The following information is derived from an interview Agritecture conducted with Curt Epperson, Business Development Director of Produce and Floral at Publix Super Markets.
Publix Super Markets, headquartered in Florida, is the largest employee-owned grocery chain in the United States. Since opening in 1930, they have been committed to supporting the communities in which they operate, and a big piece of that is forging connections with local produce growers, whether they are farming traditionally or hydroponically.
As far back as 2008, Publix started working with hydroponic growers Tanimura & Antle out of Livingston, TN. Soon, their hydroponically grown butter lettuce became a best seller for leafy lettuce. Seeing this lettuce grow into having the best sell-through, Publix began to look more seriously at the category.
Their decision to bring in more hydroponically grown greens into their stores has resulted from not only their decades-long commitment to locally sourced food but to greater sustainability as well. “Hydroponics are known for their very high quality, they have consistent flavor, they certainly carry a good sustainable message in all that they do for being grown locally, supporting the communities in which they’re being grown in, and low carbon footprint,” says Curt Epperson, Business Development Director of Produce and Floral at Publix Super Markets.
Hydroponics can be grown 365 days a year, regardless of weather conditions. The format in which they are grown enables them to be exceptionally efficient— without soil, these crops utilize 90% less water than traditional farming, and all 2- to 3,000 miles closer to the dinner table. Epperson explains, “Being grown in a closed environment, it reduces the risk of outside contaminants and it helps control and better provide food safety. I think all those are possibilities as to why we’re seeing the success that we are.”
Consumers Connect with the Heart of Hydroponically Grown Produce
Today, hydroponically grown products are on the rise, in part, because they help consumers connect with a brand’s purpose. Through hydroponic product packaging, many farmers are sharing their brand story and the product’s environmental benefits. “Our customers were telling us something: we want products that are fresh, and right for the economy and the planet. Right then, we knew we were headed in the right direction, not only with hydroponics but with hyperlocal hydroponics,” Epperson reflects. His team started researching the growing number of hydroponic farms across their seven-state footprint and cultivating relationships with Kalera in Florida, and Vertical Roots in South Carolina, among others.
Sustainably minded shoppers love understanding how a brand’s environmental values align with their own and revel in supporting a locally grown, sustainable product that has a longer shelf life. Because hydroponically grown lettuce is spending less time on the road, it can spend more time in the fridge. As Epperson points out, “In addition to being sustainably grown, hydroponically grown lettuces last longer, so people experience less food waste. This is appealing not only from a financial standpoint but an environmental standpoint, too, since food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.”
Even though hydroponically-grown produce is typically more expensive, popularity is consistently on the rise. Where, on the one hand, the efficient use of space and reduced transportation of commodities should translate to reduced prices, the lack of soil and utilization of artificial lighting, and such technology counteracts the price reduction. They also owe the prices to the new tech, growers, and investors entering the industry. Epperson explains, “There’s a lot of work and research to be done to scale up and provide the yields that the Western growers have been providing for centuries,” Epperson notes. Consumers seem to agree, this is a small price to pay.
As an extension of their commitment to local, hydroponically grown lettuces, in April of this year, Publix’s GreenWise Market (which specializes in organic, natural, and specialty groceries) embarked on a pilot program with Brick Street Farms to grow, harvest, and package hydroponically-grown lettuce in a container farm located right outside the GreenWise Market Lakeland, Florida store. “The lettuce we are growing onsite travels feet instead of miles—you don’t get much more local than that,” Epperson marvels.
By growing the lettuce on-site in this 40-foot container farm, Publix is able to grow an equivalent of 2.5 to 3 acres of lettuce and eliminate pollution from transportation. By utilizing a rotational planting cycle, the on-site container farm yields a new crop every five weeks, and approximately 700 heads of lettuce every week. Here, customers can watch the growing process through an observation window, learn more about this method of farming, and see exactly how their produce is grown.
Publix is expanding its hydroponic operations to have hydro-growers in each state in which they operate. The Publix team sees potential ahead due to possibilities of scaling up, increased research and development, and expansion beyond leafy greens into growing peppers, cucumbers, berries, and more. “We look forward to seeing what our local hydroponic farmers are going to grow in the coming years. Whatever it is, we know it will be flavorful and environmentally friendly, which will make our customers very happy,” Epperson says.