Natural Grocers Enters Billion-Dollar Vertical Farming Biz
Natural Grocers is the latest grocery chain to go hyperlocal with hydroponic greens grown just steps outside its Green Mountain Lakewood, Colo., store near company headquarters. Its GardenBox hydroponic program, which officially launches July 7, turns out 100% organic lettuces in a 320-square-foot shipping container in the parking lot behind the store.
With GardenBox, Natural Grocers joins the global vertical farming market that is anticipated to reach about $21.2 billion by 2028, according to an April 2021 report by Grand View Research Inc., and is expected to expand at a CAGR of 23.6% from 2021 to 2028.
As all produce at Natural Grocers is organic, the company worked with FarmBox Foods to acquire the shipping container, structure tubes, walls and software system to run GardenBox, and then developed its own program to run its hydroponic farm as an entirely organic operation, GardenBox Manager Michael Boardman told WGB.
Thinking Inside the GardenBox
Here’s how GardenBox works: It nurtures 2,400 plants on the seedling side of the container for three weeks, after which the lettuce is transferred to an adjacent wall for another five or so weeks of growth. Natural Grocers is currently harvesting 700 plants a week—about 4,000 plants a month on six double-sided hydroponic growing walls.
Eight Is Enough—For Now
While Natural Grocers is experimenting with other produce in the container, it is currently focused on eight varieties of lettuce, including Dragoon mini romaine, Truchas red romaine, Merlot butterhead lettuce, Tropicana green leaf lettuce, Hampton Oakleaf lettuce, Brentwood Oakleaf lettuce, Marciano red butterhead lettuce, and Alkindus red butterhead lettuce.
Value and Variety
Natural Grocers launched the program with the “goal to provide more value and more variety to our customers,” Boardman said. For the past several weeks, the grocer has offered free samples of the lettuce in-store. “Customers have been very excited about it,” added Boardman, who said Natural Grocers has given away some 1,100 pads of lettuce in the past week or so.
The lettuce is sold living and loose with the roots attached in a display spinner in the produce department. Signs on the exterior of the store announce the arrival of GardenBox, and brochures on the display unit in-store tell more of the story.
Currently a pilot program, Natural Grocers said it will slowly rollout additional GardenBox concepts to additional stores. It will add a GardenBox to its store in Wheat Ridge, Colo., later this summer.