At this point in the summer, when strawberries are in season, it’s hard to buy a basket that’s really bad. Unfortunately, every now and then you come across a batch that’s not quite as good as they should be. For instance, the other day, some coworkers and I were having lunch.
“Wow, these really are not the best strawberries,” I said to no one in particular, after sampling a couple of berries. My lunch mates, in tacit agreement, nevertheless continued to consume the berries, albeit rather cheerlessly. The strawberries stayed silent, having neither the intelligence nor the ability to respond. We ate a few more of them.
Finally a coworker who had been looking through the batch for a better one spoke up. “What if you could automate the production of a strawberry, the way you can automate the processing of an invoice with e-invoicing?” she wondered out loud. “Could you make a better berry?” “You mean like an e-strawberry?” a second coworker quipped. We stopped eating for a moment and pondered the possibilities.
On the one hand, the idea seemed to contain some promise. Just as e-invoicing has removed uncertainty from the payment process by making the process transparent to both buyer and supplier, perhaps there was a way to make the growing process more transparent in order to guarantee better produce and save time and money.
Such an enterprise would have to take into account all the frictional factors that affect agriculture, from weather, pests and soil conditions, to shipping and storage times, by creating an environment where every variable could be controlled. And then generate lots of data so that you could optimize conditions as much as possible for maximum output at minimal cost.
On the other hand, there are a lot of variables involved in agriculture, and how could you control for all of them?
“Maybe we should just return them,” the second coworker finally interrupted. “I’m pretty sure you can’t return strawberries after you’ve eaten half of them,” I said. At that point the conversation digressed into a debate on the ethics of returning fruit, the WYSIWYG nature of buying produce, whether there were ways to tell good fruit from bad, and whether those produce experts on TV really can tell the good fruits from the bad. Finally, abandoning both the strawberries and the conversation, we went back to work.
Nevertheless, a seed had been planted, and later that night I logged on to Google to cultivate it. Sure enough, a few minutes of digging revealed a company based in Newark, NJ that’s attempting to revolutionize the practice of farming, by bringing it indoors, automating it, and using data to optimize output.
The company uses an aeroponic growing technique to grow in-demand produce like baby greens. The technique involves misting the plants, which are suspended in synthetic cloth rather than planted in soil, with a controlled, nutrient-rich solution. Because the water is applied to the plants using an automated delivery system, it uses 95% less water than traditional methods.
The crops grow indoors under high efficiency LED lighting—predictable growing conditions that can be tested and tweaked to produce the greatest growth and that rule out unpredictable weather, temperature, pests and contaminants. “Vertical farms” like this one can save money and deliver a fresher product by locating close to major urban food centers, connecting produce to people with a minimum of time and transport. Fruits and vegetables can be picked when ripe, rather than having to ripen in transit.
Like buyers and suppliers optimizing their spending using the data they’ve gathered from e-invoicing payments, the grower can optimize every variable in the growth cycle by harvesting the data that’s produced by their crops. This information feeds a continuously growing body of science that aims to make the growing process as efficient as possible. Computer algorithms drive the care of the crops, which grow day and night, from seed to maturity in 18 days, with yields that are up to 130% higher per square foot.
It was only one company, and it wasn’t quite an “e-strawberry”, but it was a more streamlined, frictionless farming that connected buyers to a more secure, trustworthy and dependable supply of greens, and someday perhaps, strawberries. To get a better tasting strawberry, that just might be enough.