Ultimation expands conveyor systems for vertical farms - Produce Grower

2022-06-16 08:29:47 By : Mr. Sam Cheng

Conveyors can move plants through automated systems as they grow, the company says.

ROSEVILLE, Mich. — As sustainable agricultural operations such as vertical and indoor farms become more prevalent, conveyor technology systems can be part of the solution, according to Ultimation Industries, a conveyor technology and automation company.

Vertical farms can potentially achieve higher yields for the surface area dedicated to production by controlling the light, temperature, humidity, water and nutrients the plants receive. They also reduce “food miles,” which is the distance that food items travel from the point of production to the table, and can reduce CO2 emission from transport while delivering fresher and better tasting products.

“Conveyors are essential to vertical farming because they can make use of all the available vertical space of a facility and can move plants through automated systems as they grow,” said Jacqueline Canny, CEO of Ultimation Industries. She adds that robots as well as overhead conveyors, floor conveyors and specialized plant material handling equipment can increase efficiency in planting and harvesting operations. Ultimation has already completed a major system for a West Coast-based vertical farming system, which is believed to be the world’s largest-scale facility. The technology used in that project is proprietary and several customized projects with other customers are in progress.

Conveyors and industrial automation equipment used in vertical farming includes many of the traditional conveyor types such as gravity roller, belt, and skate wheel or flow rail conveyors. These conveyors are among the most versatile because they help reduce the manual labor of carrying items by hand, according to Ultimation. More recently, the technology used in larger vertical farming systems is including motorized and overhead conveyors. These systems take advantage of unused vertical space above a working area and bring plants down to an operator level when needed.  Power and Free conveyors enable tight concentration of product in some areas while also enabling separation of the products for movement to processing areas, according to the company.

Ultimation supplies vertical farming companies with conveyors and equipment ranging from small gravity and belt conveyors from their “quick ship” product range to major overhead power and free conveyor systems to support commercial scale production. Their systems meet food-safe requirements for lubricants, oils and greases.

“As indoor farmers work to achieve greater efficiencies in food production, conveyor systems technology is likely to be part of any economically viable solution,” said Canny. “We see the vertical and indoor farming space as a major new segment for material handling systems, and we’re pleased to be taking a leading position in this category.

After almost two decades in business, Orangeline’s founder says the move is the best way to maintain his company’s growth and expansion.

In August, Mucci Farms acquired a controlling interest in Orangeline Farms, another grower based in Leamington, Ontario, Canada. Founded in 2000, Orangeline was perhaps best known for its greenhouse pepper production, as well as its Zing! Healthy Foods brand.

“It’s an exciting time for the company as we continue our aggressive expansion plans to increase our local and regional production,” said CEO Bert Mucci, per a press release. “The Orangeline acquisition comes with a 32-acre greenhouse and a warehouse with additional land totaling 100 acres. Consumers are demanding more local production, and we’re listening. We also have plans in place to build on the additional land that was received as part of the agreement.”

Below, Orangline founder Duffy Kniaziew, who will retain the remaining ownership of Orangeline, discusses why he made the deal, what problems it helps the company solve and more.

Produce Grower: How did this deal come together and how long has it been in progress? 

Duffy Kniaziew: I think it was a fairly lengthy process that started as a search for growth organically within Orangline of how we address customer concerns, how we address employee's concerns and how we continue to build our brand. So, that was one grouping and a second grouping is that Orangeline has had a culture of innovation for a number of years and out of that innovation come the need to implement it. In today's world, the cost associated with innovation is fairly extreme, so looking to capitalize on that innovation, partnering with a much larger player made a lot of sense. 

PG: What, to you, is it about innovation that makes it so expensive right now?

DK: The biggest thing around being a greenhouse in Canada is around lit production and the ability to produce Ontario products in the dead of winter. The lighting cost is intensive, as well as the ability to secure the necessary hydro to drive the lights.  

PG: What about Mucci Farms makes them the right partner? They have a controlling stake now, which I’m sure offers some financial security, but what about them is attractive to you? 

DK: I am a first-generation farmer and I've been [on] the growing side of things for more than 20 years now. And for us, it was important to partner with someone who has a strong team in place and has a lot of depth and wealth of information on the growing side. When we looked at Mucci, they go back generations upon generations with greenhouse growing and are certainly one of the forerunners on being able to execute in the greenhouse who also happen to market well. That, to us, was an important link as opposed to some other industry leaders that are very strong in marketing first and have had to reverse engineer the growing side. 

PG: With this agreement, they take a controlling stake and are doing some more expansion, but what does it mean for Orangeline in the short term?

DK: It adds strength to the brand in terms of marketing as well as cost efficiencies. Orangeline was at an interesting place — we were literally too big to be small, but far too small to be big. In a world where efficiencies and margins matter, that becomes an uncomfortable place at times. For us, it certainly provides better access to product and allows us to do a better job for our customers.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Related story: Some growers, including Ontario-based Orangeline Farms, are growing strawberries indoors to better cater to consumers’ interest in the crop.

PG: How does the product angle of this — what you actually grow — factor into this? 

DK: I think it comes back to the innovation side and us being largely a pepper grower. It certainly strengthens Mucci's bench when it comes to the pepper side of operations. And for us, it allows us to capitalize on some of our innovation.

It's a heavy focus on peppers. In terms of strawberries, the Mucci portfolio has a dedicated facility for strawberries, so to have the Orangeline facility grow strawberries really becomes inefficient use of the operation. While some of the knowledge and some of the IP will move over, Orangeline, for the near future, will be focused on peppers.

PG: Can you speak more to the marketing side of this - this doesn't mean Orangline's Zing! Healthy Foods brand goes away, correct? 

DK: No — that's an important part of this deal. The intention is for that [brand] to live on and have more horsepower behind it. 

There's no question that this will help us get into more stores. But more importantly, if we take a macro view at it, some consolidation in greenhouse marketing is likely a very good idea in that we are essentially competing for the same customers. Any grower in Leamington, regardless of their marketing, is ultimately competing for the same end user at retail, the consumer who is buying tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers or whatever. We are ultimately trying to give them the best experience possible so they become repeat customers. Maybe as an industry we're a little bit top heavy on marketers - there are too many businesses competing for that exact same shelf space where some consolidation might be a good thing for everybody. 

PG: When they took controlling interest, was that for you a sticking point or a concern of yours at all? 

DK: There's no question it's a thought point, it's something that, in this scenario, that I personally had to wrap my head around. But when I look at how this impacts others, once it gets outside of me personally, it's something where there's certainly more benefit, I believe. We believe in the company we've partnered with, so it's something I'm comfortable with. 

PG: How long did it take you to decide that this was the right move?                                                    DK: I think there's probably two points to that, the first being that I believe that, as a business grows and matures and the world ebbs and flows, it means there's a responsibility for the business owner to keep your eyes wide open and look at what's happening within an industry and take that into consideration as you do your strategic planning and as you look forward. That's been going on for quite a while as we look at next steps. In the past, growth was pretty straightforward ­— build 10 acres, see how quickly we can expand, add five more, add five more, add another 12 and so on. But at some point, that's not really the point anymore — it's how can we as a business grow strategically and be smart in how we go forward. 

In terms of wrapping our heads around what ultimately became the partnership, that took the better part of several months. 

A panel at the Great Lakes Ag Tech Summit discussed what flavor means to consumers and the industry.

Can a consumer tell the difference between the flavors of two strawberries — one slightly sweeter than the other? If so, will they pay more?

These are the types of questions that were brought up at the inaugural Great Lakes Ag Tech Summit, which Hort Americas/Urban Ag News and Current hosted at Nela Park, General Electric Lighting’s headquarters in East Cleveland, Ohio, on Monday, Sept. 23.

The event was rounded out with a panel discussion with industry members and academics: John Jackson, CEO of Sustainable Indoor Growing Systems (SIGS); Ariana Torres, agricultural economist and assistant professor at Purdue University; Austin Webb, CEO of Fifth Season; Paul Brentlinger, president of CropKing; and Chieri Kubota, professor of controlled environment agriculture at Ohio State University. Chris Higgins, general manager of Hort Americas, moderated the panel and took audience questions.

The panel talked about topics ranging from different countries’ and cultures’ approaches to CEA, worker salaries and challenges presented by climate change. During the discussion, flavor came up, which sparked some of the most engaged debates amongst the panelists, Higgins and some audience members.  

“Does [flavor] depend on the market that you're looking at, and does a Walmart shopper care about flavor?” Higgins asked Kubota. “Are they more concerned with shelf life and aesthetics — strawberry-specific?”

Strawberries that have a high amount of flavor have a short shelf life, Kubota said. Low-income and upper-middle-class consumer segments may place an emphasis on shelf life and flavor, but for the richer segment, price may be less of an obstacle to make a purchase, Kubota said.

Conversation among the audience and panelists followed, touching on questions such as if better flavor demands a higher price point, as well as if flavor differences between similar products are often real or perceived.

Kubota cited Brix — sugar content — as an example of how flavor can be measured. She said she was surprised that Florida strawberry growers generally do not measure their product’s Brix but are more focused on how the product looks and how it will be shipped.

“One of the things I want to see in the future is the grocery stores having some capacity to show Brix, for example, or the Brix and acid ratio,” Kubota said.

Higgins commented that growers are paid based on yield, not flavor. “If we look at how farms have operated for the past 25, 30 years, growing up in a farming family, all of my uncles, who are now getting prepared to retire, feel flavor went out of the market in the 1980s,” he said.

But not everyone can always taste the difference between flavors of separate products, Brentlinger said. “I would guess that probably 80% of the people who are eating and buying strawberries from this experience to the next couldn't tell you the taste difference between those two strawberries,” he said. “In the middle of my day, I popped this bright-red juicy sweetness into my mouth and then a month later I did the same thing. They were both really good. Certainly, one of them was better than the other. But it's perception.”

To attract customers who can differentiate between flavors, Brentlinger said small growers need to offer better flavor than large growers because they need to charge more, which growing a better product allows them to do.

He likened the subject to craft beer. While many people may enjoy a craft beer over a Budweiser, Budweiser doesn’t have trouble selling its product. “It's all about what your goal as a grower is,” he said. “Are you going to be the craft strawberry, or do you want to sell at all Walmarts?"

Jackson stressed that price point matters. “You walk by and you see a tomato and they’re 99 cents, and you see a tomato at $3.99, it’s like, 'Man, I don't really care what it tastes like,’” he said.

Fain, the company's founder, says Bowery and other indoor farmers have to improve, but are taking the right steps, in helping to combat climate change.

In an essay posted by Bowery Farming's Medium page, company founder and CEO wrote about climate change during 2019's 'Climate Week' and noted indoor farming's role in combating climate change. 

"When I founded Bowery Farming in 2015, vertical farming certainly wasn’t new. But to many, the concept as an answer to feeding a hungry planet was far more a dream than a reality. However, here we are, just four years later, and Bowery has two fully operational farms and more in development," Fain wrote. "Our controlled indoor growing environment enables us to use zero pesticides and 95% less water to grow fresh produce — all of which make it on local store shelves within just a few days of harvest, minimizing food miles and extending shelf life to reduce food waste."

Related story: Bowery Farming's Irving Fain on technology, food safety and new products.

"However, on the first day of Climate Week, I acknowledge that indoor vertical farming still has a way to go. Our sector is in its infancy, and we too have work to do in curbing our own emissions, investing in alternative energy sources, moving away from plastic packaging, and selling beyond just leafy greens. Fortunately, these are all areas that we’re aggressively making progress toward at Bowery. We have seen meaningful gains on many of these fronts already, and I am not dissuaded by the work ahead; in fact, I’m energized by the opportunities that are still in front of us. Today, our effort is now recognized as a scalable solution tailored to our most pressing problems."

You can read Fain's full post by clicking here.

The farm is being built in an old steel town and will grow lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula and herbs in a 25,000-square-foot grow room.

Fifth Season, an indoor farming company, announced plans for its first indoor vertical farm, which will open in early 2020 in Braddock, an historic steel town near Pittsburgh.

Austin Webb, Fifth Season's co-founder and CEO, said the company's 60,000-square-foot Braddock farm will set a new vertical agriculture standard for efficient, safe and sustainable production of pesticide-free leafy greens and herbs in urban communities.

"The goal through our first three years of development was to prove we could bring fresh food to urban customers at prices competitive with conventionally grown produce," Webb said, per the press release,

"We have developed fully integrated, proprietary technology to completely control the hydroponic growing process and optimize key factors such as energy, labor usage and crop output," Webb added. "The result is a vertical farm design that has over twice the efficiency and grow capacity of traditional vertical farms. Our unprecedented low costs set a new standard for the future of the industry."

Webb said the Braddock farm’s ideal growing environment will produce over 500,000 pounds of lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula and herbs from its 25,000-square-foot grow room during the first full year of operation. The facility is partially solar-powered and requires 95 percent less water compared to traditional growing operations.

Webb said the company is planning a staged expansion in additional, similar-sized cities across the U.S.

Fifth Season, originally founded as RoBotany Ltd., is a consumer-focused technology company that was incubated at Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU) Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship — an alliance of CMU’s business, robotics and other schools focused on fostering innovation. The company has raised over $35 million to date led by Drive Capital and other private investors with close ties to CMU. Its leadership team has deep expertise in plant science, robotics, AI and systems engineering.