In row after row, stack upon stack, thousands of seedlings sprout, bathed in the glow of an artificial blue light. There is no sun. There is no dirt.
This isn't the illegal crop that might first spring to mind. This is lettuce being grown in a repurposed storage container. And, according to Matt Liotta, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based PodPonics, this is the future of farming.
In the coming year, Liotta plans to shift the geography of Atlanta's produce shelves. Today, if you buy a bag of lettuce from a grocery store in Georgia, it most likely came from California. By the time the vegetable arrives in the Peach State, nutritional value has been wasted, excess energy expended, and dollars lost to the local economy. It doesn't have to be this way, says the Ansley Park resident. And if he's right, soon it may not be.
Trained as a computer scientist, Liotta has taken a high-tech approach to try and solve the local food conundrum of how to provide mass quantities of fresh, nutritious, tasty, chemical-free produce at competitive prices in an urban setting.
The Emory University graduate's answer: grow upward. By outfitting old, stackable shipping containers with proprietary technology that feeds the plants with precise measurements of the water, light, oxygen, and nutrients they need, Liotta has figured out how to use relatively little land to safely grow massive amounts of pesticide-free lettuce that can be packaged and delivered to consumers the same day it's harvested. In 2012, PodPonics produced 62 tons of the salad staple. Liotta plans to triple that in 2013.
Growing leafy greens in a storage container is a far cry from the image of a farmer tending fields of lettuce, and the unconventional method has its critics. But some local food activists say companies such as PodPonics play an important role in sustainable local agriculture.
"In spite of the gains in community gardens, farmers markets, [community-supported agriculture], and other alternative food outlets, the local food system has struggled to provide the quantity, consistency and price points required by large grocery chains and institutional purchasers," says Julie Self of the Atlanta Local Food Initiative. "PodPonics is designed to adapt well to these needs, making the local food system more accessible to all."
Liotta argues that because the Podponics method greatly reduces transportation costs, it's better for the environment and the consumer. He also obviously thinks it makes good business sense. Lettuce is light but bulky, making it pricey to ship. But there's a huge demand for the vegetable: According to 2009 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes 28.1 pounds of lettuce each year, which translates economically into a $23-billion-a-year business.
"It's not tomatoes," says Liotta. "It's not a sexy crop. It's just lettuce. But it's enormous."
Liotta launched PodPonics in 2010 with five containers tucked away at the back of a parking lot along Ponce de Leon Avenue near City Hall East. The 13-member company now boasts 20 crates on a stretch of otherwise undevelopable land under flight paths near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It's installing another 30 containers on the property, as well as a new processing facility that will allow it to package the produce on-site. PodPonics currently provides lettuce to Atlanta Public Schools, Emory, and Georgia Tech, and expects to be in a major grocery store chain by next spring.
Liotta is also taking this local approach global. He has five containers on the ground in Dubai, where consumers are also buying their lettuce from California. If PodPonics can successfully adjust the company's technology to Dubai's hot, arid climate, 50 more containers will be added.
Some critics bristle at PodPonics' unnatural methods and its decision to use electricity rather than the sun. Liotta counters that conventional farming, with its copious use of pesticides, chlorine, and ecologically harmful transportation costs, can be equally as unnatural. He says he's looking not just years, but decades ahead, when food demands are higher, arable land scarcer, and (one hopes) more of our electricity comes from renewable sources.
"We are the electric car of agriculture," Liotta says. "We are ready for the future."