Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue made a couple of stops in Florida last week to view how operations are faring amid the coronavirus pandemic. First up was Kalera, a vertical farm operation in Orlando. The farm grows greens and microgreens in a 30,000-square-foot warehouse facility using hydroponics and lighting. During Perdue’s visit, the company announced plans to open a new, larger farm in Atlanta.
According to Kalera’s CEO Daniel Malechuk, the coronavirus hit at a most inopportune time for the farm. It was preparing for its first harvest right as the shelter-in-place orders came down. The farm had focused much of its business on foodservice, which dried up as the pandemic unfolded. However, the company successfully shifted to retail. It also donated thousands of boxes of product to the local Orlando community.
“At our giveaway events, we would have cars lined up a mile deep to pick up our product,” Malechuk said. “Our team loved being able to help people during this time.”
Kalera’s business model is placing its farms in urban centers to be near both retail and foodservice distribution. “We know lettuce has its highest vitamins and minerals closest to harvest, so wanted to be where we can get what we grow in the system quickly,” Malechuk said.
“Logistics is a huge part of food costs today,” Perdue added. “Transporting lettuce and romaine from the Salinas Valley across the U.S. costs a lot, and it delays delivery as well. If you have these types of facilities in major areas of consumption that reduces cost as well as the delivery time for fresh product.”
From Kalera, Perdue headed to Lakeland to see the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program in action. He stopped by One More Child, a charity that supplies more than 5.5 million meals to Floridians in need each year.
Perdue said the Farmers to Families Food Box exemplifies the USDA’s motto: Do right and feed everyone. The program is expected to deliver up to 40 million boxes of food by the end of June. The boxes come with a variety of fresh produce, meats, and dairy. USDA had directed $1.2 billion to the effort.
“The Farmers to Families Food Box Program was designed to put American farmers and distributors of all sizes back to work while supporting over-burdened food banks, community, and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need, and the program is doing just that,” Perdue said in a press release celebrating 5 million boxes of produce being delivered.