In the shadow of the massive Edgar Thomson Works steel mill that looms over Braddock, lies a farm.
It’s inside a 60,000-square-foot industrial building, powered by solar panels — and will produce more than 500,000 pounds of leafy greens in its first year of operation.
“Our small farm in Braddock that’s literally just over an acre, is actually really equal to about 300 acres of the outdoors,” says Grant Vandenbussche, chief category officer of Fifth Season. “It’s kind of crazy to think that about 300 acres just moved into Braddock.”
Indoor vertical farms exist elsewhere, but nowhere with the level of automation and artificial intelligence used by Fifth Season.
“Our growing room, which in some cases is 13 levels tall, is all completely done by the software system: how much light it needs, how much water it needs; we have air that blows across the plants and tickles them so they can work their core and provide a perfect crunch.”
Fifth Season, which started out as RoBotany, has robots doing all the hard jobs.
“Forty-foot-tall robots are grabbing trays of plants and putting them way up high, in places where people would otherwise be riding in scissor lifts carrying super heavy trays,” says Vandenbussche. “They’re doing all the heavy lifting. In other cases, there are smaller robots that are literally just checking on the plants. Making sure they look good, taking pictures, feeding those back into our database, using our AI, letting us know that the growing recipe that we have planned is actually working.”
The greens they grow can be found at several area Giant Eagle stores, and in a few weeks, will be available at all Market District locations. They’re also at all Coffee Tree Roasters shops and My Goodness in Regent Square.
Spinach and arugula are the basic building blocks of Fifth Season’s business, and Vandenbussche thinks there’s a clear difference in flavor.
“It’s this burst of water and flavor that you don’t get in that conventional flat, steely spinach,” he notes. “Because we’ve treated each leaf with such care.”
They have two mixes of greens for sale, the Bridge City Blend (Chinese cabbage, red and green tatsoi, and red and green frilly mustard), and the Three Rivers Blend (leaf broccoli, green Mizuna, red pac choi, red frilly mustard, and red mustard greens).
Fifth Season has also launched an e-commerce operation, where people within 20 miles of Downtown Pittsburgh can order salad kits and have them delivered to their door. There’s a Sweet Grains Salad Kit featuring the Bridge City Blend, along with feta cheese, chickpeas, quinoa, crunchy dried corn and a poppyseed dressing. There’s also the Crunchy Sesame Salad Kit features the Three Rivers Blend, with honey sesame sticks, dried cranberry, farro and a ginger mandarin dressing.
Fifth Season not only uses a fraction of the land of traditional farming, it also uses a fraction of the water.
“Outdoors, when you’re spraying a garden, or spraying big agricultural fields, you’re wasting a lot of water spraying the ground hoping some of it goes to the plant,” says Vandenbussche. “Everything else ends up as runoff pollution that we learn about in elementary school, and how that ends up in our watershed.”
“We use up to 95 percent less water. We are delivering all of the nutrient-rich water directly to the root. Anything that doesn’t get absorbed by the plant, we actually capture and recirculate through the system.”
It takes a bit over two weeks to grow arugula at Fifth Season, as opposed to 40 days outdoors, notes Vandenbussche.
Even though so much of the operation is automated, there are human jobs involved. Fifth Season employs about 30 people full time, and 30 part-time, and they are currently hiring.
“We have people who have in some cases less than high school level certifications, working alongside some of the most advanced robotics in the world,” says Vandenbussche. “We know that we’re not the solution to the workforce of the future, but we’re creating new agricultural jobs in a community that really needs it.”
Fifth Season recently won an Honorable Mention in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Awards, in the Food category.
Pittsburgh Penguins legend Mario Lemieux has begun a partnership with Fifth Season, though they’re not ready to announce exactly what that means yet.
“Fifth Season’s exciting technology is a game-changer for Pittsburgh,” says Lemieux. “They are positively impacting people’s health and happiness by growing large quantities of delicious fresh food, right here in our hard-working industrial communities. Fifth Season is advancing the legacy of our city and I am proud to partner with the team.”
The near future will be all about supplying Pittsburgh with healthy greens. Further in the future, though, this model could work anywhere.
“We designed this farm to be able to be repeated,” says Vandenbussche. “Hyperlocalizing the food in Pittsburgh is fantastic for the people of Pittsburgh, but to realize the goals we have in terms of sustainably disrupting the current food distribution system, I think that will take other cities.”