Indoor vertical farmer grows local lettuce for hospitals in Florida during COVID-19

This year’s version of World Health Day focuses on celebrating the work of nurses and midwives, whose work is especially important now, in response to the pandemic. For this reason, we called Matt Kaercher, from Kaercher Family Farms, to understand how it is like to deliver food to hospitals during this critical period and ask for some nuggets of advice for current and future vertical farmers.

Matthew Kaercher got intrigued by the hydroponics system which he saw at Disney’s Epcot Center back in 2010. “I can do much better than that!”, he said. Since then, he immersed himself in the world of hydroponics and vertical farming. Once he was ready to scale, he bought his first vertical farm from Urban Crop Solutions. Now, his company has 4 different container farms (3 x FarmPro and 1 x FarmFlex) and one of his biggest clients is a hospital group in the Tampa Bay Area.

Who are your customers and what do you grow?

Our main customer is a hospital group in the Tampa Bay area, and we deliver to various restaurants and restaurant chains as well. We mostly grow different varieties of lettuce, microgreens, and some basil.

Why did the hospital group decide to work with you?

The hospital group wanted to boost sustainability on a local level. Their initial idea was serving lettuce only for doctors and nurses, but they underestimated how much one vertical farm can produce. As a result, our lettuce is sold across their cafeteria, salad bars and is used in meals for patients.

The main reason why they opted for our produce is that it is local and fresh (we harvest in the morning and deliver it in the afternoon). Various people from the hospital chain visited the farm to see how it’s produced. When they saw the automation and how food safety risks were much lower than in conventional farming, they were instantly convinced.

Did the Coronavirus impact the deliveries you were making to the hospitals?

The hospital group closed their salad bar when the Coronavirus problems started, so now they use our lettuce in the to-go salads instead. In March, one of the hospitals wanted only 50% of their typical delivery. In this case, we reviewed which hospitals needed more lettuce that day, and redistributed it to who needed more. That’s the immense benefit of working with a hospital group.

Currently, we still deliver to them from Monday to Friday, which is the same frequency as always. One of their other food distributors can’t deliver as often as they normally did, so they are grateful to have Urban Crop Solutions as one of their suppliers who can ensure continuous food supply.

Did it impact your other deliveries?

The demand for microgreens went down because they were served only to restaurants. Many restaurants use microgreens to decorate the meals, but they don’t work well in to-go meals due to the trapped steam [in the package] which makes the microgreens wilt.

For those considering buying a vertical farm, what kind of clients should they search for to be able to continuously deliver?

There isn’t really a perfect target market because every place is different. Every country, state, and even city can have a different situation and you can’t generalize.  We prefer chains of restaurants or hospitals because they offer an uninterrupted order every week. The farmer’s market in St. Pete [every Saturday, in St. Petersburg, Florida] is seasonal, from October to May. Besides, we would take into consideration the impact of the weather on the opening and closing of the market. This is the reason why we didn’t choose to sell there, as we preferred to have clients who always need our produce year-round. This doesn’t mean that local markets won’t work out for you in the city where you are. Look at your unique situation. Another example is that CSAs [Community supported agriculture] are more popular in the North East [of the US] than here [in Florida].

What do you recommend to people whose clients are/will be restaurants?

Take notes of what is happening now. Who’s closing permanently? Who does take-home food?  Look at Instagram, Facebook. How many followers do they have? It’s important to know that, as these are the people who will support you in the end as well. While restaurant groups seem to work better as they have more money saved and are going in for the long run, this is not always the case. For example, one of our clients is a restaurant where they barely have 20 places to be seated. Now, during the pandemic, they are flooded with take-out requests due to their marketing efforts. Social media is key.

Do you have any other advice for current farmers during these times?

  1. Approach it day by day: address, plan and adapt. Focus on everyone in the market and not just one area. A lot of farms focus on supermarkets, restaurants, and retail. Focusing on organizations in the community is also beneficial and important.
  2. Get creative in times like these
  3. Remember that there is no secret formula

Any other thoughts about what’s going on now?

This pandemic situation got me thinking: which organizations would we like to work with in the future? Our company will take this more into account than before. However, most importantly, we are grateful to be able to serve society and help improve the situation, at least a little bit.

7 April 2020