From New York to New Ag With Casey Call

How does a fifth-generation vegetable farmer from western New York find their way to indoor farming in the Bay Area of California? Pretty easily when you have a passion for farming, agronomy, and ag technology! 

Casey Call, a graduate of Cornell University,  is the head grower for Plenty Ag in San Francisco, where he oversees all aspects of vertical indoor farming to create efficient and nutritious vegetable crops for the nearby urban communities. From controlling bud points to assisting his family operation on the east coast through consultation, Casey stays busy and at the forefront of ag leadership, technology, and agronomy. 

Plenty Ag of San Francisco

An indoor farm, Plenty Ag utilizes vertical agriculture – a relative term for controlled agriculture. Casey explains that the endeavor is to control all of the conditions. No sunlight is used as the entire production is done indoors and all inputs are managed by humans, robots and equations. 

“We can plop these factories down anywhere around any city center and deliver fresh veggies all of the time,” explains Casey. While expansion of this plan may be on the horizon, overcoming logistics of start-up costs is the current method that Casey has spent time working to rectify for financial feasibility for the business of indoor farming. 

Crops Farmed

Currently, Plenty Ag focuses on leafy greens such as herb blends, arugula and lettuces. As they become more adept at growing these products, they have begun to move towards strawberries, tomatoes, berries, and any plant that the bud point can be controlled. If you can control the bud point, you can use your imagination for the possibilities of indoor farming! 

Controlling where the crop is going to produce and maximize energy towards the bud point, Casey can maximize the output per square inch of the building. While all farmers love plants, Casey’s ability to bring technical mathematical equations into plant production practices creates a higher level of efficiency. 

What Makes Plenty Ag Unique? 

    • Vertical Towers for Thermodynamics
      Vertically stacked towers not only provide for density but also the thermodynamics of heat evacuation to handle the moisture in the facility. “There’s a few fundamental things that make us different,” says Casey. “If you google us, you see that our towers are actually vertical. We aren’t stacked horizontal, they are vertical. That’s a big fundamental difference.”

      Vertically stacked towers not only provide for density but also the thermodynamics of heat evacuation to handle the moisture in the facility. While indoor farming has its own advantages, the constant piping in of light and temperature to create a mediterranean climate is part of the many unique farming challenges that indoor farmers face. 

 

    • Vertical Towers for Density
      When using horizontal methods, there is only one side that can be controlled and harvested. By stacking towers vertically, Plenty Ag is able to harvest from two sides. 
    • Talented Employees in Unique Structure
      “We’re a talented group of people moving really fast,” says Casey. “We got a lot of funding at a critical stage. We’ve been really careful and made good decisions on how to scale and where to build.”

Plenty Ag also has a unique business structure with 33% of the employees being engineers. Conversations about software and controls can be easily understood by over half of the company. In fact, Casey describes the company as an engineering firm with an operation arm.

Competitors mindsets are often to build as many farms as possible and move the technology in small increments. At Plenty Ag, they move faster on technology because of the empowered staff that they have on board.

“People will say what they want about the Bay Area, but the depth of talent and technical aptitude [here] is incredible.” 

 

Working with Robots

“They need a lot of supervision and they don’t like to behave,” Casey says with a laugh about his robot co-workers. If you ever thought of working with robots in agriculture, indoor farming is the perfect industry for your career exploration needs. 

As a human being, when you approach a problem, you don’t understand how much human nature you naturally take for granted. When humans look at a problem, whether you know it or not, you already have nearly half of the problem solved. Robots don’t know when to tear a plant in half or not. A unique facet of the engineering team means that, after a day spent “whiteboarding” a problem, the engineers will have the robots “fixed” or solving that problem within a week. 

Transferable Skills from Production Ag to Indoor Ag 

While parts of production planting can be transferable, there’s more opportunity with indoor agriculture and on a faster timeline. Changing a crop mix in just 20 days, Casey explains that the same workflow of talking to your customer base to manage planting still happens. As does the core basics of soil chemistry and plant physiology with agronomy being a boost in Casey’s skillset in indoor agriculture. 

There is a dependence on large machines to make farming happen in the field. That gets pared down in indoor arming with the really important mechanics being pumps and valves. The hardware changes but the concern for the quality of the hardware and the ability to fix issues is transferable. 

Full Accountability

“My dad worries about everything he can’t control and, as an indoor farmer, I worry about everything I can control,” says Casey, who says indoor farming may be more stressful than production farming because there is no one to blame but yourself. “If the pH is wrong, it’s not the machine’s fault. The machine is only as smart as I make it.” 

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Katie Schrock
katie.schrock@thatwesternlife.com
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