How Oishii’s Vertical Farms are growing strawberries that sell for $20 a box

Oishii does not grow your typical strawberries. For starters, a box of six extra-large berries was selling for $50 at Whole Foods.

The New Jersey-based company’s berries don’t taste like your typical strawberries either: they’re sweeter, with a denser, juicier center. Flavor, aroma and “buttery texture” are crafted at three vertical farms: two in New Jersey and one in Los Angeles.

“[The strawberries] average somewhere between two to three times the level of sweetness, compared to what is conventionally grown in the United States,” Oishii co-founder and CEO Hiroki Koga told CNBC Make It. “Once you’ve tasted our berries, it’s just a completely different experience. “

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

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

Courtesy of Oishii

After graduating in 2017, Koga and co-founder Brendan Somerville, a recent MBA grad from UCLA, started building a vertical strawberry farm themselves. There was no blueprint to follow: Back then, vertical farms featured mostly leafy greens, which grow relatively quickly and don’t require bee pollination to thrive. And despite his consulting experience, Koga had never built one himself before.

Somerville and Koga watched YouTube videos to figure out how to grow the farm and spent a year with consultants figuring out how to maintain a suitable environment for the strawberries and the bees that would need to pollinate the plants.

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

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

Guaranteed and measurable softness

Oishii’s largest vertical farm is in Jersey City, New Jersey. At 74,000 square feet, it’s also the largest vertical farm in the world, according to Koga. The facility houses the vertical farm itself, offices and a lab, where berries from each harvest are tested for Brix, or units of sugar content that indicate sweetness.

“Conventional farms here in the United States could Brix between four and seven or eight. If you’re really lucky, nine,” Koga says. “Depending on the season, our strawberries always have a Brix between 10 and 15. That’s a completely different quality.

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

CNBC do it

Grocery store strawberries are often designed for shelf life, rinsed with pesticides and picked when unripe. This is how California strawberries can end up in Midwestern or East Coast cuisines, but it comes at the expense of the sweetness and juiciness of the berries.

Oishii doesn’t even try to solve the same problem: the company only ships and sells to stores within about 20 miles of its vertical farms. Koga acknowledges that shipping strawberries nationwide would improve sales, but says farms in Oishii are already producing berries at maximum capacity – and shipping greater distances could decrease the quality of the strawberries, which are grown at low temperatures to preserve freshness.

“We don’t want to just be a social and sustainable business, but we actually want to deliver a better product than what’s currently available,” says Koga.

A smaller environmental footprint and greater impact

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

Oishii was selling 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 stay on the plant longer before harvest.

CNBC do it

Koga says the cost reflects both the quality of the fruit and its production value. Oishii strawberries are grown without pesticides and use less water than traditional farming methods. And because they’re grown indoors, they don’t strip farmland of nutrients.

“Sometimes people ask us, ‘Are you taking jobs away from farmers?'” Koga says. “But it’s quite the opposite, because we don’t have enough farmers to feed [the world’s] growing population, and vertical farming allows us to grow crops much more efficiently. »

This is part of the reason why Oishii changed its price, even though the company regularly sold $50 boxes: proving that vertical farming can create affordable products could spur a sea change in farming – a industry valued at $1 trillion in the US alone in 2020, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Until then, Oishii farms remain quite expensive to operate. But Koga notes that new technologies often take a similar route, starting out as clumsy and prohibitively expensive before eventually becoming more streamlined, affordable and mainstream, like smartphones and electric vehicles. “We justified the price by offering something that didn’t exist on the market,” he says.

Koga says Oishii’s next step is to expand into other forms of produce – likely tomatoes and melons first – while weighing the tedious cost of building more vertical farming facilities to meet Requirement.

“We’re very confident that we’ll make this even more effective in the next five, 10 years, and really get to a point where [vertical farming] becomes the new normal, where it becomes even more affordable than conventional products,” he says.

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