Episode 15
Why the future of food should be hyperlocal and vertical
In this episode, I interview Craig Ratajczyk, CEO of Crop One--an international vertical farm company. You can find them in grocery stores under the name: FreshBox Farms. We talk about how the controlled environment agriculture industry can positively contribute to a more sustainable, dependable, local, nutritious future of food worldwide. And why serving nearby communities is so important. He shares the practices that Crop One takes to ensure they are not impacting the environment. Fun fact: his background is in global ag and national security--which turns out to be an ideal skillset for the leader of a global vertical farming company. We also discuss a topic near and dear to me--what it will take for more widespread consumer adoption of foods grown in vertical farms. The answer might surprise you. Enjoy the show!

Wendy: Hello everybody. And welcome to the Evolve.ag podcast. My name is Wendy and I'm the host and I'm thrilled today to have Craig Ratajczyk on with me today. He is the CEO of Crop One. Welcome to the podcast.
Craig: Oh, Wendy, I appreciate it and thank you for the opportunity.
Wendy: Thank you so much for being on here. I'm really, really excited about our conversation. So let's start with an introduction. Can you just talk a little bit about who you are and what your background is in.
Craig: Sure. I've got about 30 years of national security experience working with the US Navy intelligence community. And add on top of that, another 30 years, uh, simultaneously with the, uh, global agriculture industry. So I've always had this passion to make the world a safer place and a greater place for people to get safe, affordable, and nutritious local food.
But this is one of these things that I think we as human beings really need to strive for and just make this planet a better place, to be honest with you. So that's a bigger, bigger picture perspective of who I am, but I grew up in.
agriculture. Uh, love this space. I see so much opportunity for the rest of the world. I just think this next several generations of humanity are going to be much better from a human food nutrition perspective than it had been for a couple millennia.
Wendy: That's awesome. And I think it's definitely going to be with the contribution of things that you're working on, like Crop One.
Craig: No, I agree yet.
Wendy: So how did you get involved with Crop One and vertical farming?
Craig: No, I would say it's a career 3.0, but it's the pinnacle of my career again. It capsulates a lot of the things I've observed over my professional career, looking at what's going on from a food security perspective around the world and national security perspective around the world and just seeing how agriculture has evolved over the 40 years that I've really been in it.
But the technology, out there, what consumers are looking for out there, the environmental concerns that are out there. How can we really develop a food system that is great for everybody and great for the environment. And when I was looking at this for the last several years, vertical farming just popped to the top of the list because you've got, computer science, plant science,
engineering, architectural design, all of these really key components that the rest of the world is trying to inculcate in their agriculture practices. It's in one particular industry on the vertical farming
side of things and Crop One, just a phenomenal opportunity to really accentuate all of those.
Wendy: Awesome. And so your background is really quite robust. You've been in aerospace, you've been in defense. You've been in agriculture. What were some of the skills that you brought and some of the concerns that you brought too from those other industries into this industry specifically?
Craig: Yeah, having a global perspective, I think is really critical. And no one that plants, you just can't take a plant and throw it into the ground and it's going to grow and produce food. Mother nature does not allow that to happen. And that's what I brought to the, I think the equation here really seeing these opportunities around the world, what can be done, where those places we should be, where those places we shouldn't be.
From that very macro perspective, but also that on the ground perspective of, again, knowing what's in soil, knowing what water, knowing what plants need, knowing the construct to make things happen, but also on the business side, really, how do you bring all these different variables together to develop, uh, an industry, develop a business that will
be profitable of course. But also serve the local community, uh, be a greater cause for global humanity. And that's why I kind of bring, and that time I spent a military and global ag, you see so many concerns around the world about nutrition. And food is medicine, to be honest with you. And you can see where people are really missing out on this.
And this vertical farming side of things just really brings it all together. And I just can't speak more highly of how this is the food solution for humanity for the next couple of millennia, if not longer, to be honest.
Wendy: Yeah, I absolutely agree. Absolutely. How long have you been the CEO of Crop One? And then can you share a little bit about what you all are doing. What your mission is?
Craig: Sure. Sure. I joined the organization here late December last year. I would say January 1st, Uh, , really brought on board to execute. This company has been around for six years, six plus years. And now it's time to take all that information, all that intelligence that's been developed and start executing and rolling out these farms.
I mean, really the vision of the company is to grow a more sustainable food system through ag innovation. So are we a farm or are we something more than a farm? Well, I think that this applies maybe to almost all agriculture. We're an ag tech company that's farming because the result of our technology innovations inside the company, and we've done this place has done a phenomenal job over that time that it's been around to really develop that model, to start building more farms in the community , for this industry.
We're looking at some other places, uh, across the U S we'll touch on this project we're doing overseas as well, but overall, now it's time to put these farms in place. There's a lot of support at the local level for this type of a company. Because really the environmental footprint is almost negated, by having this, local food production in people's backyards.
So it's just one of these things and, and that's where crop one's really gonna excel really is taking what they've got here. And putting that into the marketplace from the plant science, computer science, engineering, business modeling, whatever you want to call it as really now time to execute, and get out there and make things happen.
That's really what Crop One is about--grow, grow, grow. And use all these new technologies from artificial intelligence, computer visioning, predictive analytics to make sure the product we produce is the best product that can be produced, for consumers.
Wendy: And what crops are you all growing at the moment?
Craig: Yeah, there was a multitude of things where we can, we've grown at the moment right now, because these are commercially viable, uh, spring mix, romaine spinach, kale, arugala, but we've done research on at least a different, a hundred different cultivars inside this enterprise. So really the backbone of all of that is the computer science, plant science, capturing those algorithms to make and processes to make this work.
So you're taking these different products, whether it's a leafy green or something like Stevia or mustard greens or strawberries, peas, peppers, putting them into the system to make it work. So it's a very synergistic relationship because for us, our philosophy is, "plants first". Because we want to grow the optimal plant and then develop the architecture around it, who are building That form factor.
And again, the technology plant science, computer science to really accentuate a plant's development in its life cycle.
Wendy: That makes sense. And is it safe to assume that all the technolgoy y'all are using is proprietary? You all have built everything or are you borrowing from other folks in the industry?
Craig: Well, yeah, as you know, it depends, right? Some of this stuff you can get off the shelf, but then again, I mean, there's a lot of led companies out there that want to do things indoors, but our company has researched most of them and found the right ones that work best for our approach to developing the optimal product.
So that's off the shelf. Yeah. We're not gonna be a lighting company. We're not going to be a shelving company, but we are going to be a technology company because of all the data we are collecting off of all these farms. That is tremendously important in optimizing the plants profile the taste, the texture, the color, the nutritional profile. All these--the word of the day I introduced here recently was organoleptic. The mouthfeel of these, of these products and how consumers can really appreciate what's in these products and in indoor vertical farm space.
What we're trying to do here at Crop One is really control all that that's why it's controlling environmental ag, right? We have the ability to make this, the perfect plant for the consumer,
Wendy: and are you guys also thinking about controlling, like the different nutrients, different vitamins, stuff like that?
Craig: Everything-- that's part of our algorithm. So yeah, you can adjust the NPK, the minerals, the vitamins in the solution that's being fed to the plants. Trying to control the flavor as well. The growth cycle, how fast the plants can grow. Are we there yet? A hundred. No, some of these things are still out there, and that's why we're looking for additional resources to expound upon that and be the market leader for the next 50 years.
To be honest with you, because of all the work this place has done, and it's still learning and growing because you know how difficult it is to control ourselves and our diets eating right, uh, for our diets at our particular stage in life. It's the same thing for plants, but we're capturing a lot of the information now.
It's like a cell phone or a television. It, it just keep improving. And the same thing in this space.
Wendy: Well, and it seems like the technology and controlled environment agriculture is really just moving so fast. The prices of LEDs are getting cheaper than they were a hcouple of years ago. And, just all the different data and analytics and almost like micro data that people are finding out about plants and the reaction to certain light spectrums.
It just, it blows my mind sometimes reading about this stuff. So it must be filling you guys with , lots of R and D adventures.
Craig: Yeah, there is. And that's exactly right. There's the speed, the way things happen now because of Moore's law and whatever else it's just increasing. Terabytes. I mean, who would've thought a terabyte would have been stuff that we never would have achieved and I can store terabytes of data and you can sort through that data in seconds, uh, just an amazing process.
So we're really trying to capitalize on that type of technology to facilitate the development of our own data capture and our own data knowledge so that we can do more. Like I mentioned before these predictive analytics to make sure that these plants are optimal. But you're right, between the lighting, the engineering, controlling the wind, the air, the water, the nutrients, the humidity, every aspect of that plant's development is what we really want to control. So if people want to high vitamin K product, we can make that happen. If they want to high vitamin D product, we can make that. And make it commercially viable.
And that's one of these things that we're really striving for. We can do a lot of the more basic things now, but within a short period of time, like you said, with technology going so fast, we have, we're going to have more of that leverage to, to control.
Wendy: That's a really, really cool. And I can't wait to see what the future holds when it comes to things like that. It's going to be amazing for nutrition, for health, all of those types of things.
Craig: Yeah. And that's it for us. It's really around that sustainable nutrition moniker. I know we have plants first, but for us, we really want to come out there with this new product, not a commodity. There's plenty of commodities out in the marketplace that provides some nutrition, but we really want to have that sustainable nutrition profile. The right amount of nutrients in that product for the consumer that's getting it.
And produced in a sustainable fashion.
Wendy: That sounds great. So if I was a consumer right now, where could I go and find your products?
Craig: Yeah, we're in new England, but mostly here in the Massachusetts state, you could go to Roche brothers, whole foods. There's some other retailers that are out there that have our product, but a soon to be, give us a, I'll say, give us 14 months and you'll start seeing more of our product in other parts of this country and overseas as well.
Wendy: Can't wait. Well, let's talk a little bit about that. Can you talk about where you're expanding overseas?
Craig: Yeah, this has been, it was announced a few years ago, this a project with Emirates airlines or with the flight, Emirates flight catering service. Uh, that project was a long time in developing. It got started. You'll see, on the webpage in November of 2020, and it's still in progress.
And there'll be more on that as the date gets close. But, uh, that's going to be a phenomenal site, to be honest with you, there'll be a, a game changer. You know, they've got the tallest building in the world in Dubai. They've got the tallest Ferris wheel now is my understanding in Dubai. And, this farm will I think fit in that in that realm pretty.
Wendy: That's really exciting. Yeah there's so much Innovation happening in Dubai, and plus they need to have some type of controlled environment ag there too, because of the environment.
Craig: Yeah. , that's a prime reason for us to be there. , I know this company before I came on. It was a competitive process, but because of the continual presence of this company in the marketplace since 2015 and the research was done here, that really what set them apart from others to have this joint venture established .
And we see that continuing, but also with other potential partners around the world and other opportunities, because we feel we've got this template model we can start executing on and making a difference for the local community so that the supply chain risks are extremely minimized in the places where people need food.
Wendy: That's wonderful. So I'm curious, how do you manage food and cultural diversity in places that are just so different from the U S.?
Craig: Well that is exactly right. So that's why we're kind of, I would say an ag tech company because we can use our technology to develop those food varieties or vegetable varieties or fruit varieties that meet that local environment. So producing global food local was kind of another moniker we like to like to use. But, using our farm, our science, our technology, and looking at things like the bok choy, wasabi and producing those in the right place. I, I love wasabi. It may not be the, a popular one in United States, amongst many people, but, it's a popular product overseas , and in the Asian continents, but, that's those kind of things where truly right to offer those communities, foods that they normally can't have. And of course, that's a relationship with the, the retailers, the wholesalers, the joint venture partners that understand those markets much better, but really work on developing those type of food products that consumers want.
Wendy: That makes sense. I'm curious, what is Crop One focusing on from a food protection and a food security perspective? I know you have such a depth of background in defense. So I'm curious how you're working on thatat Crop One .
Craig: Yeah, that's a great, that's a wonderful topic. I don't think we have enough time on this. There's no way to paralyze the country then a complex food supply. I know this is the year 2021. That, that wouldn't be an issue, but it's still, it's still out there. It's human nature to do nefarious things.
So what we're trying to do is really control the bio-security of a facility to make sure there's no contaminants in it. Our facilities are all kosher certified, so there's no bugs, rodents to do those kinds of things. They're really to try to better manage, better risk management practices to control the supply of inputs to the company, but also to get it to the right retailers, distributors, and wholesalers that buy the product and really trying to secure that up so that any major disruption is going to have minimal impact on our product.
So having our facilities like the one here at Mills, Massachusetts, close to Boston and to some other , grocery stores in the area. You can't beat that. So there's no 2000, 3000, 10,000 mile journey for that food product to get to this place--it's produced locally. And frankly it is probably the safest food product you're ever going to eat.
The fact that we have different processes for our water treatment. So there's no metals in the water that's going into the plants. There's no plastics. There's no of these PFAS that are out there. Uh, no pesticides, chemical with residues. That's about the cleanest product you're ever going to find.
That's from a food security perspective is critical. And the fact that you could produce this locally is even more amazing, for things. So, yeah. Do we have armed guards outside the building with a Constantine wire and things like that? Not yet, but it probably depends on the type of product you're growing inside your facility, overall it's just a very safe, secure, green type of industry.
We've tried to source our energy from renewable energy suppliers. We try to not waste anything outside of our door. So we look at the water side of things. So environmental security would also be a component of, of what these farms can provide. So national security, food security, environmental security, are some critical things.
And we've got some unique practices and trade secrets we're doing inside of our farms to maintain that competitive position. So we're pretty confident that, that the model we're employing, uh, sometime if you're ever up from, uh, from Florida, come up to Boston, we'll give you a tour and you'll get to see the facility up here.
It's it's a phenomenal place.
Wendy: Oh, I'd love to, I'd love to, and I mean vertical farming uses a lot less water. It uses more natural nutrients and all of these things kind of feed into helping reduce climate change to some extent, but there's still this huge energy usage. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you guys are doing in that sense to kind of balance, the energy uses versus all of the other great things that vertical farming does.
Craig: no, That's exactly it -- just go focus on the water. Yeah. So we make sure the plants get the right water amounts that they need to grow it. And the water's not wasted. I don't mean by wasted. It's not going out the back door and ending up in the environment. Again, we're trying to close that loop to bring it back in.
So if something's coming into the building, it's going out of the building in a green leafy green product or a fruit product, or some type of other food product or the same thing on a nutrient dosing strategy. In my time and row crop agriculture, you're very dependent on mother nature or irrigation systems in those spaces.
And as well as you're doing a nutrient dosing strategy on an outdoor agriculture field, it's not all getting absorbed by the plant or it's running into the rivers and streams and whatever else. People try to minimize that, but that's, it's almost impossible. Whereas in our space, we control that. So there's nothing going out the door that's going to create algae blooms or other top environmental constraints or issues out there. So that's why this is such a beautiful industry to be in. Now in the energy side as well. You can source your energy supply, working at a facility here, another large facility in a new England area, as well as a little bit north of the border.
Use solar panels or solar rays to become almost self-sufficient. So if you take one of our facilities and you put it in the middle of a desert or in the middle of a, Antarctica, whatever else, it could generate electricity from solar. There's technology so you can generate air from water, from air.
So all you would need is really that seed supply, and you can start developing a new colony in some of these places that were before thought up to be uninhabitable. You can get really star Trekkie on this. as part of the algorithm to grow these plants start looking at the effects of gravity on these plants.
I know there's some research being done and space stations and things like that. Zero gravity. That's a whole nother conversation, but you start wanting to populate Mars. You gotta think of the gravity's impact on, on plant production. So that's what we're trying to look for here. So really every aspect, every component of our operation.
We're looking at to, to minimize the environmental impact, maximize the efficiency of that technology. And really because it's controlled environment agriculture, live that moniker because we control everything that comes in and goes out, where the power comes from, where the nutrients come from, where the water comes from and where it's all going.
So again, as from my experience it's phenomenal, it is the future of food.
Wendy: Yeah, absolutely. When you touched on one thing you said the seeds are basically, you can do anything once you have the seeds. So where do you all get the seeds from? Are you working with companies that are specifically working with seeds
Craig: for CEA?
Well, that's, that's the interesting part ofthe vertical farming industry. I know greenhouses have been out there fawhile and a lot of the seeds they get are from outdoor agriculture production. So that is a very complicated environment--you can imagine. Because most seeds in the vegetable industry are propagated to grow outside.
So then you propagate those seeds to try to grow into a greenhouse, for example, and now you're taking it to vertical farming. So a lot of the seeds we're using are really from the outside agriculture industry. And those seeds are developed to fight against the pressures of mother nature. On the vertical farming side,
we don't have mother nature. We are, I don't want to insult anybody. We are kind of mother nature in this sends. And the fact that we're controlling all these variables. So we are, developing the resources, the technology to look at that seed development for vertical farming industry and capitalizing on our technology, our sciences, artificial intelligence algorithms to assist in developing seed varieties strictly for vertical farming. It's like
trying to build the human to live on Mars. There's a lot of different variables and optimizing that environment and that human and its nutritional profile to make that happen.
And the same thing here on our side, we're using seeds that, uh, we got some steady suppliers. We've got alternate resources. You have to have those kinds of strategies in place because you never can tell what could happen to your supply chain. So it's just a, it's another dynamic environment, but we'll get to that spot.
Where will we be a seed company in this space? I'm not going to dismiss any kind of potential opportunities. That's for sure.
Wendy: Sounds good. Sounds great.
In fact, So what is the future of crop one?
Craig: We got our five-year plan. You're going to see a larger presence of crop one in the marketplace, starting next year.
And you'll probably see something in the media here, maybe in a few, a few weeks as well. So more to come more to come from Crop One on a multitude of levels.
Wendy: Oh, that's wonderful. Well, it's really exciting to see, and definitely I've been following you all for a long time, so it's, it' really wonderful to see kind of the expansion and the growth. And can't wait to fly on Emirates and try some of your greens on there as well. Once we're all traveling again, a little bit more.
Craig: Yeah.
that'd be wonderful.
Wendy: But
I'm curious. So you have this background in agriculture of, you know, field agriculture. You are now, the CEO of crop one, a vertical farm company. What is the future of agriculture?
Is it all vertical farming all the time? Is it a balance between field cropping and vertical farming?
Craig: Yeah, you're right.
Wendy: trees and vertical farms in the future? What do you, what do you think.
Craig: There's room for everybody. Uh, and that's this, that people don't think about this, but you have China. You've got India, you've got Africa. That's 1, 2, 3, 3 billion people, half the planet that have not eaten like Westerners have for the last few decades, uh, the concern that's going to be out there is there enough food to feed those economically developing countries.
As we all get wealthier, we all want a better and safer and cleaner food supply. So the demands on the food production system are going to increase dramatically and the countries around this world really need to be prepared for that. And I'm not sure if they are --not yet. It's not a problem until it's a problem.
If you drive through the Midwest, you'll see yellow corn. Which is generally fed to animals or put in ethanol, et cetera. And it could be 15 feet tall. They can grow that plant 15 feet tall and have produced one ear corn, or it can grow a corn.
That's going to be six feet tall or eight feet tall and produce three, three ears of corn and the same thing. So if you could do that, who's to say you can't put a fruit tree or some other product inside of a vertical farm. So nothing's, I'll be honest. Nothing's really impossible. Is it being done now?
That's a little complex. A lot of costs, competitive pressures on these kinds of things, but you can edit, gene editing, CRISPR, CAS nine, these plants to sit inside of a vertical farm and produce maybe not a giant orange, but maybe an orange that's half a size, but it's going to be more delicious, cleaner, fresher, and all these things.
So that can. if we can put somebody on the moon we put, so you've seen here recently, who was at, the star Trek, captain, captain Kirk. They put him in space, right? Who would've thought that you could do those kind of commercial flights. And like you said, technology's advancing so fast that there's a need to do these kinds of things.
That's going to get done. People want oranges produced locally, not coming from some other place and they want it all year round. It is going to happen and you, you can see it. Other food companies like
Driscoll's is investing heavily in this space because they know that's the way to really provide a sustainable tasty, safe, nutritious, local food without having to deal with, to be honest with you, again, mother nature, uh, governmental issues for labor issues to find people to help on the outdoor farms. Yeah
just a phenomenal place. And to your point here about electrical needs, right? I don't think, I see vast improvements in solar panels, wind energy, water energy uses these kinds of things. And that's going to really dramatically boost, uh, the vertical farming industry, around the world.
To be honest with you.
Wendy: Great one last question how do we convince consumers that vertical farmed foods are better for them or that they should try them out or eat them, even if they're a little bit more expensive right now.
Craig: You hit the nail right on the head. Right? I talked to my friends that I know I go, oh, we love everything you're saying, how do we go to a grocery store and find that it's your product? All right. You think about that. So there's going to have to be a real need for the industry, getting together and having an education campaign.
And I know you've got some meetings taking place. The comp meetings, you talked to, you listen to USDA and climate change and carbon and all these other issues. Regenerative ag are issues of top concern. Our industries have that as a solution. Yeah, we're very nascent right now, but there is nothing but exponential growth for our industry around the world, uh, in those right products.
So really, it just going to get more pervasive. Uh, the vertical farming industry and moving and moving forward, to be honest with you, it's just, um, I'll stop with the bloviating about the industry. I'm trying to find the downside, to be honest with you, but like anything else I used to do a lot of nutrition programs.
I still do nutrition programs, trying to find that right diet for what I'm trying to achieve in my own life cycle. And there's a lot of science done on the animal ag industry, poultry, pork, et cetera, fish in that space. The same thing. So it's at the very beginning stages of vertical farming. And to your previous question, you had the portfolio of products out there that can be done in vertical farming.
It's going to increase. There's room for outdoor ag there's room for other type of platforms to produce food. Because now, if you were to aggregate the total food production for vertical farming, it's inconsequential, to be honest with you. There's exponential room for growth in this cause it's all local, but it's all going to be about educating the consumer because everybody's so accustomed to knowing what organic is.
So what's vertical farming. Do you want to come up and say, are your products worth the farm? Is that the brand we want? We, our industry is going to collaborate. We are collaborating already on a lot of different issues. But this has to be at the forefront and getting USDA support, uh, to help get that message out there, I think is going to be essential to really catapult this industry.
Wendy: Yeah, I agree. It's interesting because here in Florida, it's really hard to find local food. It took me almost a year to find a good source of like farmer's markets and local food. And there's a local vertical farm here to. And, and, you know, I'm a food person, right? Like I'm obsessed with food. I studied food.
I talk about food. Food is like my thing. I mean, big chef. And for me to have taken that long, to find local food and, and food that was fresh. And then you can just taste the difference. Right? But you know, it's just, it really has inspired me to be like, okay, how can I help contribute to just
bringing attention to this industry even more. And I think to your point, you know, having the USDA support is huge, really education campaigns for sure. Which is what I'm trying to do. Um, but yeah, I, I I'm, I'm always curious as, because I think this is the biggest hurdle to the future of food or the future of vertical farming rather.
Craig: That's going to need, it's going to need government support. It's no different than Tesla, right? On an electrical car side of things on the windmill side of things. Uh, solar panel side of things. And this is the next, frankly, this is we're in the fourth, uh, evolution of agriculture. And this would be one of the responsibilities of our government is to not only national security and infrastructure, but also food security.
And this is a solution for food security. They need to get behind this 100% to make this happen. I almost sound kind of a pastoral about this, if you want, if that's the right word, but, uh, or evangelical about this, but it's not the solution for everything, but it's a solution for a lot of issues.
Wendy: I agree. This has been a fabulous chat. Thank you so much.
So how can the audience find you? How can they follow you or find you at the grocery store?
Craig: Now, Wendy, I greatly appreciate that you won't find a Crop One product in a grocery store, but you will find us branded as Fresh Box Farms. So by all means, please look for that in your, in your retail markets. Again, that's a Fresh Box Farms, but as well, I know social media is very important out there and we've got two prominent sources, to get more information on us, especially on Instagram, we can be at freshboxfarms or Instagram, and we're also follow us on LinkedIn at, at Crop One Holdings.
Wendy: Sounds great. Thank you so much, Craig. I really, really appreciate it. This was a delightful conversation and I hope everybody enjoyed the show. Thank you.
Craig: Thank you, Wendy.