With understatement, Sonia Lo ’84, sums up her business: “I grow food in boxes,” she says. “I’m a box farmer.” Lo readily admits that farming is not where she thought she’d end up. But as the CEO of Fresh Box Farms (formerly Pure Genius), she and her vertical hydroponic enclosures have the potential to transform the way we eat, and improve the health of our planet in the process.
As the 2015–16 Hall Fellow, an annual endowed lectureship named in honor of former headmistress Elizabeth B. Hall (1949–63), Lo came to speak to Concord Academy students this week, just after giving a talk at TEDx Beacon Street in Boston. She followed her time on campus with an event for the CA community in Cambridge, a CATalk entitled “From Financier to Farmer: The transition from impact investing to a focus on fixing our food supply chain.” Lo asked her audiences to think about how we grow food in a radically different way.
“This matters because I think we all like to believe that our supply chain in the U.S. is full of fresh, clean, reliable food,” she said during the Hall Fellow assembly. For the most part that’s accurate, Lo said, “but because we live in an industrialized food system, it’s becoming less and less true.”
The issues with our destabilized and unsustainable food system have been popularized by the likes of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, among others, but the facts bear repeating. In the last century, the U.S. produce industry has been condensed into the hands of just five families who are relying more and more on pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Today, 70% of the fresh water used on the planet goes toward agriculture. Of that, an astonishing 90% is lost in field-grown farming to evaporation, while the last application of water — in the triple-washed model for leafy greens — is mixed with salt and chlorine. In a world of increased resource scarcity, where the American West has been gripped by a historic drought, water use of this kind is unsustainable. Meanwhile, land degradation, climate change, and pollution have reduced reliability and safety globally.
Sonia Lo ’84 speaking with students following her Hall Fellow Lecture | photo by Ben Carmichael
Our food system is broken, and Lo is out to fix it. She has turned conventional wisdom on its head — or perhaps on its side — by pioneering high-density, high-yield, pesticide- and GMO-free vertical hydroponic farming in indoor enclosures. Her company plants heirloom seeds to support biodiversity, regulates nutrients by parts per million, and refines LED lighting to match the exact spectrum of light on which plants thrive.
What makes Lo’s BoxFarming method so efficient? First, let’s consider water use. Fresh Box Farms use 18,000 gallons of water per year for every 320-square-foot container. The same production from a field would require 46 million gallons. Even the evaporation is captured in Lo’s closed systems. Fertilizer use is controlled so completely that the wastewater at the end of the growing cycle is cleaner than most municipal water supplies.
Second, let’s look at the use made of the plants themselves. When grown in a Californian field under optimal conditions, a head of lettuce takes 65 days to mature. At Fresh Box Farms, a first cut takes 18; because the root systems are left intact, subsequent cuts take less than a third of that time. “Density matters,” said Lo. One box of Fresh Box Farm’s produce is equivalent to the harvest from 20 acres of farmland. That’s enough to feed 1,500 families per month.
Third, with a model of hyperlocal production near urban centers, Fresh Box Farms is delivering fresh greens to supermarkets in the Northeast the day after harvest. Handing out store samples last winter, Lo witnessed shoppers’ surprise at the intensity of the fresh-picked flavor. The company started selling in February 2015, at a price point equal to organic, and Lo predicts profitability for its first farm by April 2016.
How I Became an Unlikely Urban Farmer: Lo’s CATalk at Catalyst in Cambridge, Mass. | photo by Kristie Gillooly
She’s betting big. Over the next five to ten years, she predicted, half of the leafy greens grown in America will be grown indoors. Through tireless innovation and a commitment to staying small and nimble, Fresh Box Farms has kept its costs far below its competitors’ in this fledgling industry.
Lo’s love of learning at CA, her understanding of how to dissect a problem, her studies at Stanford and later Harvard Business School, her two years of training as a chef, her background as an investor and advisor, and her work for large companies — all came to bear as she threw herself into running Fresh Box Farms.
“I spend my every waking moment thinking about lettuce,” she said. “And on alternate days, for variety’s sake, I think about kale, or spinach, or basil.” But her vision is broader. Lo’s approach balances arguments familiar to natural food movements — for example, the commitment to biodiversity — with strong business sense: She aims for high density and high yield. Fresh Box Farms is working toward offering nutritionally complete foods, adding legumes (including, potentially, aflatoxin-free peanuts) and rapid-growth grains. And with the development of alternative energy systems, Lo hopes, this technology could eventually feed the developing world.
During her visit to campus, Lo was generous in her interactions, meeting with the DEMONs (Dreamers, Engineers, Mechanics, and Overt Nerds) student group and with engineering and precalculus classes. She also talked with students at an Entrepreneur Speaker Series lunch — even giving practical growing advice to one student who was experimenting with an aquaponic system in a fish tank in his bedroom.
Asked by a student what she, as an individual, and the school community can do to help, Lo said, “Write about it. Blog about it. Talk about it. Get the word out about this new technology.” Interaction by interaction, taste by taste, Lo is offering a challenge to imagine a new revolution in agriculture — a different way forward that is better for our health and for our planet.