French startup Agricool believes the fruit flown around the world and stacked onto supermarkets shelves ain't what it used to be, so it has hatched a plan to recapture the authentic flavors of yesterday's fresh produce. The company has just raised €4 million (US$4.2 million) in funding to develop specialized shipping containers that can be used to grow full-flavored fruit a little closer to home.
The firm's fresh fruit approach sets it apart from similar shipping container farm outfits like Cropbox and Freight Farms, which typically focus on leafy greens. The first fruit that Agricool is focusing on is the strawberry, a produce it says is the poster-boy for tasteless supermarket fruit.
Agricool kits out its shipping containers as hydroponic growing units, designed to optimize growing conditions like nutrient levels, irrigation, LED lighting and CO2. The air drawn in from outside is filtered in an effort to minimize the possibility of pollution entering the containers.
"We have 30 engineers in house, working all day to improve the technology," company co-founder Guillaume Fourdinier explains to New Atlas. "If you don't do that, you are only able to grow leafy greens. Our mission is to bring back taste in our fruits and vegetables, and we don't feel that it has been lost for leafy greens."
Vertical grow-walls, rather than stacked trays, are used as this is said to make it possible to grow more per square meter, with each container able to house more than 4,000 strawberry plants. Agricool says each container can produce 120 times more than would be the case on the same area of a field. The crops produced are also claimed to be more vitamin-rich, free of harmful chemicals and pesticides and conveniently, don't need washing before they're eaten.
The closed loop system employed for water and nutrients uses 90 percent less water than would be required for conventional cultivation and only electricity from renewable sources is used. What's more, the basic tending of the containers can be done by people with no experience in farming, while Agricool actually monitors the health of the crop and controls water and nutrient feeds remotely.
Only 30 sq m (323 sq ft), or the area of two car parking spaces, is required for each container. It is hoped that this distributed mode of growing can ultimately serve whole urban areas, while also helping to cut transportation time, costs and emissions.
Agricool was founded last year by Fourdinier and his colleague Gonzague Gru, both children of farming parents, because they couldn't find high-quality fruit and vegetables in cities. This, they say, is because crops are harvested too soon so that they don't spoil during transport and because they're chosen for their ability to travel, rather than for taste.
The firm's first prototype was installed in Bercy, in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, France, late last year and there are now three prototypes in operation. It has spent this year conducting research and development, and the new funding will be used to speed up Agricool's growth, with the goal for next year to roll-out 75 containers, distribute 91 tons of strawberries and begin work on two new types of crop.