Shenandoah Growers Challenges Traditional Agricultural Methods and Mitigates Climate Impacts

How do our food systems impact the environment? To begin answering that question, consider basil.

Once a basil plant is grown, picked, and packaged, it travels thousands of refrigerated miles to reach a grocery store. The leaves could make a nice addition to somebody’s dinner plate, or they could perish in a week or two and end up in a compost heap or the garbage bin. Either way, it’s taken a lot of resources (and GHG emissions) for the herb to reach its final destination.

“The world wastes so much food,” says Philip Karp. “Produce is part of an inefficient, wasteful, costly – and ultimately unsustainable – system.”

Finding a better way to feed the planet

Motivated to improve the outlook for a growing, hungry population, Karp and the team at Shenandoah Growers are using science to reduce the impact of agriculture and its supply chain. “We want to lower the demand on natural resources. We also want to grow the best possible organic produce,” he says.

The company is delivering on its vision. With 12 locations across the United States, Shenandoah Growers is providing daily local organic produce to more than 18,000 stores, including large retailers such as Whole Foods, WalMart, and Kroger.

Traditional farming faces big environmental challenges

Natural humidity and proximity to abundant freshwater resources are hallmarks of the best outdoor growing conditions. Unfortunately, these climates also attract pests that can decimate crops. As a result, says Karp, farmers tend to irrigate fields in arid climates with sandy soils.

Irrigation, too, requires freshwater – but these resources are subject to competing demand. Combined with climate volatility and global warming, they’re at increased risk of running dry.

Agriculture also contributes to a changing climate, Karp says. “To increase yields, farmers amend soil with compost, nitrogen, and fertilizer. These inputs are ripe for conversion into greenhouse gases,” he says. Farming and tillage also release large amounts of nitrous oxide, carbon, and other gases into the atmosphere. Furthermore, crops often grow on deforested land, leaving less green space that would naturally absorb CO2.

Growing conditions are also affected by hurricanes, droughts, and fires – all of which are intensified by a changing climate. “These events make traditional agriculture perilous and unsustainable,” Karp says. “They disrupt supply chains, destroy farmers economically, and heighten food safety issues. Our industry – and the world’s food supply – is under constant threat.”

Game changers: Managing water demand and runoff

With more than 30 years in the farming business, Karp and his team knew it would take a radical approach to deliver quality produce with a considerably lower environmental impact. To arrive at a “biology first” solution that takes its cue from nature, they looked at every stage of plant growth, every input, and all parts of the supply chain, from seed to store.

The result is a fully sustainable indoor bioponic growing platform. Today, Shenandoah Growers’ BioFarm facilities improve yields to a staggering 99% – and they use 95% less water compared with conventional farming. The equation is dramatic, Karp says. “It’s much more sustainable.”

Now in its third generation, the BioFarm is all about precision. BioFarm facilities collect rainwater in a rooftop retention pond connected to holding tanks and use a closed-loop biofilter system to convert the water to liquid nitrate, which is then used to sub-irrigate crops into soil-based systems. “We can give this water to our plants once every three days,” says Karp. “When they fight to uptake the water, they become stronger. This way, we can give enough water and nutrients, but we don’t overdose the plants.”

Furthermore, the closed-loop system produces zero runoff. Nutrient-rich runoff from traditionally farmed fields contributes to the growth of harmful and toxic algae blooms that, worldwide, are compromising the health of fresh and saltwater ecosystems. For Shenandoah Growers, the ability to entirely eliminate runoff is a game-changer.

Lowering and eliminating emissions

With a smaller, more efficient footprint and a facility that gives back – a BioFarm is actually a net consumer of carbon dioxide, says Karp – Shenandoah Growers is able to address emissions through responsible use of land. “We’re not using products that convert into methane,” he says. “We’ve also added green mass.”

Furthermore, BioFarms do not depend on outdoor growing conditions, so they can be located to better serve local markets, lowering the emissions associated with moving and transporting produce.

No longer business as usual

Today, basil is Shenandoah Growers’ best-selling herb. By refining all aspects of its supply chain and looking to nature for inspiration, the company has drastically reduced the impact of producing and delivering healthy, organic produce.

“We’re proud of our efforts, but there’s still a lot to do,” says Karp. “With so much impressive innovation in the market right now, it’s an exciting time for our sector. We’re constantly looking at ways to set up our industry for a sustainable future.”