"I want to design everything myself as much as possible when there's no off-the-shelf solution available. However, there aren't that many, to be honest, which makes it challenging," says Cory Mahony, Founder and CEO of Urban Fields Agriculture, a vertical farm based in Patchogue, Long Island, New York.
Moving from a 7-rack facility of 84m2 (about 900sq. ft.) to a 380m2 (3700 sq. ft.) facility with 30 racks, Urban Fields Agriculture will be adding more products, such as Oak leaf, Butterhead lettuce, Tuscan kale, and eventually microgreens. With a monthly supply of 120kg of basil to Italian restaurants, as well as romaine lettuce, Cory likes to see that number increase with the expansion of the new farm.
Cory Mahony pictured in his Patchogue facility
While expanding, Cory plans to add some custom-scale harvesting machines as it will get too much work to manually handle all the harvesting. "In Farm 2.0, we want to add more sensors and finetuned control to handle the climate, lighting, and irrigation as such, so everything can be controlled remotely. I want to dial in everything as much as possible because this farm is going to be purpose-built," Cory highlights.
Currently, most work goes into harvesting, packing, and cleaning, as it takes a lot of time to scrub, clean, and sanitize the boards. "Adding automated cleaning, harvesting- and packaging machines will take a lot of workload off our shoulders and allows us to focus on other tasks."
Targeting restaurants at this point, Cory likes to expand his reach even more so. Given his experience in HoReCa in his previous careers, he has a broad network of chefs and thus aims to make some sales in the following months as capacity is flourishing. "This is a very high turnover industry."
Maintaining fair product prices
Cory sells basil for 12 USD per pound (~10,75 EUR per 0,5kg), whereas wholesale sells it for 11 USD per pound (~9,86 EUR per 0,5kg). "As I want to keep a consistent and honest price, my inputs haven't changed. Yet I am expecting lower unit costs with the new facility as everything is going to be more uniform and effective with the lighting and climate."
Being part of the NYC Incentive Program that is building up to half the energy prices of power, which is built via NYPA upstate, a power supplier, and PSENG. The NYPA has all electric plants here in upstate, so it's half of the price for Cory as he's been accepted for a 5-year contract.
Lettuce is sold for 60 USD for a case of 42 heads, which comes down to 0,95 USD per head of lettuce. Romaine lettuce prices fluctuate aggressively, Cory points out. Therefore, he tries to pick a middle ground to maintain a stable price and supply throughout the year.
The majority of produce is going to Italian bars and restaurants that favor Cory's basil
Having a signed lease approved by the bank, now it's time to close the process and move into the new facility at the beginning of August. The PSENG team will rebate all the lights, inspect them and install everything within three months. "Then it's up to me to do some carpentry work and put the racks together. We've planned to be up and running probably in October 2023." The first harvest will be celebrated festively as there's an entire welcome ceremony tied to it with cocktails and private chefs that will inaugurate the official launch of Farm 2.0.
As Long Island tourism dies out in the winter, Cory has most of his supply in the East, being closer to the city. "Planting the roots, getting accustomed to the processes, getting a feel for sales, working with customers, and meeting the demand, we've started to understand the concept. Now, he's trying to tackle the market more properly and efficiently in the city's East side as 'the big guys' are to be found in New Jersey."
Reeling in a bank loan to build out the next phase of the farm, Cory is glad to pull his strings when it comes to investments. He currently drives around deliveries during the day and bartends at night to fund his ambitions. Everything is paid into the pocket. And luckily, the hard work shows its worth. "I crushed my sales record last month and then almost doubled it this month," Cory gladly shares.
Knowing the struggles of launching a new vertical farming business, Cory is very open to collaborating with others. "If anyone needs help, I am more than happy to help out, and if anyone is willing to help, that would be nice. There's a lot of people interested in vertical farming here, and they're very laid back, so I'd be very happy to talk about farming," Cory adds.
Urban Fields' Romaine lettuce
Diving into more products, opening a grocery store
As for the future, mushrooms, tomatoes, and berries are on the wish list. However, Cory emphasizes that those products are really for the far future. "Ideally, I'd also like to open up a grocery store with a storefront to have direct customer relations. I try to interact with the community as much as possible as they'll be able to spread word of mouth eventually." However, those are all plans for when this farm and production have settled down.