Brian Cook: Growing Local Produce with 90% Less Water – Ep. 148

About This Episode:

Brian Cook is the President of Local Bounti, a company that brings fresh local produce to the world using 90% less water and land than traditional agriculture.

In a world that’s poised to hit 10 billion people not too long from now, we need all the help we can get finding innovative ways to feed our population food that isn’t just gruel, mush, mushy-gruel, or god-forbid, soylent green.

Brian has dedicated his life to food production, and today we talk about not only what Local Bounti is doing and why it’s important, but also how we all need to educate ourselves better about where our food actually comes from.

It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart.

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5:24 – “When you think about greenhouse growing versus traditional farming, it’s been known to save 90% less water and land. So not only do you save on the water for your golf courses, but you’re also going to be able to be out there and building maybe another 18 with the land that we’ll save.”

10:04 – “If you think about traditional farming, it’s a tough job to do and it’s an aging labor force…the workforce is getting older and older and the jobs getting harder and harder. And our peers over there in the traditional farming, they’re doing everything they can. They really do work hard on the sustainability front. But what we’re being able to provide is an environment where the product is more automated, it’s more mechanized, everything’s done at a waste level. So, you talk about, the overall health benefits of it from your team members that are working day in and day out. All of that kind of plays into kind of the overall sexiness of controlled environment agriculture.”

11:06 – “Right now most of the farming is done in California. And we hear this day in and day out, there’s no surprise there. But, I think where it really hits people is when they start looking up the greenhouse gas emissions, what it takes to get from field to processing, from processing to distribution center from distribution center to consumers’ mouths. There’s not only a lot of time here, but there’s a lot of movement. And so bringing, the ability to bring growing closer to consumption, I mean, it really drives some excellent benefits on the environmental front.”

14:12 – “I mentioned that there was this marriage between vertical farming and the greenhouse. And so basically what we did is we looked at when is that time that it makes no longer sense to grow it vertically, where the energy use that you put into it and the cost that goes into it and everything, changes the game to where when you get to a consumer cost perspective is just no longer viable. And if you take it from that standpoint and you introduce it to a greenhouse, what happens to the produce then? And what we learned is that it doesn’t miss a beat. So, it goes into air, it’s seeing Mother Nature, it’s seeing the sun, it’s getting all of the goodness that comes through the greenhouse growing environment. And it is supplemented with lights as needed. But mostly it’s getting everything it wants. And what you see is a sprint to the finish line.”

17:04 – “Where the vertical spot came into play, it was really exciting for a number of things. One, there was this whole conversation around, ‘Hey, you could do this anywhere. You need a building, put a building and develop it.’ And so that was extremely exciting, the amount of units that you could do in such a small area was extremely exciting. And those are really things that really drove excitement into it because if you think about it, our population is growing at a very fast rate. There’s not enough land to be able to handle that amount of food that we’re going to need to grow. And so thinking outside the box was just required. And so that’s where a lot of the excitement continued to happen around vertical.”

19:55 – “People talk about climate change and regardless where you fall on it, one thing that we can tell is there’s been extreme weather conditions we haven’t seen before. You’re able to talk about how much water you have, when you talk about drought, this is not someone making up numbers. These are hard facts on what it is, right? And all these in the lower water you get in certain areas, too. It changes the water quality, changing the water quality changes the yields. Whereas, farming as we knew it traditionally had been a really great business to be in at one point in time. There’s just been a lot of factors that have made it very, a lot more difficult to continue on. And I think that’s why you’re seeing also this really, shift towards controlled environment agriculture.”

21:09 – “Our goal is getting it to consumers’ hands in as fast as amount of time possible. So we talked about, a little bit earlier, about the time it takes and the mileage that would put in a traditional farming side. Our goal is to get it to the market within 24 or 48 hours, right. And so if you think about it, we’re building facilities close to consumption, which means that we’re being able to hit distribution centers that we would be selling to in a very short amount of time after harvest. And then they are able to get it into the stores within their time period, which usually equates to between 24 and 48 hours after harvest. And what that generally does is makes this a really good eating experience for the consumer and it gives it some extra shelf life.”

23:13 – (Ross, with sarcasm) “I do have to circle back because I feel like I have to represent some of my listeners on that last point about scientists making up numbers and data, because I personally believe and we believe on this show that all scientists make up everything. I believe that there’s an international conspiracy that every scientist around the world has collectively gotten together to make up all of these numbers. So I just don’t trust anything that a scientist says, and I don’t think anybody else should either.”

24:43 – “You’re still getting a lot of that sun, the nutrients, all basically what we’re protecting it against is the extremities, right? If it’s too cold outside, it’s whatever temperature we want it to be in the greenhouse. If it’s too hot outside, we’re able to monitor and keep it cooled down so that it’s a temperature that it likes. Because, I don’t know if you’ve been in a lettuce field in Yuma when it’s 100 degrees, but they don’t like it very much. So, having the ability to maintain the temperatures of the greenhouses, just it’s the cherry on top, if you will, because we’re still giving it everything that it needs from a Mother Nature standpoint in a lot of ways as well.”

30:49 – (Ross:) “There’s a lot of people who say there’s no difference in quality between an organic and a non-organic product. There’s other people who say that that’s absurd. There is a belief that there’s a big difference in these farming practices, but then there’s other people who will tell you that that’s a lie, that the organic stamp doesn’t really mean much, or that somebody can technically be organic without really adhering to the spirit that people think…Do you think that that’s true or does the organic label actually mean something?”

(Brian:) I think the organic label actually means something. I mean, people are working hard to make sure that they’re checking all the necessary boxes to assure that there’s integrity within the organic space…In 99.9% of this world, people are just driving really hard to do really good work around the organic space and I’m a big proponent of the label, the USDA organic label. I think they do a great job.”

33:40 – “We’ve got not just an issue with organic versus conventional, but we have an issue with water and land. So even if we were able to do it, there’s probably not enough land. Even if you switched it all to organic to be able to satisfy that need. I don’t think there’s enough land in this world that’s good farmable land to be able to do it conventional farming. I mean, that’s why I jumped in the deep end of the CEA program – for me, from a personal standpoint, because I firmly believe that this is a requirement to be able to satisfy those numbers 10, 20, 30 years from now. And we need to do it right and we need to do it in a way that this company stands for long term. And so that’s why we really focus on our unit economics and really driving operational excellence and successes in all things you have to because if we don’t get it right in the CEA world, we’re in for a very, very long and sad road ahead of us because I don’t see it happening any other way.”

37:33 – (Ross) “One of the things that I really love as a California resident is the way that so many other states really malign the state of California. If California is running out of water or California has a drought, there’s almost a, ‘Shame on you. Screw you, California. That’s not me in Michigan,’ kind of attitude. But of course, the reality is that that water is going out of California every single day in the form of millions of pounds of food that is going to all of these other places. So it’s not like we’re completely disconnected from each other. And even though we have states boundaries, we are all one when it comes to stuff like food and production and arable land and all of that.”

43:30 – “Quick little story. But I was talking to somebody at one point and they were talking about how they were in a class and they were asking folks – and I don’t remember if they were literally in it or if they saw a video on this – but however it culminated, the question was brought to a child, like, ‘Hey, where is lettuce grown?’ They’re like, ‘The supermarket.’ And, that’s cute in and of itself. But the reality is, is that there’s a lot of folks who I don’t think have full appreciation for what it takes to get food to market. And I’d really love for consumers to take that ride, understand what it takes to get there and all the challenges and the blood, sweat and tears that goes into it.”

46:13 – (Ross, with sarcasm) “I think in the future, our entire economy will be based on TikTok videos. I think that the reason that physics haven’t changed is because nobody’s gotten to a trillion followers. My prediction is that when the first person gets to a trillion followers, then physics will change. So I foresee a future where 99.99%. of all people are TikTok influencers. There are no farmers, there are no mechanics, there are no builders, there’s no doctors. Every child should just focus on being an influencer. That’s my genuine belief. We just have to go that path and we have to disrespect all of the farmers along the way and really make them feel bad about their life choices. That’s part two of my plan.”

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