Shenandoah Growers is fulfilling the promise of indoor agriculture with their approach to cultivating organic, affordable, accessible, and tasty produce.
Controlled environment agriculture offers the world an opportunity to make healthy eating more affordable and environmentally sustainable. Known in farming circles as “indoor agriculture,” the practice addresses food insecurity and environmental sustainability in one fell swoop.
Not only does indoor agriculture require significantly less water than conventional farming, indoor growing facilities can also be built in close proximity to consumers. Shrinking the distance from farm to table reduces the carbon footprint, vastly reduces the use of fossil fuels, and translates into fresher food. Indoor agriculture shortens the supply chain, making a tremendous positive impact on the environment.
Shenandoah Growers, the country’s largest USDA-certified organic indoor farming company, delivers fresh and delicious produce to their customers in more than 18,000 retail locations. The Virginia-based indoor grower is making good on its mission to provide organic, sustainable, affordable, and accessible food. In doing so, they are poised to become the world’s top consumer brand of USDA-certified organic produce.
The company’s That’s Tasty™ products include six varieties of locally grown organic lettuce, 11 flavors of organic herb purees, 11 kinds of organic living herbs designed to grow in the kitchen between snips of herbaceous goodness, and 33 varieties of organic fresh cut herbs. Looking to the future, Shenandoah’s state-of-the-art R&D facilities are opening up a world of opportunities for potential new product offerings beyond herbs and leafy greens.
The Virginia-based firm has been making continuous investments in specialized farming techniques and equipment to transition from outdoor field to indoor production since taking up controlled environment farming in 2008. Their unique LED-powered growing platform increases crop yield while reducing waste and makes it possible to grow organic lettuce and herbs year-round.
After several years of continually improving indoor organic growing methods and technology, and taking a biology-first approach to farming, the firm found itself at a true “scale or wilt” moment. They’re rising to the moment, continuing to innovate and optimize production with cutting-edge proprietary technology enhancing efficiency and lowering costs. “To scale, we need to adopt more tried and true methods of operational excellence to ensure that we grow efficiently and make sure that our future at scale is as core to who we are as we have been in our past,” company COO Cameron Geiger said. Previous executive roles in ops, IT, and supply chain at Walmart, Sam’s Club, and TriMark give him the leadership credibility it takes to make that happen.
Shenandoah uses a unique, proprietary bioponic growing method in an end-to-end controlled environment, reducing the cost of raising crops by using the ideal amount of soil, water, and organic nutrients to maximize plant growth. Unlike many other indoor growing companies, Shenandoah is proud to grow their products in real soil, utilizing a proprietary system for producing their own nitrogen, eliminating the need for fertilizers. “This enables Shenandoah Growers to achieve unit costs that are lower than anybody else in indoor agriculture, and rivals most outdoor field production costs as well,” Geiger explained.
While indoor agriculture is inherently more environmentally sustainable, making it affordable takes a lot of hard work, especially for farms seeking USDA certification. It can be a long, complex, and expensive process.
“Keeping organic requires proprietary technology, which we have, as well as deep knowledge of the biology that actually makes a plant grow,” Geiger said. “We call our knowledge ‘grow how’ because we are farming nerds, and this is what we care about.
“We’re leading a revolution in sustainable, safe, natural indoor growing, and we pride ourselves on being a leader in organic products that taste great. Our own brand is That’s Tasty, and we really mean that.”
In addition to owning their own national distribution network, 30 years of developing close relationships with retailers has positioned Shenandoah for large-scale growth. Consumers are increasingly adding organic food to their diets; in 2020, sales of organic produce increased 14.2%. Along with spices, herbs — a staple of Shenandoah’s product lines — had the biggest year-over-year sales boost, up 26%.
While the healthy eating trend has been accelerated by the pandemic, it’s expected to continue. As Geiger put it, “We continue to grow our market share because we have managed to deliver organic food at a tremendous value to the consumer.”
Shenandoah Growers’ biofarms are strategically situated to serve retailers both large and small across the U.S. “We’re really well positioned to continue to grow at scale alongside those retail partners, and as the demand shifts, we’ll be able to be very flexible about expanding that access to healthy, fresh, affordable produce.” Partners include a bevy of household names, such as Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, Wegmans, Whole Foods, Food Lion, and Walmart, just for starters.
“Our retail partners put a great deal of trust in us, and they also provide us with a direct line of feedback that allows us to react more quickly to market trends and consumer demands,” he said. “We’re committed to providing consumers at all income levels with accessibility to our product. When you’re with those stores large and small across the country, you can get into some of the food deserts that other people can’t get to, and that’s where the accessibility to our produce comes in.”
Standout supply chain efficiency, supported by an in-house logistics operation
When it comes to supply chain management and efficiency, Shenandoah’s national distribution platform sets them apart. In 2018 they launched their own private truck fleet, and established a less-than-truckload logistics operation. Their LTL operation helps to control product distribution and enables them to leverage their experience in cold chain distribution by sharing carrier space with other suppliers in the marketplace.
“Cubing out a trailer with herbs is a lot of herbs even for a Kroger or Walmart, so we have empty pallet positions. We can sell the available space on our trucks to other suppliers that need to go to the same location. That adds a competitive advantage that we believe is unique,” Geiger said. “We monetize that excess capacity, and we drive commercial value for the company overall, so it’s not an afterthought. It’s very much integral to the company strategy.”
These days, the rarest commodity in the supply chain business is a truck driver. According to the American Trucking Association, for every available driver there are over 15 loads waiting for someone to transport them. Shenandoah’s “organic, sustainable, affordable, accessible” mission is a key aspect of reducing the number of trucks on the road.
“A culture built around addressing food insecurity and environmental sustainability really offers a supply chain professional an opportunity to make a difference that few other companies can promise. Our workplace is filled with teammates that respect all individuals. They’re obsessed with serving our customers and they know how to win as one team,” Geiger said. “When you join the team, you’re joining a group of people that through sheer force of will and work ethic wants to deliver on this higher purpose, and they recognize that we do it as one team. Once we’ve attracted them that’s what retains them.”
As they grow, Shenandoah is committed to bringing great tasting produce to the market by continually improving the biology and nutrition of their herbs and lettuces. “Our stuff tastes great. It’s the way that nature intended for them to taste,” he said. “We’ve got a mission that’s inspiring, and we offer a work environment that’s second to none. It makes you feel really good when you get up in the morning knowing you’re going to work to make a difference, and that’s what we offer.”