Robots Take Vertical Farming to New Heights
Braddock, Pa., is where Andrew Carnegie first mass-produced steel. The city, now one-tenth its former size, is home to a new kind of industry: robotic farms that grow greens inside buildings.
Fifth Season is the brainchild of brothers Austin and Brac Webb, and co-founder Austin Lawrence. “We view vertical farming as really a smart manufacturing system,” says Austin Webb. “We just happen to manufacture living organisms.”
The partners consider their fledgling enterprise as more than a means to feed people, but also a chance to work with a community in need. Almost none of the old steel plant’s employees live in Braddock. Conversely, everyone hired to work at Fifth Season lives close by and in the surrounding communities. “We’re creating a workforce of the future,” Webb says. “It’s an entirely new ag-manufacturing job that hasn’t existed before.”
Automated City Farming
Two shifts of 20 people oversee operations at the vertical farm. And like the steel maker across the road, the work never stops. Dressed in blue scrubs and lab coats, with heads covered and gloves on their hands, workers inside the plant look more like medical research professionals than farmers. The entire process, from seed to harvest, is controlled robotically. “What we have built is the industry first, and industry only, end-to-end automated platform,” says Webb.
Fifth Season’s proprietary software allows efficiencies otherwise not attainable. Spinach, arugula and other greens move around the 60,000-square-foot facility in plastic trays, each with its own unique ID. Sensors are constantly monitoring everything from nutrient mix, carbon dioxide levels and light spectrum, in order to ensure that the greens follow their prescribed grow recipe. Every plant can be traced from any point in the process, at any time.
Webb is quick to tout the advantages of vertical farming. Fifth Season uses up to 95 percent less water and 98 percent less land than conventional farming. Water from the municipal system is filtered and proprietary nutrients added before getting to the plants directly through their roots. “It means you can replicate any form of soil environment,” he says. Whatever water is not used by the plants is retreated and recirculated, with nutrients added as needed. A peat mix is used to support the roots, but all the nutrients are in the water, not the “soil.”
With only their faces exposed, employees work among the various conveyor belts that crisscross the high, white-walled rooms of Fifth Season’s production floor. But there are no humans in the adjacent grow room, where tightly spaced racks, supporting trays of plants, are stacked 30 feet high, bathed in an otherworldly purple-magenta glow. The dramatic color comes from the LEDs that replicate the most useful parts of the spectrum of sunlight. “You can’t control the sun,” Says Webb. “But what you can control are LEDs.”
“Compared to some other vertical farms out there, we have a lot more density,” says Webb. “We’re able to have more racks that grow inside the same space.” Moving trays is a task well-suited to a machine. Not only does the robot fit into places no human could, it always knows where every tray of greens should be, and for how long.
Vertical Farming Comes to Braddock
After a five-year career in finance, Austin Webb enrolled in an MBA program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “I believe that robotics will possibly disrupt every industry in the world,” he says. “And so I went to C.M.U., specifically because it’s the No. 1 school in computers, science and robotics.”
There he met Austin Lawrence, who shared his interest in controlled environment agriculture. Together they visited a few vertical farms, coming to the conclusion that what was needed was an entire robotic platform, something the two of them could not accomplish on their own. Webb’s brother Brac, a self-described engineer and entrepreneur, was soon recruited to help. Their new business was incorporated in 2016, initially as RoBotany, which later morphed into Fifth Season.
With financial backing in hand, the partners looked for a place to build, quickly settling on nearby Braddock. They broke ground in May of 2019, were installing equipment less than a year later and were at full production before the end of 2020. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for resurgence in a place like this,” says Webb. “A lot of folks that stayed are passionate around Braddock being able to grow and thrive and we want to be a part of that.”
Present Day Braddock
Against the backdrop of empty and dilapidated storefronts, “The Ohringer,” a former furniture store built in the streamline moderne style of the 1940s, has recently been completely rebuilt and modernized as apartments and studio space for artists. Applicants are expected to present their work for review and answer a few questions, one of which is “why are you interested in becoming part of Braddock’s resurgence?”
Not only does Braddock lay claim to Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, but also the first Carnegie library, dedicated in 1889. Narrowly escaping demolition in the 1970s, the impressive stone structure is today undergoing a comprehensive restoration and modernization. Bright yellow notices of this year’s street sweeping schedule are affixed to telephone poles near the library and all over town, an indication that the local government is still functioning.
At best, the little farm on Braddock Avenue can produce 13 plantings of greens in a year. It is entirely different from the computer-controlled, machine-driven, non-stop production that takes place a few blocks away at Fifth Season, where a half-acre indoors can produce the equivalent of nearly 100 acres of farmland. But higher yields don’t matter as much if a significant portion is ultimately lost in transit to the table.
Serving a Market
Localized food production means less spoilage and waste. “If it takes anywhere from five to eight days to go from California to Pittsburgh, you’ve just lost five to eight days of shelf life,” says Austin Webb. Most of what Fifth Season produces is consumed in the Pittsburgh area. “The day after it was cut, not 10 days later.” Their ready-to-eat salads can be purchased at a local supermarket chain, or delivered directly to the consumer at home, a direct response to the pandemic. Local restaurants, hospitals and universities are also customers.
Convinced they have successfully demonstrated the viability of their proprietary technology, the three partners are looking to expand beyond western Pennsylvania. “We can build these anywhere… even larger than what we have here today,” says Austin Webb. “And we don’t have to re-create the wheel. It’s not like it would take us another five years.”
Conversations are already taking place about licensing the technology, proceeding in partnership with someone else, or going it alone. “That will allow us to build a facility just like we built in Braddock, in other parts of the U.S., and other parts of the world, even faster.”
A Job You Can Walk to
Andrew Carnegie built his steel mill in the Mon Valley because he needed the river, the raw materials, and access to labor. His plant was expressly designed to use the Bessemer Process, the first method to inexpensively mass-produce steel. Nearly 150 years later, the Webb brothers and their partner Austin Lawrence chose the exact same location to showcase their own new manufacturing technology and to fill a need in the community. “Knowing that we could build these anywhere, we wanted to build in Braddock because we knew that we could create jobs,” says Austin Webb. “That we could create this new workforce of the future.”
Davis is 32 years old, and anxious to put the past behind him. “To have a job that you like, where you live, it’s comfortable,” he says. “And you can see that this is going to change Braddock for the better, because it gives the residents jobs, and new innovations. It’s going to bring life.”