When workers arrived at Fifth Season, an indoor farm in the former steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, on a cloudy Friday morning last October, they expected it would be a normal day.
The farm, which had opened two years earlier, seemed to be running smoothly, growing tens of thousands of pounds of lettuce per year inside a robot-filled 60,000-square-foot warehouse. The brand was selling salad kits—like a taco-themed version with the company’s baby romaine, plus guacamole, tortilla strips, and cheese—in more than 1,200 stores, including Whole Foods and Kroger. Earlier in the year, the company had said that it projected a 600% growth in sales in 2022. The branding was updated in October, and new packages were rolling out in stores. Solar panels and a new microgrid had recently been installed at the building. A larger farm was being planned for Columbus, Ohio.
But the workday never started. “The CEO came in and said, ‘Justin, we gotta talk,’” says Justin Stricker, who had worked as a maintenance technician at the startup since it launched. “He said, ‘Don’t let anyone set up. We’re going to have a big meeting.’ I thought I was getting fired. The whole entire place was just done.” The managers announced that the company was closing immediately. After shutting down the electrical equipment and draining the water lines, the plants were left to die. Stricker and dozens of others were left scrambling to find new jobs.
Fifth Season’s failure is only the most dramatic signal of a reckoning taking place in what’s known as the vertical farming sector. AppHarvest, which runs high-tech greenhouses in Appalachia growing tomatoes and greens, said in a recent quarterly report that it had “substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern” unless it could raise more money; the company is currently being sued by investors who argue that it misled them about its viability. AeroFarms, an early pioneer in the space, pulled out of a proposed SPAC deal last year. In the company’s May 2021 investor presentation, AeroFarms, which was founded in 2004, estimated just $4 million in 2021 EBITDA-adjusted revenue—and $39 million in losses.