Fifth Season team in Braddock. Photo courtesy of Fifth Season.

How do you plant a farm in the middle of Braddock? Easy. Just build up.

This week, the Pittsburgh-based startup Fifth Season announced its plans to build a 60,000-square-foot vertical farm in the borough better known for steel mills than agribusiness.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, co-founder Austin Webb says the company was attracted by the chance to collaborate with local civic organizations. While the building at 1050 Talbot Avenue won’t open until early 2020, Webb says Fifth Season is already talking with the borough council about hosting STEAM education programs for area students.

“A big part of our social mission here at Fifth Season is to engage with communities,” says Webb. “With our complicated food system, we think people are disconnected from their food.”

Webb launched the startup in 2016 with co-founders Daniel Seim, Brac Webb and Austin Lawerence while he was a student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. Originally known as RoBotany, the company applies machine learning and robotics to farming. They’re able to grow produce vertically indoors at a fraction of the cost of traditional agriculture.

As opposed to conventional agribusiness, which involves transporting produce from growing regions to stores around the country via gas-guzzling airplanes and trucks, “we’re able to have produce on shelves and in people’s hands within 24 hours,” says Webb.

They collaborated locally with merchants like Giant Eagle and Whole Foods Market, as well as restaurants like honeygrow, Kahuna and their new neighbor Superior Motors.

The company, which has raised $35 million so far and is rebranding as Fifth Season, will remain headquartered at its development space on the South Side, which includes two smaller vertical farms. But along with the new building in Braddock, Webb says they’re considering further expansion in Pittsburgh.

They’re also laying the groundwork to open additional locations elsewhere in the country. Webb isn’t commenting yet on exactly which cities or regions they’re considering, but he says “we’re currently looking at a number of different sites.”

The Braddock farm will be partially solar-powered and Fifth Season estimates that it will require 95 percent less water compared to a similarly-sized traditional farm, thanks to the company’s proprietary water filtration and recycling system. The building will be located on a vacant lot near US Steel’s Edgar Thompson Plant.

Fifth Season designed the building in-house. Local construction companies RDC Inc. and Fazio Mechanical Services Inc. will serve as contractors.

While preparing to open the new vertical farm, Webb says the company hopes to hire staff from the Braddock community. He envisions around 40 staff members working alongside a team of 40 autonomous robots.

The farm is expected to produce more than 500,000 pounds of lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula and herbs in its 25,000-square-foot grow room during the first year of operation.

“We’re starting with leafy greens and herbs, but this is just the beginning,” says Webb. “There’s a lot of possibilities and a lot of innovation yet to come.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.