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How Oishii’s vertical farms grow strawberries that sell for $20 a box

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Oishii does not grow ordinary strawberries. First, a box of six very large berries used to sell for $50 at Whole Foods.

Berries from the New Jersey company also do not taste like regular strawberries: they are sweeter, with a denser and juicier center. The taste, aroma and “oily texture” are produced at three vertical farms: two in New Jersey and one in Los Angeles.

“[The strawberries] averaging somewhere between two and three times the level of sweetness compared to what is typically grown in the US,” Oishii co-founder and CEO Hiroki Koga tells CNBC Make It. “When you try our berries, you will have a completely different experience.”

Koga, a former vertical farming consultant in Japan, immigrated to California to study for the UC Berkeley MBA program in 2015. While shopping at a local market, he noticed that American strawberries looked “shiny and big and tasty” but were actually “watery and tasteless.”

Co-founder and CEO Hiroki Koga at Oishii Vertical Strawberry Farm. Kogi says his Jersey City facility is the largest vertical strawberry farm in the world.

Kortsey of Oishiya

After graduating in 2017, Koga and co-founder Brendan Somerville, a recent UCLA MBA graduate, began building a vertical strawberry farm themselves. There was no plan to follow: at the time, vertical farms mostly used leafy greens, which grow relatively quickly and don’t require pollination by bees. And despite his consulting experience, Koga had never built them himself before.

Somerville and Koga watched YouTube videos to figure out how to grow a farm and spent a year with consultants figuring out how to maintain a suitable environment for both the strawberries and the bees who would need to pollinate the plants.

The result: Oishii Vertical Farms are greener and cleaner than conventional farms. And while those $50 boxes sell out regularly, the company recently slashed the price to $20 a box — a step towards its ultimate goal of making organic food available to everyone, not just those with extra cash.

Here’s what you get if you pay $20 for a box of six extra-large, eight large, or 11 medium-sized berries:

Guaranteed and measurable sweetness

Oishii’s largest vertical farm is located in Jersey City, New Jersey. At 74,000 square feet, it’s also the largest vertical farm in the world, according to Kogi. The facility houses the vertical farm itself, office space and a laboratory where the berries of each crop are tested for Brix, or units of sugar content that indicate sweetness.

“Regular farms here in the US can have a Brix of four to seven or eight. If you’re really lucky, nine,” says Koga. “Depending on the season, our strawberries consistently have a Brix value between 10 and 15. It’s a completely different quality.”

Oishii grows omakase strawberries from a specific region in northern Japan. There, the berries are considered a delicacy because of their rare taste, aroma, and softness.

CNBC Do it

Grocery store strawberries are often formulated for shelf life, treated with pesticides, and picked unripe. This is how Californian strawberries can make their way into Midwestern or East Coast cuisine, but it comes at the expense of the mellowness and juiciness of the berries.

Oishii doesn’t even try to solve the same problem: The company only delivers and sells to stores within about 20 miles of its vertical farms. Koga admits shipping strawberries across the country will boost sales, but says Oishiya’s farms are already producing the berries at peak capacity, and shipping longer distances could reduce the quality of the strawberries, which are grown at low temperatures to preserve freshness.

“We don’t want to just be a social and sustainable company, we actually want to provide a product that’s better than what’s currently available,” says Koga.

Smaller ecological footprint and greater impact

When boxes of six strawberries cost $50 each, one strawberry cost $8.33. Even today’s reduced price of $3.33 per berry is still quite expensive.

Oishii used to sell a pack of six “First Flower Berries” for $50. It now costs $20 and is Oishii’s most expensive product because it is larger and more nutritious than other strawberries. They bloom first and stay on the plant longer until harvest.

CNBC Do it

Koga says the cost reflects both the quality of the fruit and the cost of producing it. Oishii strawberries are grown without pesticides and use less water than traditional growing methods. And because they are grown indoors, they do not deprive farmland of nutrients.

“Sometimes we get asked, ‘Are you taking jobs away from farmers?’” Koga says. “But in reality it’s quite the opposite, because we don’t have enough farmers to feed [the world’s] growing population, and vertical farming allows us to grow crops much more efficiently.”

This is one of the reasons Oishii changed its price even though the company was regularly selling $50 boxes: proving that vertical farming can create affordable produce could revolutionize farming, an industry valued at $1 trillion just in USA in 2020. , according to the USDA.

Until then, the maintenance of Oishiya’s farms remains quite expensive. But Koga notes that new technologies often follow the same path, starting out as clunky and prohibitively expensive, and then eventually becoming smarter, more affordable and more mainstream, like smartphones and electric cars. “We justified the price by providing something that was not on the market,” he says.

Koga says Oishii’s next step will be to expand production of other types of produce – probably primarily tomatoes and melons – while weighing the time it takes to build more vertical farms to keep up with demand.

“We are very confident that we will be able to make this even more effective in the next five years, 10 years and will really reach the point where [vertical farming] becomes the new standard where it becomes even more affordable than regular products,” he says.

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