This interview details Farmtastica, an indoor farming technology company based in Chile. The interview is with Eduardo Vasquez, CTO of Farmtastica.
What is the origin story of Farmtastica?
Around four or five years ago, my best friend Maricruz and I founded the company. She's now the CEO and we've known each other since 1993. One weekend, we were catching up, and I mentioned a technology I had come across It had great potential in the sustainability market and could benefit the community. Maricruz was intrigued and asked if I could automate its application. I confidently replied, "Yes, I can." And that's how our company journey began.
We later involved Maricruz's brother, who is now our CFO. Around a year later, we met Juan Paulo at an institute associated with the Minister of Agriculture of Chile. He admired our work and offered his help, which we gladly accepted. With the combined efforts of the four of us, we immersed ourselves in the vertical farming industry, developing our company, its technology, and conducting extensive research over the past four years.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing your team in the future?
Currently, our primary focus revolves around improving the efficiency of vertical farming. Over the past year, we've been experimenting with various approaches. One of our key objectives has been to reduce the reliance on human resources, which has been a significant challenge in this field. We recognized that integrating technology and optimizing our designs would be crucial in achieving this goal.
By incorporating more advanced techniques in our new models for vertical farms and climate-controlled agriculture, we've successfully increased crop yields while reducing operational costs. This shift in focus is particularly beneficial for distribution centers and large companies, as they can now enjoy a higher yield of crops while minimizing their human resource expenses. Instead of accounting for 50% of the costs, human resources now represent only around 10%.
Our ultimate aim is to pass on these cost-saving benefits to our clients, enabling them to generate profits in the long run. We are committed to customizing our crops and events to cater to our customer's specific needs, aiming to bring down prices without compromising on quality or technology.
What is unique about Farmtastica compared to competitors?
The unique feature of this model is its multi-crop capability, offering several benefits, particularly in reducing electric consumption. In this model, there are multiple vessels, typically around four to six containers, preceding the full container we discussed earlier. This configuration leads to improved economic and electrical efficiency.
As the plants move along the conveyor belt, you have the flexibility to adjust the lights' intensity or spectrum according to their growth stages. For instance, when the young plants are being transplanted on one side of the conveyor belt, you can use dimmer lights or specific light spectra, and as they progress to the other side, now as mature plants, you can apply different light conditions, perhaps even using specific light spectra tailored for mature stages.
This dynamic approach accounts for the varying requirements of the plants throughout their life cycle and results in better yields. Consequently, this dynamic lighting system not only lowers electric costs compared to traditional static lighting used in containers or other similar products but also enhances overall plant growth and productivity.
What are some of the crop varieties that you're focusing on the most?
We primarily focus on leafy greens, such as basil or tatsoi, and arugula. While I know their names in Spanish, we're currently exploring other options as well. Our main goal is to incorporate these items into our conveyor belt models. Additionally, we are conducting research to include strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers with a new design system. This expansion will allow us to handle a variety of fruits and vegetables, making our conveyor belts more versatile.
We are also working on developing a system for delicate products like editable Flowers. Moreover, we have already made progress in the research and development of microgreens. By the end of the year, we plan to unveil our first showroom, showcasing the conveyor belts, fixing systems, and microgreens set up in a public place. We are still in the process of finalizing the location.
Do you still consider it to be a container farm or is it not really in that category?
I believe the essence lies in its modularity. The concept of containers is already well-established, and people are drawn to it due to its widespread use. However, the true appeal and popularity of containers stem from their innate ability to be modular. You can effortlessly stack one container beside another, and another, and another – this is the key factor driving its success. Yet, it's essential to clarify that this appeal extends beyond just the container's physical aspect.
The new technology we launched this year, which revolves around modularity. With this approach, you can seamlessly incorporate the same model from one distribution center to another and witness its success. This modularity allows it to continuously expand, adding more containers in the front and beyond, creating a marvelous system that captivates people even more than the content it contains.
How do you measure the impact of your company so far? (Revenue, Employees, Customer Quantity, Production Volume) etc?
Over the past four years, we have dedicated ourselves to extensive research and investigation, openly exploring various topics. One of our proudest achievements was introducing Walmart's first container vertical farming initiative worldwide. Since around March last year, we have been running a successful pilot program. The pilot not only allowed us to master crop cultivation and vertical farming metrics but also provided valuable insights into retail operations, customer expectations, and preferences.
One remarkable feat we accomplished was utilizing a small container with a 15-meter square footprint to consistently supply basil to a local supermarket throughout the year. In regions like ours, where winters can be harsh, having fresh locally-grown basil during that time was uncommon. Usually, basil had to be shipped 2000 kilometers from the north of Chile near Peru to the capital city, Santiago. By achieving this year-round supply, we ensured the basil's freshness and locality, a significant accomplishment we take pride in.
Furthermore, we worked with another container with the German institute Fraunhoffer which we situated in municipalities. This container, unlike the commercial one, serves more as a social initiative, adopting an NFT (Not-For-Profit) approach. We are equally proud of the social impact we have made, connecting with different customers and addressing their unique needs through this initiative.
Our efforts have not been limited to our immediate surroundings. We have forged strong connections with new friends and customers all over the world, especially in Brazil and Mexico. People are responding positively to the concept of growing things without relying on sunlight, and protecting the crops with controlled environment agriculture which has been a novel and exciting experience for them.
What yield benchmarks do you have for one of the containers? What is the annual basil production, for instance?
During our annual experiment, we conducted various trials with different crops in our assets, focusing on basil varieties. Notably, one pilot project stood out, where we cultivated different types of basil within a container. These included lemon basil, Genovese Basil with wider leaves, and regular basil.
One significant achievement of this pilot was that the basil cultivated in this manner exhibited more diverse leaf types compared to the traditional method, which typically has a 50-50 ratio between leaves and stem in the middle. In our case, the ratio shifted towards a higher percentage of leaves, making them more suitable for consumption.
To summarize the yield of this new basil type, we estimate it to be around 40 kilos per month. This extrapolation is based on the experiments we conducted, which involved testing different varieties with varying levels of success.
While the overall yield might seem lower, it's crucial to remember that our focus during this pilot was on testing and experimenting with various basil types. If we were to scale up this project and establish it as a commercial production center, we believe the yield could be more substantial.
In conclusion, this pilot project has shown promising results, and with further refinement and scale-up, it has the potential to become a successful and productive commercial endeavor.
According to your previous statement, the new system has the potential to achieve significantly greater yields compared to the current one. Could you provide an estimation of how much higher these yields could be?
The new system within the five belts of a single module will accommodate approximately 9,000 plants simultaneously. If we calculate the yield for basil, assuming each basil plant weighs around 40 grams, the total weight comes out to be approximately 360,000 grams. After converting it to kilograms, we get around 360 kilograms of basil per month that can be harvested from one module.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started the company?
When embarking on a business startup, the initial phase entails a steep learning curve. It is crucial to acknowledge that building and creating something from scratch will inevitably come with challenges and obstacles. Therefore, dedicating your utmost efforts becomes imperative to achieve success. This stands as a fundamental aspect of the journey.
The second point to consider is that when it comes to this type of agriculture, I must acknowledge that one of my partners holds a Ph.D. in the field. Their expertise surpasses mine by far, making the learning process quite intriguing. While I don't have an agronomic background and instead come from the business optimization side, I find it both challenging and enriching to explore new areas of knowledge.
The third aspect is financing. Connecting with clients and meeting their expectations regarding technology can be a constant struggle. It requires us to work closely with them, helping them find the right financial support to achieve their goals. Developing strong partnerships and synergies with clients, providers, and various industries is indeed a blessing, but it can be a demanding process if not handled properly.
How can people connect with you or learn more about Farmtastica?
Our website, www.farmtastica.com, serves as the first point of contact. Additionally, we are active on social media platforms like Instagram and LinkedIn. For inquiries, people can reach us via email at email@example.com.
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