A major partnership is growing for Fifth Season, a Braddock startup that provides locally grown leafy greens through a unique system of vertical and robotic farming.
The company says its partnership with Giant Eagle, Inc. is expanding from 10 locations to more than 75 Giant Eagle and Market District stores in the Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus metro areas.
Fifth Season supplies Giant Eagle with its Bridge City Blend and Three Rivers Blend greens as well as its Crunchy Sesame and Sweet Grains ready-to-eat salads.
Its products also are available at a few local independent grocers, but the Giant Eagle distribution agreement means they could reach more than 650,000 households. Fifth Season also sells additional products online.
Austin Webb, Fifth Season’s co-founder and CEO, says the company’s automated platform, run entirely by its integrated software and ordering system, enables it to provide greens that stay fresh more than three times longer than products grown in fields. The proprietary robotics and AI are industry firsts that positioned the company for success.
“It’s been very exciting times. The growth of the company is exciting, the local jobs that we’ve created — all that is very rewarding. And we’re ready to do a lot more,” says Webb.
O’Hara-based Giant Eagle is one of the nation’s largest food retailers and distributors, with $9.2 billion in annual sales.
Produce is a $60 billion industry in the U.S., but most produce is grown in Arizona, California or outside the country and then transported thousands of miles before reaching store shelves. Fifth Season’s vertical farming eliminates the pitfalls of conventional produce, such as lettuce that wilts quickly.
Webb and his co-founders — Austin Lawrence and Webb’s brother, Brac — approached vertical farming as smart manufacturing. Their goals were to impact food health, by using no harmful chemicals; food security, which is why they built in Braddock; and food waste, by changing America’s broken food distribution system.
In its first full year of operation, the company is set to grow more than 500,000 pounds of produce. Its system uses 95 percent less water and 97 percent less land than produce grown in fields, making Fifth Season’s product more environmentally friendly. Spinach and lettuce are grown in a 25,000-square-foot grow room without human contact, meaning there’s a lower risk for pathogens and other contaminants. Sensors monitor humidity, pH, light and nutrients, adjusting them to the plants’ needs.
Chris Olsen, a Fifth Season investor with the Columbus-based venture capital firm Drive Capital, says Fifth Season “has cracked the code of profitable vertical farming — an industry first.” Olsen predicts the Giant Eagle contract expansion is one of many that Fifth Season will announce this year, “as more retailers and food service companies become aware of the benefits of Fifth Season’s model.”
Webb met Lawrence in 2015 while at Carnegie Mellon University. With a shared zeal for collaborative robotics, they decided to apply advanced technology to farming and invited Brac Webb to join their team. Their idea was to pioneer a hyperlocal farm system that nourishes the community around it and can be replicated anywhere.
That will happen soon, says Webb, though he can’t specify yet where the company will be opening new facilities and which customers it will be adding.
“We feel lucky as entrepreneurs,” he says. “Typically you feel good when you can solve one problem, but we feel really lucky that we’re able to solve a handful of them.”