How Oishi’s vertical farms grow strawberries that sell for $ 20 per box

Oishii does not grow your typical strawberries. First, a box of six extra large berries sold for $ 50 at Whole Foods.

The New Jersey-based company’s berries also do not taste like your typical strawberries: they are sweeter, with a denser, juicier center. The taste, aroma and “buttery texture” are constructed in three vertical farms: two in New Jersey and one in Los Angeles.

“[The strawberries] average somewhere between two to three times more in sweetness level, compared to what is conventionally grown in the US, says Oishii co-founder and CEO Hiroki Koga to CNBC Make It. “When you taste our berries, it̵[ads1]7;s simply a completely different experience.”

Koga, a former vertical farm consultant in Japan, immigrated to California to study at UC Berkeley’s MBA program in 2015. While shopping at a local market, he noticed that American strawberries looked “shiny and big and delicious,” but were in fact “watery and lacked taste.”

Co-founder and CEO Hiroki Koga of Oishii’s Vertical Strawberry Farm. The facility in Jersey City is the largest vertical strawberry farm in the world, according to Koga.

Courtsey of Oishii

After graduating in 2017, Koga and co-founder Brendan Somerville, a recent MBA from UCLA, began hand-building a vertical strawberry farm themselves. There was no plan to follow: At that time, vertical farms contained primarily leafy greens, which grow relatively quickly and do not require bipollination to grow. And despite his consulting experience, Koga had never actually built one himself before.

Somerville and Koga watched YouTube videos to find out how to cultivate the farm, and spent a year with consultants figuring out how to maintain a suitable environment for both the strawberries and bees that had to pollinate the plants.

The result: Oishii’s vertical farms are both greener and cleaner than a typical farm. And although these $ 50 boxes are regularly sold out, the company recently cut the price to $ 20 per box – a step towards the ultimate goal of making eco-friendly food available to everyone, not just those with extra money.

Here’s what you get when you pay $ 20 for a box of six extra large, eight large or 11 medium-sized berries:

Guaranteed and measurable sweetness

Oishii’s largest vertical farm is located in Jersey City, New Jersey. With its 74,000 square meters, it is also the largest vertical farm in the world, according to Koga. The facility houses the vertical farm itself, office space and a laboratory, where berries from each harvest have been tested for Brix, or units with a sugar content that indicates sweetness.

“Conventional farms here in the United States can brix anywhere between four to seven or eight. If you’re really lucky, nine,” says Koga. “Depending on the season, our strawberries brixer consistently between 10 and 15. It’s a completely different quality.”

Oishii grows Omakase strawberries, which are from a specific region in northern Japan. There, the berries are considered a delicacy due to their rare taste, aroma and softness.

CNBC does that

Strawberries in grocery stores are often designed for durability, rinsed with pesticides and picked while underripe. This is how California strawberries can get into kitchens on the Midwest or East Coast – but it comes at the expense of berry softness and juiciness.

Oishii does not even try to solve the same problem: the company only delivers and sells in stores within a radius of about 200 km from its vertical farms. Koga acknowledges that shipping strawberries across the country will improve sales, but says that Oishii’s farms already produce berries with maximum capacity – and shipping to longer distances can reduce the quality of the strawberries, which are grown at low temperatures to preserve freshness.

“We not only want to be a social and sustainable company, but we actually want to offer a product that is better than what is available now,” says Koga.

A smaller environmental footprint and greater impact

When the boxes of six strawberries cost $ 50 each, a single strawberry was worth $ 8.33. Even today’s cut price of $ 3.33 per berry is still quite expensive.

Oishii used to sell a six-pack of “first flower berries” for $ 50. Now priced at $ 20, they are Oishii’s most expensive product because they are larger and more nutritious than other strawberries. They flower first and remain on the plant longer before harvest.

CNBC does that

Koga says that the cost reflects both the quality of the fruit and the production value. Oishii strawberries are grown without pesticides, and use less water than traditional farming methods. And because they are grown indoors, they do not remove the nutrients in agricultural land.

“Sometimes people ask us, ‘Do you take from the farmers jobs?'” Says Koga. “But it is actually quite the opposite, because we do not have enough farmers to feed [the world’s] growing population, and vertical farming allows us to grow crops much more efficiently. “

That’s part of the reason Oishii changed its price point, even though the company regularly sold out of $ 50 boxes: Proving that vertical farming can create affordable products can encourage a change in agriculture – an industry valued at $ 1 trillion in the United States alone in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Until then, Oishi’s farms are still quite expensive to run. But Koga notes that new technology often takes a similar route, starting as clumsy and unaffordable animals before eventually becoming more streamlined, affordable and mainstream, such as smartphones and electric vehicles. “We justified the price by offering something that did not exist in the market,” he says.

Koga says that Oishii’s next step is to expand to other types of products – first out are probably tomatoes and melons – while weighing the time-consuming costs of building more vertical farms to keep up with demand.

“We are very confident in making this even more effective over the next five years, 10 years, and really getting to a point where [vertical farming] will be the new standard, where this will be even cheaper than conventional products “, he says.

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