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ALTIX INDUSTRY CHAMPIONS INTERVIEW

One on One: Discussion with a Global Industry Champion: 80 Acres Farms

Each quarter we sit down with Industry Executives and Thought Leaders to discuss the trends, challenges, and best practices that are transforming their businesses.

Today, we are with Tisha Livingston, Co-Founder of 80 Acres Farms and CEO of Infinite Acres

Tisha, thank you for participating in the Altix Industry Champions interview.  Could you please introduce yourself and your company?

My name is Tisha Livingston, and I am a co-founder of 80 Acres Farms, and CEO of its subsidiary, Infinite Acres. I lead technology development, from seed to hardware and software, and I manage partnerships with technology companies including Siemens and Signify.

My business partner Mike Zelkind and I founded 80 Acres Farms in 2015. We now have 300+ employees across the U.S. and the Netherlands. We have 8 facilities, four of which are production facilities for our R&D, and three are production facilities with profitable unit economics, which is unique as – to my knowledge – we are the only company in the vertical farming space able to scale with profitable unit economics so far. We have raised $300 million, along with a $75 million USDA-backed loan.

Infinite Acres is a subsidiary of 80 Acres Farms and is a global technology company with a presence in the Netherlands and the U.S.

Can you explain the primary focus of 80 Acres Farms in terms of revolutionizing vertical farming and offering improved, widely accessible, and sustainable food options?

We’re on a mission to revolutionize vertical farming and to make fresh, locally produced, highly nutritious, and great-tasting food accessible and affordable for everyone all over the world while minimizing negative ecological impact. Our purpose is to fix broken food systems by making indoor farming scalable, profitable, and sustainable.

We built this company on a few basic principles: Food should taste great. Food should be grown where people are. Food should be wholesome, nutritious, and free from pesticides. And fresh, healthy produce should be available year-round, and feeding people should not endanger our environment.

Through crop-centered, proven, state-of-the-art technology, continuous innovation, and collaboration with our partners, our farms allow customers to grow high-quality and affordable fresh produce anywhere in the world. We can now eliminate pesticides and herbicides, drastically reduce water usage, optimize energy use, and reduce the need for transportation to the bare minimum.

That is an impressive undertaking! What distinguishes your companies and makes your approach to revolutionizing vertical farming unique?

We combine world-class Dutch horticultural technology, much of it greenhouse technology, with cutting-edge American manufacturing and processing technology.

Our experts have integrated decades of industrial, technological, and horticultural know-how into a technology platform based on proven solutions and continuous innovation and improvement.

Our software and hardware engineers, data scientists, crop specialists, architects, and other indoor agriculture professionals develop every aspect of our vertical farms—from building design and construction to the programs that monitor our plants twenty-four hours a day, leaving nothing to chance. Almost all our engineers and other technical specialists have been involved in growing crops at some point in their careers. Our people know plants, and our plant-centered technology reflects that, as does our product. I’m happy to say that we are a customer favorite!

What inspired you to start 80 Acres Farms, and led to your decision to create a more efficient and sustainable farming model?

Mike and I previously worked together at a vegetable canning company called the Sager Creek Vegetable Company. We were hired by Bain Capital to rescue the company from bankruptcy. The company had been forced to shut down due to environmental issues caused by a fish kill in the Illinois River basin due to an overapplication of fertilizer. This experience opened our eyes to the overuse of fertilizer due to soil depletion, and that experience changed our perspective on agriculture!

Since the company couldn’t grow and produce, we had reached out to growers throughout the U.S. – from Texas to Minnesota and Florida to Buffalo, NY in the hope that they could grow produce for the company. In talking to these growers, we discovered common issues like pest pressure, not enough flight units, environmental inconsistencies, depleted soils, etc. and we quickly realized that the main issue was that they couldn’t control the environment and growing conditions.

Recognizing the growing demand for fresh produce and the limitations of traditional agriculture, we sought a more sustainable approach as the current system results in significant product loss, carbon emissions, and resource depletion. Our research aimed to collapse the supply chain, build farms near distribution centers, and provide consumers with fresher, higher-quality, and pesticide-free produce.

Coming from the food industry, we understood that the fresh produce sector will continue to grow and expand, while the demand for food at the center of the store—the processed items—has been shrinking for the last 30 years. Today, fewer people own can openers and want to eat processed food. Today’s consumer wants fresh food, but there are limitations as to how much fresh food can be produced.

Considering the increasing global demand for food in the face of population growth, as well as limited water and land resources, we realized that the existing agricultural system is inherently unsustainable. The conventional supply chain of produce, spanning from the field to the consumer, results in loss of product, carbon footprint, and natural resources, all while contributing to a 5-10% margin for every stakeholder involved, which raises prices for customers and consumers. Consider the journey of a leafy green vegetable from California to Cincinnati. That’s a 2000-mile trip that takes 11 days through the supply chain. By the time bagged lettuce reaches your plate, it’s already 11 days old. And that – in turn – contributes to a staggering annual global loss of 1.6 billion metric tons of produce. The USDA reports a 45% loss of nutrition in leafy green produce during this process.

Motivated by these significant inefficiencies and environmental impact, we embarked on a mission to revolutionize the system. We envisioned a technology-driven solution to collapse the traditional supply chain with a simple goal: To build farms next to distribution centers, bypassing unnecessary steps and delivering what consumers want—fresh, high-quality, pesticide-free produce—faster.

We conceptualized this vision in 2016/17, confident that eliminating these inefficiencies could create a win-win scenario for us, retailers, and consumers alike.

Starting a massive undertaking like this sounds incredible. Can you walk us through how you began the journey of 80 Acres Farms?

Initially, we needed to prove the concept, which we funded ourselves. While Mike was very optimistic and declared this venture as our last job, I committed to a one-year timeline, mindful of my family’s financial needs. If a viable business model wasn’t established within the year, I would need to seek alternative employment.

We identified key objectives: consistent high-quality indoor produce growth, acquiring customers, fostering consumer loyalty, ensuring profitability and scalability, and securing technology partnerships. Recognizing the complexity of technology, we opted against developing everything in-house due to the associated time, cost, and resource constraints. We started on Este Avenue, in Spring Grove Village, in Cincinnati— in a 12,000-square-foot abandoned warehouse. Despite the small quarter-acre space, we were able to achieve the output of an 80-acre farm by stacking our fields vertically. This inventive method enabled us to have 17-24 growth cycles annually, a major leap from the standard 1-2 cycles. Starting with container-based operations, we successfully demonstrated our capacity to grow produce and establish a brand in a demanding market.

We were also successful in establishing a brand which is unprecedented in this industry. A brand needs to stand for something, and that is difficult to establish with conventionally grown produce, as there are so many variables. Our approach resulted in a 20% increase in the category at the stores we serve. At Kroger and other retailers, we boast a brand repeat rate higher than any other player in organic salads. Our strategy has also led to a shorter purchase cycle and higher household penetration.

How did your technology company Infinite Acres come about? That appears to be a huge part of your success story!

When we first started, we bought technology from PRIVA in the Netherlands that had not been used commercially. After we realized that partnership (and technology) didn’t work for us, Meiny Prins, the CEO of PRIVA, came back and said “The industry is too important, and it’s new, and we need to work together if we want to help uplift the industry. We think that there are some things we can learn from you, and we know there are some things you can learn from us as well.” That conversation led to the formation of Infinite Acres as a joint venture, with support from the UK-based technology company Ocado, in 2017. Infinite Acres was formed around the idea that we could take that great grower knowledge, the climate knowledge, and the irrigation knowledge that PRIVA had, and combine it with our manufacturing and marketing knowledge to create a scalable product we could sell in the future. As the CEO of Infinite Acres, which is now a wholly owned subsidiary of 80 Acres Farms, I have been traveling back and forth to Europe since 2017, and I have a team of engineers, plant physiologists, data scientists, and experts there. Infinite Acres is essentially our R&D department where we’re building our own technology.

Tisha – how many types of produce did you start with in year one?

We started with the hard stuff: tomatoes, and an array of green leafy vegetables, including four lettuce varieties and around six different microgreens. Initially, it was a bit of a science experiment, and we ventured into cultivating about 40 different items to see what would thrive. Eventually, we narrowed it down to what became our commercial hits: salad blends and tomatoes. While we briefly explored cucumbers, the soaring demand for our tomatoes meant we had to prioritize due to limited capacity. Now, our tomatoes are the top-selling item at Kroger, and their taste is unmatched.

How did 80 Acres Farms successfully scale the company, moving from small-scale container farming to the current industrialization phase, and what were the key steps in achieving this scalability?

We began in 2016 with a small setup in containers. By 2019, we decided to modularize, seeking stand-alone components that could snap together to build and scale a farm. In 2021, we were ready to take all our learnings and apply them to create a fully automated “reference design farm” in Hamilton, OH. This basically enabled us to establish a playbook for operations.

Now, in 2023, we’re in the industrialization phase, working with technology partners like Siemens to standardize and scale. Our goal is to create the perfect, consistent environment for plants 24/7, optimizing energy, humidity, nutrients, and CO2. This unique capability allows us to delve into the realms of food as medicine and health and wellness by inducing stresses on plants to unlock specific phytochemicals, intense flavors, and nutritional benefits.

Tisha – Does genetic modification play a role or are you working with natural plants that are not genetically modified?

Now that we can create the perfect environment for plants to grow and thrive in, there is no need for GMO plants. We use natural plants only as, unlike synthetics, our bodies can absorb and digest their nutrients effectively. Most medicines and supplements start out plant-based and reproducing them consistently has limitations, which is why they are being reproduced synthetically. But chewing and consuming these natural plants offers unique benefits, and we’re just beginning to uncover their full potential.

In the past, controlling elements like light, technology, and sensors for plant growth was too expensive. Now, with advancements like LED lights and data analysis, we’re entering a new era for plant cultivation. The exciting part is that we can set up these farms anywhere, cultivating products with consistent attributes and qualities. This means we can grow plants traditionally grown in places like India right here in the U.S., while maintaining the same benefits. And we ensure a safe, clean environment—unlike open-field agriculture, which requires intervention for pathogen and pest control. In our controlled environment, there’s no need for chemicals like pesticides.

How does 80 Acres Farms utilize the scale of data from its vertical farms for continuous learning and optimization, distinguishing itself from conventional farming and greenhouses?

Being able to unlock insights from data at scale is a game-changer. Traditional farmers average 40-50 years in the field and may only witness 40-50 crops in a lifetime. The challenge? Each year is a new puzzle with unique variables, making it hard to build on past learnings. Greenhouses, while offering some control, struggle to replicate precise conditions, which is evident in the differences between crops in May versus September—due to different sun angles, radiant heat, etc.

At our vertical farm we yield 2,500 growth cycles every year, closely monitored, and analyzed, so we can learn and get immediate feedback. Every lane has its own system and control, which cycles through 25 times annually. So, one of our 27-year-old growers gets a whopping 2,500 chances a year to better understand the impacts of their tweaks. Our business is popular with the younger generation as seeing results within two weeks brings instant gratification and allows for constant learning and improvement. Picture it as a distributed processing network—consistent farms, data collection, analysis, optimization algorithms, recipe adjustments, and results. We’ve crafted a self-learning loop that keeps us on the cutting edge.

Is there any association in the world that has learned more about food from companies and people over time – like a shared database for example – that could compete with what you are doing?

While U.S. universities and the Weizmann Institute in Israel hold valuable information, their technology remains on a smaller scale and is no more advanced than ours. They are gradually transitioning from greenhouses to vertical farming, whereas we’re already operating at full-scale production. We do collaborate with these institutions with focus on computational biology—leveraging genetics, genome sequencing, and mathematical analysis. Instead of the traditional method of filtering out produce based on appearance, we use the genome sequence to anticipate reactions, significantly accelerating the breeding process. This approach allows us to achieve desired traits more swiftly, unlike the seven-year timeline in traditional breeding methods. There’s a wealth of knowledge to uncover in this field.

Have you gotten any requests for specific research in your labs from companies or universities?

Yes! We’re teaming up with Wageningen University in the Netherlands for co-research, using labs in the Netherlands, the University of Arkansas, Oregon State, and Rutgers. They all want to bring their findings into our R&D to see if they work in our setup. Interesting fact: even seeds grown in open fields or greenhouses turn out differently from those grown on a vertical farm. Our tomatoes have much smaller leaves because they don’t need to stretch for light thanks to our intense and consistent lighting that’s efficient. This allows more energy to go into growing fruits. The flavor is different too—more intense. We can even tweak the lighting spectrum to stress grapes for wine, influencing sugar movement to the fruit.

So now that you are in the industrialization phase of the company, what’s next?

Our vision goes beyond just salads. We mastered the mechanical part and want to dive into active ingredients, dietary supplements, and various food and drink components. There’s a huge potential for vertical farming, especially with climate change affecting ingredient predictability in the supply chain.

Large manufacturing plants face inconsistencies worldwide, but we can be right next to them, providing consistent, high-quality ingredients. Think of it as the 80/20 rule—I’m focused on the 20% that causes 80% of supply chain issues, aiming to help in natural health and wellness.

And this comes back to the power of the simulation and the data. When we think of the technology and what we’re trying to do, it requires large and precise data sets and the right data so we can optimize.

To optimize our farm design, we’re now seeking help from equipment suppliers to develop a full digital twin of our factories. It’s about having precise data sets to right-size our equipment for efficiency in energy, water, and labor, boosting sustainability and economics. Plus, it cuts down on waste. Digital trends may sound fancy, but for us, it’s about aligning customer demand with seed and harvest plans and minimizing food waste while giving consumers exactly what they want.

Technology is about controlling our environment and about improving our unit economics, so we have the funds to build more farms and offer more global accessibility to health and wellness.

My plea to potential partners is that we need the ecosystem to be able to drive learning. We cannot do it ourselves. We are just now seeing the promise: which is a 50-60% higher repeat rate on our salads than the leading organic brand, we’re driving efficiency, and our production has increased 50 times, while labor has only increased 7x. So it’s scaling by creating the automation and we’ve been able to increase our yield by over 50% on our products we’ve grown from 2015 to 2023.

That is impressive considering that you’re still in the early stages of technology.

Yes, and we want to build that enterprise right now. We want to build digitalization on my farm now – before we have 100 farms. We want to be able to be highly efficient in the work that we’re doing.

I admire how strategic you are – you are beginning with the end in mind which helps you take the right steps early, including modularization and standardization. Not many people take that approach!

Yes, we at least think we know where we’re going… Thank you very much for that feedback but it’s years and years of being in food manufacturing, understanding what I’ve had in the past, and understanding what GREAT looks like. Why not do that from the very beginning? We use the same approach when it comes to safety, food safety, and all the programs we’re building. Let’s not wait until we’re too big and then realize it’s time to put in a food safety program or an OSHA program. Let’s set it all up at the beginning.

So when those researchers and universities work in your space do you have an agreement that allows you to also access the IP (Intellectual Property) and the knowledge they create?

Yes, absolutely. A lot of it is on our behalf and there are many types of agreements. It depends on the research they are doing for us but then we also have other companies that are doing research on our behalf. We also partner with other companies for joint trials and research.

I believe it comes down to knowing and being confident in what you’re good at, and what you think is important in your company. We don’t have to have it all – we can form partnerships where everyone wins. That’s been our approach in the vertical farming space, and it makes us different. Many try to protect their business practices while also being dismissive of greenhouse and open-field farming because they come from the tech side. I have tremendous respect for the greenhouse industry and the open-field industry – I understand their struggles and feel there is so much we can learn from them.

My plea to the industry has been that we need to start sharing best practices, and what’s going well and what’s not going well. It can be competitive and there are plenty of things we can do to help uplift the entire industry because we NEED a solid industry.

I spend a lot of time with greenhouse growers in the Netherlands – how can I not? One pepper grower told me that everyone was struggling when they built this industry. Nobody was making money. And it wasn’t until a couple of growers decided to have coffee on a Saturday and openly shared their experiences that they saw the industry really take off. I tell that story every opportunity I get because I strongly feel that we need to take the same approach. We need to collaborate. There is a ton of opportunity and white space and there can’t be just one player – we need to have many good players. They say there would not be a Coke without Pepsi. Same with vertical farming. We can’t just have one player and we all need to rise together. There are a lot of people out there who are hungry and need nutrition. And for us, we need to look beyond lettuce. So that’s the vision for us. Our mission is to provide affordable food and nutrition.

As a leader, you are challenged in many ways – how do you personally find your balance and keep your energy level high and a positive/forward-thinking mindset even in the most difficult times?

Good question. First, I would say this is not a 2 man show (just Mike and I). I have high confidence that the right decisions are being made every day across our entire organization. One of our core values is that we want everyone to think like an owner and we accomplish that by offering shared equity to all employees, not just C-level executives. Everyone who has been with us for at least a year is granted options. That helps make sure that everyone has the same lens and the same focus. So I would say that having the right team in place is key. Knowing that they know exactly what to do and knowing that they will perform the same way whether I’m here or out of the office makes a big difference. They’ll make the right decisions, even hard decisions, as we make those based on data and facts. Having that team in place enables me to go out and spread our vision and develop partnerships.

I also engage my family, so they understand what I’m doing and why– I have 2 sons and 2 daughters who range in age from 33 to 17. I invite them to join me at events when it makes sense – to be part of the business. This helps them better understand when I get distracted. Truth is, I get such joy out of traveling and spending time with our associates and partners and with people who are trying to make a change. I seem to get more energy from the energy I give, and when I feel that I need a break or a day off, I’m not afraid to take it because I feel like I need to act as an example to the rest of our team.

Being able to disconnect also offers the clarity to solve problems if they arise. I’m fortunate – I sleep well at night because I have great confidence in my team and in my business itself. And to be honest, I also feel like our mission is part of a greater purpose. I know it will work… and I focus on the things I can control, not on the things I can’t control. I know I do the very best I can every single day – I feel like I’m the bulldozer at the front, helping guide the path so that everyone on our team can move forward. My role is to eliminate the obstacles so that all these brilliant people can keep working toward something that’s so much bigger than me!

That’s a perfect image – I can truly see that when passion and purpose come together magic happens.

Yes, I agree. And my job is to make sure everyone on our team not only understands our purpose but FEELS it – for their job within the company, but also for the bigger picture. And while everyone is aligned, there’s no stopping us.

Thank you again, Tisha, for being with us today. You gave us a lot of “food for thought” and  I can’t wait to see what’s next for you and your incredible company!

ABOUT 80 ACRES FARMS80 Acres Farms is on a mission to change the way the world eats. Their vertical farms can grow up to 300 times more food per square foot than open-field farms, using 95% less water and powered by 100% renewable electricity. Shipping to customers in just 48 hours or less ensures longer freshness, tastier produce, and less food waste. The company’s pesticide-free produce is sold in locations from Michigan to Florida, including retailers Kroger, Whole Foods, The Fresh Market, and food service providers US Foods, Sysco, and Chef’s Warehouse.