"I'm probably still supplying the most expensive basil in the area, but it's simply the best you can get around here. Though, if operation expenses rise, I might have to increase my prices anyways," says Zack Wilson, Founder of Future Fresh Hydro.
The startup is a Sterling, Virginia-based vertical farm with a total cultivation area of 150m2 (1500 sq. ft.) that has been up and running ever since last year September. Back in 2022, Zack was way more expensive in comparison to what was available, which meant he had to adjust his projections. However, once prices were shifted, Future Fresh was able to position itself much more competitively in the Virginia market.
Supplying basil to near high-end- and local restaurants is the main demand Future Fresh sees in the region for now. Zack affirms that his basil is slightly pricier than other basil available in stores. "It's mainly the high-end restaurants and chefs that prioritize my premium ingredient over other produce. They're so content with the smell, texture and taste which they can perfectly use for their dishes."
Copy paste concept
Staying small is the best option for now, as selling to retail includes loads of regulations to abide by, explains Zack, which could take the fun out of all of this. Right now, Zack found a beautiful niche between the large players and the small farmers. "I'd love to see three or four full-time employees run this farm, so we can copy-paste the concept to cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and basically anywhere. The 150m2 farm and current crops are profitable and have the potential to be duplicated for sure!" says Zack.
The intimate aspect of being close to chefs and managers of restaurants is the biggest driver of why Zack likes to keep his farms small. It's the relationship over size, for Future Fresh. "Being able to talk to people at farmers' markets and directly handing them the food they'll be enjoying that week has something special to it. Knowing that they appreciate that contact with the grower, which is me, is something special."
Half an hour out from Washington DC, Zack sees multiple opportunities ahead of him. "In the DC and Northern Virginia area, there are numerous high-end restaurants which are all potential clients as they have the disposable income to truly support local farmers. Apart from that, they have the whereabouts to know that it makes sense to support local businesses. That's definitely a huge benefit of living close to such a metropolitan area," Zack says.
Starting with one row of Zipgrow towers, Zack is able to grow over 1,400 basil plants per row. In the near future, he'd like to add another four rows so they can set up an entire Italian herb line. Potentially he likes to see a partnership to roll out a pesto with chefs or something in that area. However, that's not in the books yet.
"I'm getting close to maximizing out that first row of towers. Soon we will add another row which brings us to a total of 180 towers. However, by the end of this year, we'd love to have reached the maximum capacity."
Energy is not a big concern in Virginia due to the large nuclear power plants. "Our electricity prices have not fluctuated recently. We're very thankful for that and, fortunately didn't really feel the effect of fluctuations elsewhere. I feel for my European hydroponic farmer counterparts in these times of geopolitical uncertainty. Yet, gas prices are one of the current pain points for deliveries and sales meetings. However, we're able to balance that out with our product margins," Zack explains.
Community Service Agriculture program
Besides basil, Zack also grows a variety of microgreens which he supplies to local restaurants. On top of that, he is creating a CSA (Community Service Agriculture) program, which is a concept with a monthly subscription base.
Meaning that all subscribers will receive a weekly farm basket of lettuce, microgreens and products from a local store. It will allow Zack to increase his profile in the region and expand the farm occupation. Yet, he's now focusing on B2B and farmers' markets to sell his (scheduled for seeding) lettuce and microgreens.