Oishii does not grow your typical strawberry. For starters, a box of six extra-large kernels was used on sale for $50 at Whole Foods.
The New Jersey-based company’s berries don’t taste like typical strawberries, either: They’re sweeter, with a denser, juicier center. The flavor, aroma, and “buttery texture” are crafted on three vertical farms: two in New Jersey and one in Los Angeles.
“[The strawberries] It averages two to three times the sweetness level, compared to what is traditionally grown in the United States,” Oishii co-founder and CEO Hiroki Koga told CNBC Make It. Once you taste our berries, it’s simply a completely different experience. “
Koga, a former vertical farm consultant in Japan, immigrated to California to study in the UC Berkeley MBA program in 2015. Shopping at the local market, note that American strawberries look “shiny, big, and delicious,” but are actually “watery and lacking in taste.” flavor.”
After graduating in 2017, Koga and co-founder Brendan Somerville, a recent MBA graduate from UCSD, started building a vertical strawberry farm themselves. There was no scheme to follow: at the time, vertical farms featured mainly leafy vegetables, which grow relatively quickly and do not require bee pollination to grow. And despite his consulting experience, Koga had never built one himself before.
Somerville and Koga watched YouTube videos to learn how to grow the farm, and spent a year with advisors to learn how to maintain a proper environment for both strawberries and bees who need to pollinate the plants.
The result: an Oishii vertical farm is greener and cleaner than a typical farm. And while these $50 boxes are regularly sold out, the company recently lowered the price to $20 per box — a step toward its ultimate goal of making eco-friendly food more accessible to everyone, not just those with extra cash.
Here’s what you’ll get when you pay $20 for a box of six extra large, eight large, or 11 medium:
Guaranteed and measurable sweetness
Oishii’s largest vertical farm is in Jersey City, New Jersey. At 74,000 square feet, it’s also the largest vertical farm in the world, according to Koga. The facility houses the vertical farm itself, office space and a lab, where berries from each harvest are tested for Brix, or units of sugar content that indicate sweetness.
“Traditional farms here in the U.S. can have a brix of four to seven or eight. If you’re really lucky, nine,” Koga says. “Depending on the season, our strawberries are always between 10 to 15. They are a completely different quality.”
Grocery store strawberries are often engineered to preserve their shelf life, washed with pesticides, and then picked unripe. This is how California strawberries can make their way into Midwest or East Coast kitchens—but it comes at the cost of the softness and juiciness of the berries.
Oishii isn’t even trying to solve the same problem: The company only delivers and sells in stores within a roughly 20-mile radius of its vertical farm. Koga acknowledges that shipping strawberries nationwide would improve sales, but says Oshi farms are already producing berries at maximum capacity — and shipping farther can reduce the quality of strawberries, which are grown at lower temperatures to preserve their freshness.
“We don’t want to just be a social and sustainable company, but we actually want to offer a better product than what is currently available,” Koja says.
Smaller Environmental Footprint, Bigger Impact
When each packet of six strawberries was priced at $50, one strawberry was worth $8.33. Even today’s reduced cost of $3.33 per berry is still expensive.
Koja says the cost reflects the quality of the fruit and the value of its production. Oishii strawberries are grown without pesticides, and use less water than traditional growing methods. Because it grows indoors, it does not strip farmland of its nutrients.
“People sometimes ask us, ‘Are you taking away jobs from farmers?'” Koga says. “But it is quite the opposite, because we do not have enough farmers to feed them. [the world’s] Population growth, vertical farming allows us to grow crops more efficiently.”
That’s part of the reason Oishii has changed its price point, even though the company has regularly sold $50: Proving that vertical farming can create affordable products could encourage a sea change across farming—a $1 trillion industry in the U.S. alone in 2020, according to US Department of Agriculture.
Until then, Oishii farms remain somewhat expensive to operate. But Koga points out that new technology often takes a similar path, starting out as useless and exorbitantly expensive before eventually becoming more streamlined, affordable, and cool, like smartphones and electric vehicles. “We justified the price by offering something that is not in the market,” he says.
Koga says Oishii’s next step is to expand into other forms of produce — first likely tomatoes and watermelons — while evaluating the time-consuming cost of building more vertical farming facilities to keep up with demand.
“We are very confident in making this more effective in the next five years, or the next 10 years, and really getting to a point where [vertical farming] It becomes the new standard, as this price becomes more affordable than traditional products,” he says.
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