- The startup Plenty has raised $260 million from investors, including Jeff Bezos and SoftBank, to transform agriculture with a type of indoor tech known as vertical farming.
- Seven former employees told Business Insider that Plenty’s leadership repeatedly touted expectations for the company that did not materialize during their time at Plenty.
- Four of the people said they felt unsafe at work on more than one occasion.
- Some of the insiders’ concerns were with Plenty’s technology during their time there; others centered on public statements they feel were, at best, overly ambitious and, at worst, misleading.
- Plenty CEO Matt Barnard told Business Insider the company is proud of its safety record and is using new and improved technology to grow its produce.
- Indoor farming has gained traction in recent years, seen as a potential way to feed more people more efficiently. But the industry has faced some challenges.
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A startup called Plenty raised $260 million from investors including Jeff Bezos and SoftBank to pursue a bold vision of the future of agriculture.
Seven former employees told Business Insider that Plenty’s leadership repeatedly touted expectations for the company that did not materialize during their time at Plenty, leading up to the beginning of this year. At times, they felt the statements failed to distinguish between the company’s ambitions and the reality of what it could produce in the near term, they said.
Four of the insiders said they had felt unsafe at work on more than one occasion. The people, who signed confidentiality agreements, declined to be named for this story.
Christina Ra, a spokeswoman for Plenty, told Business Insider that Plenty is proud of its safety record and that its facilities and technologies are designed to prioritize worker safety.
All seven people described large puddles of water with wires running through them, and said they worked with heavy and bulky equipment that they believed was at risk of falling on other equipment or on workers. Four people said they were concerned about the potential for electrocution.
Matt Barnard, Plenty’s CEO, told Business Insider that Plenty’s electrical systems were developed with worker safety in mind. He said Plenty uses electrical infrastructure designed for wet environments. The company believes the workers concerns are unfounded, and Plenty confirmed that there has never been an electrocution on its premises.
Insiders described leaks and water puddles near power cords
According to five of the people, several versions of Plenty’s food-growing technology didn’t work. Leaks were a regular occurrence, puddles formed constantly, and extension cords used to power distant pieces of equipment would often be submerged or near water, they said.
Some of the insiders said they raised the issues with Plenty but did not immediately hear back.
“When you add it all up, the likelihood of something going wrong was extremely high,” one insider said. “Especially when you have a company that’s figuring out what it’s doing along the way.”
Ra, Plenty’s spokeswoman, had a different view. She said that up until Plenty sold its first produce in May 2018, it was focused on research and development. These efforts involved shifting repeatedly from one growing system to another, she said.
“As for systems that may not have worked during R&D phases, sure, some did not work the way we wanted them to,” Ra said.
Seven people said that in their view, Plenty’s leadership had exaggerated the company’s capabilities on more than one occasion.
In their view, there were two sides to Plenty. There was the inward-facing, scrappy, experimental Plenty that was constantly studying, building things and tearing them down — all in an effort to create the best growing tools possible. Then there was the public-facing Plenty — the one that sold lettuce that people can currently buy from retailers including Good Eggs and Bi-Rite.
Plenty’s remarks to news outlets on its global ambitions
But Plenty’s leadership failed to distinguish between the two sides of the business in ways that they found disingenuous, they said.
For example, as early as 2017, Barnard told CNN, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and people at the global technology conference Web Summit that Plenty could build hundreds and then thousands of farms around the world, and that he intended to open farms abroad starting in 2018.
“We see room, in China and around the world, for hundreds and then thousands of farms,” Barnard told CNN in early 2018.
Two insiders said they were hired with the understanding that Plenty would have multiple international and domestic farms.
Plenty currently has one farm growing produce for retail sale. The company recently said it would open a second farm in Los Angeles. Barnard told Business Insider that the company’s plans to expand in the US and internationally were paused so it could focus on developing its technology.
Barnard has also spoken publicly since 2017 about Plenty’s work growing fruits including strawberries and tomatoes.
For instance, in 2018, Barnard said at Web Summit: “We are growing fruits and vegetables with weeks of additional shelf life.”
“If you can imagine, no more slimy greens, and no more squishy gross strawberries in your refrigerator, that’s what we’ve been working on at Plenty,” he continued.
Plenty has not sold and does not currently sell any fruit. Barnard told Business Insider Plenty was experimenting with growing fruit when he made the statements, however, and added that his comments were aspirational and meant to convey Plenty’s vision of the future.
Another time, Plenty told people on social media that the produce it was serving at an event had been grown locally, when roughly half of it had in fact been trucked in from another state. Barnard acknowledged to Business Insider that 48% of the produce it portrayed as coming from San Francisco was actually trucked in from a now-shuttered Plenty facility in Washington near Seattle.
Several indoor farming startups have faced challenges in recent years.
Aerofarms, a New Jersey-based startup with a large indoor farm, said in a press release that it planned to build 25 farms by the end of 2020. It currently has two farms, according to its website. In 2015, Chicago-based startup FarmedHere unveiled plans to build 18 farms close to major cities, according to Fast Company. That company shut down in 2017, the Chicago Tribune reported.
A bold new way to grow fresh local produce
Plenty was founded in 2013 by Barnard, a tech investor who studied economics and music at Northwestern University; Nate Storey, who started experimenting with vertical agriculture while studying agronomy at the University of Wyoming; and two other people who’ve now left the company.
Since then, the San Francisco venture has grown quickly and raised more money than any other indoor-agriculture company. Bezos invested in Plenty through his venture firm, Bezos Expeditions, during the company’s first and second funding rounds in 2016 and 2017.
SoftBank invested in Plenty’s second round through its mammoth $100 billion Vision Fund, the same fund that backed WeWork and Uber.
“With the backing of SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, Plenty has the capital and connections to accelerate its endgame: building massive indoor farms on the outskirts of every major city on Earth, some 500 in all,” Bloomberg News wrote in 2017.
“Barnard says he’s been meeting with officials from some 15 governments on four continents, as well as executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., while he plans his expansion. He intends to open farms abroad next year,” the story read.
Other high-profile Plenty backers include former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, hedge-fund manager Louis Bacon, and the San Francisco venture firm Data Collective. Plenty was most recently valued at $500 million, and is raising another round of funds estimated at $175 million, according to PitchBook. The new funds would value the company at just over $1 billion, PitchBook estimates. Plenty declined to say whether it’s raising fresh funding.
In recent years, indoor agriculture — specifically vertical farming — has attracted attention worldwide. It’s been presented as one solution to the dilemma of how to grow more food on fewer resources as the world’s population continues to increase.
“When it comes to vertical farming, the sky is the limit,” Ricardo Hernandez, an assistant professor of sustainable horticulture at North Carolina State University, told Business Insider. But there are challenges, he said.
“Sometimes we feel there’s a disconnect between the science being done and some of the facilities or engineering and the entrepreneurs in the business area,” Hernandez said.
Ambitions vs. reality
In 2017, Plenty cofounders Barnard and Storey told Bloomberg News that their technology allowed them to grow large amounts of fresh, longer-lasting produce at cost-competitive prices and with a fraction of the resources required by a conventional, outdoor farm.
At the time, that technology was focused on a type of vertical tower called ZipGrow, made by a company Storey founded in 2010 called Bright Agrotech. In 2017, Plenty acquired Storey’s company for an undisclosed amount, according to PitchBook, and Storey joined Plenty as cofounder and chief science officer.
Insiders said that in initial interviews with Plenty and throughout their hiring process, they were told that ZipGrow was the core technology that would be used to bring Plenty’s produce to market.
One location where that technology would be used, they said, was a new Plenty facility in Kent, Washington, near Seattle.
“Most excitingly, [Plenty] is building a 100,000 square foot vertical-farming warehouse in Kent, Washington, just outside of Seattle, your author’s home town. That farm is expected to be open and delivering produce locally by midyear, and is designed to produce 4.5 million pounds of greens annually,” Vox wrote in an article updated in April 2018. The article linked to a Plenty press release that has now been removed from Plenty’s website.
But two people said that after they started their positions, coworkers surprised them with the news that Storey’s towers didn’t work at the scale that Plenty needed them to operate for such ambitions.
Plenty’s Washington facility started producing greens in the summer of 2018 but closed in November of that year, Ra and Barnard said.
Three of the insiders voiced concerns about the bulkiness of those towers. Some were concerned they might fall over; others described issues with neck and back pain they believed was from harvesting the plants from the towers by hand.
Ra said that Storey’s ZipGrow systems were used exclusively for research and development and not to bring produce to market. She also said the manual work was reflective of earlier versions of Plenty’s technology, rather than its current systems.
“Given that we were moving rapidly from a relatively manual system to a highly automated one, there was an interim period where there was some manual handling of equipment that was designed for ultimate automation,” Ra said. “During that time, we were diligent about swiftly addressing any safety or ergonomic issues.”
Business Insider’s visit to Plenty’s facility
While reporting this article, Business Insider visited Plenty’s South San Francisco facility twice in recent weeks. We saw a large, gleaming, robot-powered facility called Tigris, where the work of harvesting the company’s greens is done without much human involvement.
More than a third of Plenty’s produce is still harvested manually, in an adjacent facility where workers hoist hanging, 6-foot towers onto tables and pull off the greens growing inside by hand.
Produce from the manual part of the facility currently represents 36% of the produce that Plenty sells to vendors, Ra said.
Because harvesting the crops by hand is difficult, employees are limited to harvesting five of the manual towers per day, Barnard said. Barnard later amended this figure to five towers per hour.
Plenty sells four kinds of leafy greens from these farms at a selection of grocery retailers. Plenty’s indoor-farmed arugula retails for $1.10 per ounce on Good Eggs and Instacart. Organic outdoor-farmed arugula made by O Organics sells for $0.36 per ounce on Instacart. Indoor-farmed arugula called Dream Greens, made by Plenty competitor AeroFarms, sells for $0.89 per ounce on ShopRite.
Of the four packaged greens that Plenty currently sells, one — kale — is currently grown in the robotic Tigris farm, Ra said.
Four former employees said Plenty’s initial ZipGrow towers at times displayed uneven plant growth, sub-par or dead produce, and greens occasionally infested with pests. They also said that in the past, wads of microbes and other matter repeatedly clogged up the devices’ watering system.
“There was a lot of building the plane as you fly it mentality,” one insider said.
Ra confirmed that the ZipGrow towers didn’t work for Plenty’s purposes and said Plenty has not used ZipGrow technology since September 2018. Those towers are still in use by other small businesses, Ra said, and work at a small scale.
Ongoing concerns with safety and questions about foreign equipment
This October, Plenty received a complaint from California workplace-safety regulators citing concerns about past leaks of a chemical called ozone as well as inadequate safety training.
Plenty responded to the concerns in a letter that it shared with Business Insider. In the letter, Plenty said its ozone system includes a sensor that detects leaks, and, if one is found, shuts down automatically. Plenty said all employees receive worker-safety training and in August it hired someone whose full-time role is worker safety.
Four of the insiders expressed other concerns, including slippery floors and possible electrocution. A source shared a photo of a large puddle of water at the facility with wires running through it with Business Insider.
Barnard and Ra said that Plenty’s electrical systems were designed to be close to water. As one example, Ra said Plenty used ground-fault circuit interrupters, the types of setups found in the electrical outlets of bathrooms or kitchens, to protect worker safety. The company believes the workers’ concerns are unfounded. There has never been an electrocution on the premises, Ra and Barnard said.
Three insiders said Plenty used tools made by other indoor-agriculture suppliers, such as horizontal growing systems made by a company called Danish Greenhouse Supply, to grow produce that they believe was sold to consumers. At Plenty’s Washington facility, the Scandinavian technologies were present in equal or higher concentrations compared with Plenty’s technologies, the three people said.
Barnard and Ra acknowledged that Plenty used Scandinavian equipment. However, they said the tools were used only for observational and research purposes, and that produce from those systems was never sold.
“We learned a lot but had no reason to keep operating greenhouse equipment that was grossly underperforming in comparison to the equipment we were developing in South San Francisco,” Ra said.
Global expansion plans that have been put on hold, and an Instagram post that drew criticism
In videos, articles, and talks, Barnard has said that Plenty’s approach is doing away with the environmental problems associated with shipping produce long distances on refrigerated trucks.
“The problem today is the thousands of miles and the weeks that perishable fruits and vegetables spend in trucks and warehouses on the way to us,” Barnard told CNBC in a video interview in 2017.
Three of the ex-employees told Business Insider this statement clashed with Plenty’s own behavior on at least one occasion.
In August 2018, Plenty participated in a San Francisco music festival called Outside Lands. On Instagram, Plenty said it was serving produce that it had grown locally, just 11 miles away at its South San Francisco facility.
In reality, although about half of that produce had been grown at its South San Francisco farm, nearly half of it had been trucked in more than 800 miles from its Washington facility. Ra and Barnard confirmed that this occurred.
Two of the insiders said they were troubled by the incident because Plenty’s premise involves growing local produce and benefiting the environment. Trucking in the produce in refrigerated vehicles over long distances would undo any benefits of growing it vertically, in their view.
In another instance in 2017, Barnard said Plenty would expand internationally by the following year. The next year, he told CNN in a video, “We see room in China and around the world for hundreds and then thousands of farms.”
In January 2018, Barnard told Reuters that China could host 300 of its farms. He also said Plenty had “hired a team in Japan” and had “locked down” a few farm sites in that country. Three insiders said none of the above claims were true. They said that after Barnard made the statement about China, he apologized to staff in an all-hands meeting.
Barnard and Ra had a different view.
They told Business Insider that although Plenty does aim to expand internationally, those plans were put on hold so that Plenty could focus on honing its technology.
Barnard said his statements about China were taken out of context by the journalists. He said that in Japan, Plenty had hired one full-time employee in that country and had “signed agreements” for one location. Ra said several SoftBank employees were also looking into Plenty’s expansion there as well, along with several people in the US. Plenty has not yet opened any farms in Japan or asked Reuters to correct the story, Barnard confirmed.
At the end of October, the Los Angeles Times reported that Plenty was opening a facility in LA.
“Now that we have brought the farm inside, we can control the things that control flavor and change the recipe in order to make plants that people like,” Barnard told the newspaper.