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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.

Greens on a tray inside a vertical robot farm.
Greens leave the grow room at robot farm Fifth Season, ready for harvest.
(Fifth Season)
A decades-long decline of industry in Braddock has left the western Pennsylvania town in ruins. Ten miles upriver from Pittsburgh in the Mon (Monongahela) Valley, most of the city’s factories, businesses and homes were abandoned long ago and leveled. Among the ruins, a sprawling steel mill, built by Andrew Carnegie in 1874, is still producing slabs of steel, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s stained blue walls and maze of giant, rust-colored pipes and vents stand in contrast to the brand-new, block-long, gleaming white structure directly across the street. The mill’s neighbor is Fifth Season, a vertical farm growing greens indoors by stacking racks of plants on top of each other.

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.”
Man walking past an abandoned downtown building.
Since the collapse of the steel industry in Braddock, the borough has struggled to attract new business and residents.
(David Kidd/Governing)

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.”

“We use no herbicides and no pesticides,” Webb says. “And that’s because we have hermetically sealed environments.” The possibility of contamination is all but eliminated. Fifth Season recently received a perfect score from the Safe Quality Food (SQF) program, an international, independent body that certifies food safety management. “The second time in 25 years they gave 100 percent,” he says.

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.”
Trays of greens under colored lights grow vertically inside a building.
Fifth Season’s proprietary systems allow more plants to be grown in less space. The purple-magenta LED lighting replicates the most useful parts of the spectrum of sunlight, improving growth of the greens.
(Fifth Season)
Every few minutes, a robot glides forward and back along a raised guideway that runs down the center of the room, dividing the stacks in half. The machine is not much more than a plain box, just a few feet tall. A metal beam rises from its back, extending to the ceiling. Its task is to place and remove trays of plants, taking its instructions from the all-knowing software. Because they are so tightly spaced, more trays can be stacked on top of each other, resulting in greater production.

“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.”
Modern white building adjacent to an older steel factory.
In the foreground, Fifth Season’s new structure stands in contrast to the steel plant behind it that still dominates the town.
(David KIDD/Governing)
Andrew Carnegie’s mill was the first of many that would proliferate in the Mon Valley, making it the nation’s steel capital. The churches, schools, stores and restaurants that served the town’s 20,000 inhabitants are mostly gone now. Shops and services are few and far between for the 2,000 that remain. “The nearest grocery store is up the hill, two towns over,” says Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones. “And most people don’t have cars.” It’s a hot day in June when a few of the locals gather in a brand-new park along Braddock Avenue. Everyone agrees the park is nice, but it’s no consolation for the hospital that used to stand on the site.
Old tall, narrow houses on a hilled street.
Many years ago, steel workers and their families lived close to the mill.
(David Kidd/Governing)
A few blocks away, an ever-present din still emanates from Carnegie’s steel mill, and a parade of trucks continues to roll past the boarded-up stores and empty lots that line the borough’s main thoroughfare. “We have a lot of vacant buildings,” says Mayor Jones. “That’s our biggest issue.” But there are signs of a revival among the ruins.

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.
A multi-story apartment building.
A repurposed furniture store now provides updated living and studio space to area artists.
(David Kidd/Governing)
Further up the avenue, more official-looking signs are attached to random telephone poles. “NOTICE, WRITE MORE LOVE LETTERS” says one. “NOTICE, LOVE IS FREE,” says another. The signs were placed there, unofficially, by Gisele Fetterman, wife of former mayor and current Lt. Governor John Fetterman. Among her many initiatives to improve the lives of people in Braddock, she founded the Free Store nine years ago, a place where “surplus and donated goods are received and redistributed to neighbors in need.”

Fifth Season is a regular contributor to the Free Store, having recently given them a new refrigerator and donating 100 pre-packaged salads every Thursday. “We’re treated like we’re a customer,” says Gisele Fetterman. “We’re not getting things that didn’t sell, or surplus. Our families get to come in and choose. They can feel like they are at a grocery store. There is great dignity in the process of being able to choose.”

A woman farming land.
Offering “produce grown in soil by humans in Braddock,” workers at Braddock Farms do it the old-fashioned way.
(David Kidd/Governing)
There are more signs along Braddock Avenue. “BE ALERT: VEGETABLES AHEAD.” Another simply says “TURNIPS.” Back in 2007, when John Fetterman was the mayor, he encouraged a nonprofit group of community gardeners to establish a farm in Braddock. Bisected by a side street, the organic farm has expanded to a little less than an acre in size, growing greens, tomatoes, onions, peppers and eggplant. This is Nick Lubecki’s fourth year as manager of the farm. “We’re here in Braddock, so the people in Braddock are our main focus,” he says. “We want to be useful.”

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.”
 John Davis
Employed since January, John Davis lives less than a block away from Fifth Season. “I have family in Braddock. They’re very happy I’ve got a job.”
(David Kidd/Governing)
Braddock resident John Davis may or may not think of himself as part of the workforce of the future. But he’s happy to have a good job. Covered head to toe in his surgical outfit, he works in the seeding department at Fifth Season, a job he’s held since January. He’s lived here for 20 years, and this is the first job he’s had that didn’t involve a commute. He walks to work from his house, half a block away.

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.”
A mural of an eagle on a building.
While awaiting their fate, many of Braddock’s empty buildings provide space for murals and artwork.
(David Kidd/Governing)
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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