Atlanta-based Podponics is looking to joint ventures in Dubai and Singapore as the first step to selling its pesticide-free, locally grown lettuce in densely populated urban centers internationally.
The company got its start five years ago growing lettuce in empty shipping containers using hydroponics, a method in which the grower supplies the plant with water, nutrients and light in a controlled environment. Proponents say it fights two key problems: dwindling arable land and growing use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms in agriculture.
Podponics’s first local “farm” was an abandoned parking lot on Ponce de Leon Avenue, but it later graduated to the Southside Industrial Park five miles east of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as local restaurants and grocery stores began buying its mix of greens.
Now, it’s looking at two of the world’s quintessential logistics hubs. In partnership with Emirati investors, PodPonics is building a pilot farm with five containers in Dubai during the first quarter of 2014, Jonathan Hehn, head of processing for PodPonics, told Global Atlanta. The company is still in talks with investors in Singapore. It’s also planning to adding 31 pods to the existing 25 in Atlanta.
Why lettuce? It made sense environmentally and economically, Mr. Hehn said.
“We chose to grow lettuce because it’s the biggest perishable food commodity in the country and there is a high turnover—you can grow it quickly,” he said.
It’s also about distance. About 90 percent of farm-grown lettuce in the U.S. comes from California and Arizona, the only states with suitable climates for industrial-scale farms. But that means either a long road trip or plane ride for lettuce heading to the Southeast.
Although it’s near the airport, PodPonics doesn’t fly any of its products. Instead, it put the facility there to be close to an existing produce distribution chain, which has a key node in Forest Park.
“We found being close to the distribution hub reduces the most food miles,” Mr. Hehn said. “We currently have distributors from the farmers market pick up and take it to Kroger's hub in East Point and Whole Foods distribution center in Braselton. We also supply several independent grocers, Sevananda, Candler Park Market, Savi, Mercantile and Boxcar Grocer through distributors at the state farmers market.” PodPonics mainly supplies romaine, green oak leaf, and red oak leaf varieties of lettuce.
Mr. Hehn was the first hire for the startup, founded by Atlantan Matt Liotta. He helped develop Podponics's patented PVC-pipe hydroponic systems, which the company installs in shipping containers converted to growing pods. Inside, fluorescent lights line the top of each row of lettuce, and an Internet-controlled system of fans and pipes cools the air and dispenses nutrient water to the plants.
"We are a tech company. We aren’t buying or selling hydroponic systems. We have patents on growing apparatuses and lighting systems. This gives us the ability to grow in areas where other may not be able to,” Mr. Hehn said.
Keimar Maynard, head agronomist, ensures that the simulated environment remains consistent and sterile. In this way, one container can grow the equivalent of one to one-and-a-half acres of lettuce. Given that the pods can be stacked, ramping up production requires little extra land.
“We don’t need hundreds of acres of land; we just need a few acres and we can build up and make the same amount of money and grow the same amount of crops,” Mr. Maynard said.