Trend Watch: Modular Micro-farms at Retail

Trend Watch: Modular Micro-farms at Retail

February 12, 2020
Annette Maggi

In his enlightening review of key trends for 2020, RDBA President and CEO Phil Lempert showcased the addition of modular micro-farms at grocery stores as a way to bring the farm directly to shoppers, providing an unique “pick-your-own” experience. These systems can potentially solve the “last mile” problem providing extremely fresh produce to the shopper. Today, we examine this trend in more detail.

Micro-farming is the concept of fitting small farms into tight spaces, typically in urban or suburban areas. These farms usually operate on five acres or less land. Given their locations, fresh produce is in close proximity to shoppers, allowing them access to freshly grown food that has traveled minimal miles. Modular micro-farming takes this one step further, using small, automated modular growing equipment, which occupies just a few square feet. These can potentially fit into restaurants, grocery stores or even homes. Imagine a small, glass hydroponic greenhouse with lights, irrigation and sensors that communicate the status of the garden to internet-based administrators. As they mature from seedlings to mature plants, they are moved to different areas of the modular farm, with ready-to-pick items most easily accessible by consumers.

There are several start ups offering modular micro-farms. Babylon Micro-Farms sells controlled environment hydroponic units to grow leafy greens, herbs and edible flowers. The units can be connected to create indoor farms that work within the constraints of store formats. Operation of the units is managed through the cloud. Infarm is a Berlin-based start-up that believes micro-farms can minimize the need for farmland and lower carbon emissions from delivery trucks that are not needed, both key sustainability issues. They go beyond growing just herbs and greens and can include other produce items like tomatoes and peppers. With placement in several European retailers including Amazon Fresh in Germany, Marks & Spencer in Britain and Metro in France, Infarm launched at the first U.S. retailer last fall. Outside Seattle, QFC supermarkets (a Kroger-owned banner) introduced Infarm to their shoppers. Learn more about this launch here. H-E-B's Central Market stores experimented with growing operations, adding a 53-foot modified shipping container full of greens to one of its Dallas stores. In 2018, Whole Foods offered an in-store mushroom growing display inside its Bridgewater, New Jersey store. 

While growing factors such as light, fertilizer and water for micro-farm crops are managed remotely, there is still work at the retail level with these modular farms, which can take hours of training and pull staff from other tasks. Food safety is a key element that must be managed. “Produce safety depends on many factors, but in most environments, it comes down to three things – people, water and the environment,” says Hilary Thesmar, PhD, RD, CFS, Chief Food and Product Safety Officer at FMI. “Hazards need to be controlled in all production environments.  Employees at all steps in the supply chain need training and the most important part is avoiding contamination at each step.  Even on small scale or in controlled settings, people, water and the environment are the most likely sources of contamination and should be monitored and controlled.”

Modular micro-farms provide an opportunity for retailers to engage shoppers in a fresh, new way and scaling these programs will continue given the funding serge into manufacturing companies of these units. The question remains whether they will offer a meaningful amount of produce in the future or simply get shoppers more excited about shopping the produce department.