This interview details FarmBox Foods, an indoor farming company based in the United States. The interview is with Chris Michlewicz, VP of Public Relations and Communications of FarmBox Foods.
What is the origin story of FarmBox Foods?
About five and a half years ago, the original concept was to create tiny homes using shipping containers. This idea intrigued our founders, who had some background in real estate and housing. However, they soon realized that navigating international building codes would be quite challenging, and the market was already saturated. Therefore, they swiftly shifted their focus.
Coincidentally, one of our founder's daughters attended a school with a nearby vertical container farm. They explored the farm, speaking with the person in charge, and learning about its strengths and weaknesses in terms of workflow. Drawing from these insights, our team designed an initial vertical farm that addressed the inefficiencies observed in others.
Originally planning to incorporate a vertical garden with the tiny home concept, they decided to patent and utilize their unique grow tubes indoors. This led to the creation of a vertical hydroponic farm capable of producing the equivalent of approximately two and a half acres of farmland annually. This became our first successful venture, taking around a year and a half to develop.
After a couple more years, the team launched a gourmet mushroom farm. It was the world's only start-to-finish gourmet mushroom farm, handling everything from substrate mixing to pasteurization, incubation, and fruiting. This endeavor proved highly successful and gained considerable momentum.
Later, in the previous year, we introduced our third farm—a hydroponic fodder farm. Fodder is essentially nutrient-rich hay for livestock, and our innovative approach garnered positive responses.
As a company, we are proud of our five and a half years of experience. The initial two and a half years were dedicated to extensive research and development. We experimented to determine what grows best in our farms, enabling us to share this valuable knowledge with our customers. Many of our clients are new to farming, and we take pride in providing them with the expertise gained through our trial and error. This way, they can avoid unnecessary challenges and focus on successful farming with our support.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing your team in the future?
We are a relatively small operator intentionally keeping our growth within our desired limits and relying on private funding. As a result, we often face the question of whether we are publicly traded, but the answer is no. We prefer to have full control over our future and pace of expansion, allowing us to grow at our own chosen speed. Our growth strategy has been carefully planned and deliberate.
However, the current financial climate poses challenges due to prevailing interest rates, making it difficult for people to borrow money for their projects. Consequently, we have observed some individuals in the industry holding back on their initiatives, which seems to be a widespread trend.
One of the significant challenges we face is raising awareness about this cutting-edge technology. As an emerging disruptive innovation, it remains unfamiliar to most individuals. Understandably, without prior knowledge, people are reluctant to invest a considerable amount of money in it. Therefore, it becomes our responsibility to effectively communicate the positive impacts of these farms. We must emphasize the benefits they bring both from an environmental perspective and in terms of enhancing nutrition and food production. Our mission is to spread the word about our technology far and wide.
Currently, we are operating on a limited budget, relying solely on private funding. We’re in the process of obtaining additional funding from an investor. Despite facing challenges comparable to major container foreign manufacturers, we remain determined and optimistic about our future. Rest assured, we have no plans to shut down anytime soon. Our business is holding up well, and we continue to supply various businesses with our products.
It's true that some larger operations have encountered difficulties, possibly due to oversaturation in certain markets. However, we've managed to carve out a unique niche for ourselves. Apart from offering leafy greens, we've tapped into the growing demand for gourmet mushrooms, which have gained popularity, especially in farm-to-table restaurants serving vegan dishes. Mushrooms serve as an excellent meat substitute, and this has resonated well with our audience.
Our hydroponic fodder farm serves as a year-round solution for ranchers and farmers, enabling them to grow fodder on-site. This approach helps them overcome the challenges of supply chain disruptions and price fluctuations experienced during the pandemic. Moreover, given the persistence of drought conditions in the upcoming years, it becomes crucial for people to ensure sufficient hydration and nutrition for their cattle, horses, goats, and alpacas. Our hydroponic fodder farm offers an ideal solution for this purpose.
What sets us apart is our niche focus, specializing in providing a reliable source of feed for livestock. This diversification distinguishes us from other traditional vertical farming companies. As we continue to stand firmly in our commitment to support farmers and ranchers, our hydroponic fodder farm becomes an essential tool in their arsenal.
What is unique about FarmBox Foods compared to competitors?
At our firm, we take pride in offering a comprehensive solution, ensuring you have everything you need to succeed on a commercial scale. While we may not be the most budget-friendly option, our all-inclusive packages cover all aspects necessary for your growth. Unlike some competitors who only provide the basics, we include essential features such as reverse osmosis filters and specialized flooring for easy cleaning, reflecting our commitment to food safety.
Moreover, operational support is a priority for us. Many of our competitors' customers have faced challenges, enduring long periods of downtime. In contrast, our dedicated team promptly addresses any issues that may arise, understanding that mechanical components require occasional attention. When you choose our farm, you're not just making a purchase; you're investing in a long-lasting partnership. We stand by our farmers every step of the way, ensuring their success is intertwined with ours.
Our unique relationship-driven approach sets us apart from the competition. We believe in equipping our clients with the tools for success, providing marketing materials and regional press releases to promote their business. Moreover, we offer comprehensive training, both online and in-person, so that you feel confident in running your own farm.
From start to finish, our services are all-encompassing, and there are no hidden costs or add-ons. We assist with site preparation and pre-construction, streamlining the entire process. With the advantage of having a sister company specializing in shipping and logistics, we can deliver our farms to any location worldwide, at your convenience.
We take strategic pride in setting ourselves apart in the market. Few companies offer the complete package that we do. Our focus on providing essential features, unwavering support, and building lasting relationships are what make our product resonate with a wide range of customers. Choose us, and let's embark on a successful journey together.
How do you measure the impact of your company so far? (Revenue, Employees, Customer Quantity, Production Volume) etc?
Currently, we have nearly 50 in total. These establishments are distributed across the United States, with additional ones in Jamaica and Tahiti. We've expanded into a few in Canada, and our growth is ongoing. Our company has been in operation for five years, with the initial two and a half years primarily focused on research and development. Consequently, we have only actively been selling our products or services for about two and a half to three years. During this time, we have successfully demonstrated our viability in seven distinct vertical markets.
Do you have an average or calculated payback period for customers interested in leafy greens, microgreens, or mushrooms?
In general, the profitability of our vertical hydroponic and mushroom farms varies depending on the region and the types of plants being cultivated. The hydroponic farm typically sees a return on investment of about three and a half years, though this can vary based on factors such as plant prices in the region. On the other hand, the mushroom farm yields quicker returns, usually around a year and a half. We recommend the mushroom farm to those seeking significant profits, as it focuses on growing gourmet mushrooms like lion's mane and medicinal varieties such as reishi.
Regarding the hydroponic fodder farm, we are still determining its ROI. The profitability of the fodder largely depends on the region, whether it's Canada or Texas, and whether it serves as a primary profit generator or a food security measure. However, the value of on-site growth is evident as it helps bypass supply chain issues and price fluctuations.
Currently, the hydroponic fodder farm is producing impressive yields. From 130 pounds of seeds, we are obtaining around 850 pounds of fodder per day, resulting in approximately three tonnes of hydroponic fodder each week. This farm is designed to prioritize food security for farmers and ranchers, ensuring consistent and high-quality feed for their animals.
The distributed 50 units consist of primarily first-generation devices, or is it a balanced combination of all three generations?
Our mushroom farm has undergone several iterations, currently standing at version 3.0. On the other hand, our vertical hydroponic farm has reached version 4.0, while our hydroponic fodder farm was introduced last year as version one. We are continuously seeking feedback from customers to enhance our farms, making it easier to grow food efficiently. We are constantly experimenting with different plant types in our hydroponic fodder farm, specifically focusing on microgreens, which have seen a significant surge in demand lately.
By conducting ongoing research and development, we are discovering that microgreens can be grown at scale in our hydroponic setup. Our goal is to identify the microgreens that command the highest prices in the retail market and meet the current demand. As we delve into this aspect, we are also exploring the possibility of cultivating larger rooted vegetables like beets and carrots in the hydroponic system.
Our dedication to improvement and innovation allows us to expand our offerings to better serve our customers and meet their evolving needs.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started the company?
I regret not exploring the availability of USDA grants sooner. It would have been beneficial to inform our customers about these grants, as there is a significant amount of funding being invested in agriculture for initiatives such as water conservation and maximizing productivity. The efficient use of energy and land is crucial, considering we are currently cultivating crops on just 320 square feet. There is much to gain from these practices.
Over the past year, we have made significant strides in the field of education. Currently, we have established farms on three school campuses, with an additional three planned to launch in the next few months. While most of these farms are located in the Denver area, we have also expanded to South Carolina. Our efforts to incorporate education into these farms have gained momentum since February of this year.
These farms are not solely focused on food production; they also serve as a platform for teaching the next generation of urban farmers. We aim to educate them on alternative and eco-friendly methods of food cultivation. Our operational farms south of Denver attract many students on field trips. By introducing them to the tech-driven and controlled climate aspects of farming, we empower them and instill a sense of responsibility. Today's children are highly tech-savvy, so we emphasize the potential of these technologies in addressing world hunger in the upcoming decades.
In 2023, we have made a concerted effort to expand our presence on school campuses, but we have also made significant progress in seven other vertical markets. Despite being relatively new, we have already made a considerable impact, and we are determined to achieve even more in the years to come as we continue to innovate and grow.
There are numerous applications for both of these initiatives, particularly from the perspective of disaster relief. In addition to our vertical hydroponic farm, where we cultivate tree seedlings, we have established a partnership with a local electric cooperative. The cooperative is responsible for removing trees to accommodate power lines while also trimming existing trees to preserve the power infrastructure. To compensate for the trees being removed, their plan is to grow new trees in our vertical hydroponic farm.
This approach highlights their commitment to environmental stewardship. As we navigate through this industry, there is much to learn, and we acknowledge that we are still in the early stages. Many individuals in this field are still in the process of understanding various aspects. It is unrealistic to expect to possess complete knowledge from the start. However, we are actively striving to catch up and, in many ways, believe we are ahead of our competitors in the game.
How can people connect with you or learn more about FarmBox Foods?
For an in-depth exploration of our technology, abundant yields, and the diverse array of plants and mushrooms we cultivate, I highly recommend paying a visit to www.farmboxfoods.com. We are actively present on various social media platforms, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Feel free to explore our profiles there, as we regularly share updates and engage with our audience.
Additionally, they can reach out to us by phone at 1-800-946-1723. Whether they're simply curious and want to have a preliminary discussion or wish to gather pricing information, we are happy to assist. We can provide detailed insights into operational costs and expected revenues through ROI calls. No matter where they are in the exploration process, we are always open to having conversations and helping to make informed decisions.
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