined to a warehouse in the industrial neighborhood of Vernon and has all the hallmarks of a tech start-up.
Ellestad himself comes from a venture capitalist background and secured one million dollars in funding for the company from venture capitalists, which was launched in 2013. Today they’re a team of 30 people, mostly young scientists and coders, who work in an adjacent air-conditioned office to the warehouse. The farmers, who harvest and propagate the plants, are dressed appropriately mostly in jeans and a T-shirt.
“We’re synthesizing conventional growing practices with technology. This means higher wages for our staff and that we can move more plants in the system,” he says.
Currently, they have three shipping containers that can hold up to 16,000 plants. Nearly four years in, their client roster includes Space X, Mendocino Farms and Tender Greens. But this is simply a start. The grand ambition is to achieve an international reach.
“Our mission is to improve global health by building a better food system,” Ellestad says. “Simply being a produce company in Los Angeles doesn’t meet that goal.”
Farms emit about 13 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, he notes. That and a growing world population — a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050 — are his primary motivations.
“We’ll need to grow 70 percent more food by 2050,” he says.
By automating the growing process, Local Roots is able to harvest in a third of time that it takes for a conventional farm to grow food. And of course, the greens are grown sans pesticides because everything is contained in a controlled environment.
“We develop a model for each crop, determine the set of conditions, and get the most efficient production while still optimizing what the customer wants,” he says.
The technology does have its drawbacks, however. Vertical farming technology is mostly targeted toward leafy greens. Fruit and nut trees are not ideal in shipping containers, and major carbohydrates crops like rice and wheat cannot be supported in such an environment. Because the operation is held in a closed-loop system, vertical farming, unlike other alternative forms of agriculture like no-till farming, does not contribute to soil health and biodiversity.
Still, it’s a step forward in alleviating the pressures of feeding a growing population.
Growing food locally cuts out the monetary and environmental costs of transporting the food. The shipping container model condenses five acres in 40-foot refrigerator and solar panels make the operation completely energy independent. The company plans to take this model even further and is in the process of standardizing their shipping containers so that they can ship directly to their clients.
They’re well on their way to making this a reality. In March, they strapped wheels on one of their indoor farms and started touring it around in the United States, with a debut at South by Southwest.
“We toured 8,000 people in four days,” he notes.
The ultimate goal is to target large grocery chains, be able to put 20 to 50 units of shipping containers next to their distribution center, build up each of their crop models, and do soft launches out of client facilities.
Maybe someday, Ellestand says wistfully, even supply food for Mars.
“We want to bring the healthiest most nutritional products to make while not increasing the burden to the environment,” he says. “So instead of importing food, why don’t we ship in a farm?”
Top Image: Young Butterhead lettuce growing in one of our TerraFarms™ | Courtesy of Local Roots