An important partnership is growing for Fifth Season, a Braddock startup that supplies locally grown leafy vegetables through a unique system of vertical and robotic farming.
The company says its partnership with Giant Eagle, Inc. is expanding from 10 locations to more than 75 Giant Eagle and Market District stores in metropolitan areas of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus.
The fifth season supplies Giant Eagle with the greens Bridge City Blend and Three Rivers Blend as well as with the ready-to-eat salads Crunchy Sesame and Sweet Grains.
Its products are also available from some local independent grocers, but the giant eagle distribution agreement means they could reach more than 650,000 households. Fifth Season also sells additional products online.
Austin Webb, co-founder and CEO of Fifth Season, says the company’s automated platform, powered entirely by its integrated software and ordering system, enables it to deliver greens that stay fresh more than three times longer than products grown in fields be cultivated. The proprietary robotics and AI are industry premieres that have positioned the company for success.
“It was a very exciting time. The company’s growth is exciting, the local jobs we’ve created – all of which are very rewarding. And we’re ready to do a lot more, ”said Webb.
The O’Hara-based giant eagle is one of the largest food retailers and distributors in the country, with annual sales of $ 9.2 billion.
Produce is a $ 60 billion industry in the US, but most products are grown in Arizona, California, or outside the country and then shipped thousands of miles before they hit store shelves. Season five vertical farming removes the pitfalls of conventional products like lettuce, which wilts quickly.
Webb and his co-founders – Austin Lawrence and Webb’s brother Brac – saw vertical farming as smart manufacturing. Their goals were to affect food health by not using harmful chemicals. Food security, which is why they built Braddock; and food waste by changing America’s broken food distribution system.
In its first full year of operation, the company is said to grow more than £ 500,000 in produce. The system uses 95 percent less water and 97 percent less land than products grown in fields, Fifth Season’s product is becoming more environmentally friendly. Spinach and lettuce are grown in a 25,000-square-foot grow room with no human contact, which means the risk of pathogens and other contaminants is lower. Sensors monitor moisture, pH, light and nutrients and adapt them to the needs of the plants.
Chris Olsen, a fifth season investor at Columbus-based venture capital firm Drive Capital, says season five “cracked the code of profitable vertical farming – an industry first.” Olsen predicts the Giant Eagle contract renewal will be one of many Fifth Season to announce this year “as more retailers and food service companies begin to see the benefits of the Fifth Season model.”
Webb met Lawrence at Carnegie Mellon University in 2015. With a shared zeal for collaborative robotics, they decided to apply advanced technology to agriculture and invited Brac Webb to join their team. Their idea was to develop a hyper-local farm system that feeds the community around them and can be replicated anywhere.
That will happen soon, Webb says, although he can’t yet specify exactly where the company will be opening new facilities and which customers it will be adding.
“We feel happy as entrepreneurs,” he says. “Usually you feel good when you can solve a problem, but we are very lucky to be able to solve a handful of them.”