Unsustainable agricultural practices like the unmoderated use of pesticides and monocultures continue to ravage the global farming industry. However, solutions exist. They include a focus on organic farming, agroecology and permaculture, and an increased engagement with technology.
To learn more about how these ideas are taking shape here in Southeast Asia, we connected with John Tran, founder of Vietnam-based GreeOx, to learn about the unique approach they are taking to indoor farming, which could revolutionize agricultural practices both here and across the region.
Why did you choose to work in Vietnam?
I’ve always been enthusiastic about providing people with better quality food, and I saw a massive opportunity for indoor farming in Vietnam. But honestly, I don’t know if I would say that I chose Vietnam. I think that somehow we chose each other. Hopefully the relationship is mutually beneficial—for me I saw that I could contribute in my own small way to this country’s development.
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How did you start indoor farming here?
While I was still in the US working in the financial services sector, I started indoor farming in my own converted warehouse—but I was just doing it for fun. Right around that time, new technologies were being developed and I became super-excited about aquaponic and hydroponic systems. So, when I got to Vietnam, I started indoor hydroponic farming on a bigger scale. Around then, people became more and more interested in this kind of system, and that’s when things really began to snowball.
I was also starting to have questions about my young son’s health. He has eczema and is allergic to seemingly everything. And that’s the case for most of my nephews and nieces as well. So, it got me thinking and pushed me to dig a bit deeper. I spent countless hours researching farming methods, which helped me to understand that radical change was needed in regards to our behavior as consumers and producers. And for my team and I, that’s what our vision is all about.
Can you explain the GreeOx concept?
We’ve developed a climate-controlled indoor farming system that works inside our 12-meter shipping containers. We can mimic any kind of atmosphere from across the globe. That means we can pick and choose any variety of crops and imitate the specific temperatures needed in order to grow them. We’re now able to grow crops that could never have been cultivated in Vietnam before.
Then, instead of partnering with grocery stores and third-party food distributors, we go directly to the consumer. That’s enabled by our close proximity to our customers. The reduction in transport results in a lower carbon footprint. Plus, we recycle 95% of the water we use. We’re pretty happy to be able to function in such a sustainable capacity.
What do you specialize in growing?
So far we have propagated over a 100 different plant varieties. We’ve raised produce like strawberries and carrots, but we primarily grow herbs and other leafy vegetables.
Explain how indoor farming compares to traditional methods of farming.
In theory, traditional farming is great for raising most varieties of crops. That’s why those methods have been around for so long. But, the problem is that it takes up too much land, requires too much water and results in inconsistent levels of nutrients. Nowadays, food is too detached from the consumer and we don’t have a clue where any it even comes from, or what’s really in it. When you farm outdoors, the obvious problem is fighting off pests. And, as we all know, this usually means farmers respond by using lots of chemical pesticides.
I’m not saying outdoor farming is wrong, but I am saying that it must evolve. No one can argue with the fact that indoor farming is more productive and environmentally friendly. To give you an example, inside a single 12-meter container we’re able to replicate about an acre of farmland. That yields around 4,000 to 7,000 plant heads, depending on the crop we’re growing at the time.
Another obvious advantage is that we can control the climate. This allows our crops to grow 365 days a year, unlike certain produce that can only be harvested seasonally. We can provide our plants with a consistent flow of nutrients and there is no need to use any pesticides whatsoever. On average, our plants have a growth cycle of 3 to 4 weeks. So, you can get about 12 to 15 harvests a year depending on the type of crops you are raising.
Moreover, we have employed a vertical stacking system—meaning our crops are placed on shelves inside our shipping containers. Using a system like this saves a massive amount of land.
One of the biggest concerns about plants not raised in soil is the taste. Does using hydroponics affect the taste of your product? And is food produced this way still considered organic?
You can’t beat GreeOx’s freshness and quality. Our arugula, for instance, has a beautiful spicy peppery taste which is rare to find. Our plants are in an 18 degree celsius environment 24 hours a day, and are fed consistently balanced nutrients. They receive light, to support the process of photosynthesis, from our LED lighting system. Not to mention, there are no pests whatsoever. This kind of environment is impossible to maintain outdoors no matter where you are, and that’s the reason consumers want our products.
Earlier this month, The US National Organic Standards Board (which advise the USDA) has voted to allow hydroponic crops to be labeled as organic under the National Organic Program. For us, this is incredible news as we are now officially certified to enter the organic market, which could greatly increase our market reach.
Can you tell us about your business model?
Our goal is to deliver products straight to the customer. At the moment our customers are mostly families. We will deliver anywhere that is convenient, even to our customers’ offices. Through our membership program, we can deliver once or twice a week. We’re also currently working with a couple of 5-star hotels. However, our main focus is simple—to provide the freshest and healthiest food possible, and to bring it directly to our customers’ doorsteps.
The other side of our business is to seek out partnership opportunities with people interested in operating a sustainable farm. We enter the cooperative offering our unique growing technology, operation processes and procedures, an online marketplace, and most importantly, our turnkey business packages which ensure the success of our partners.
For our partners, they provide local knowledge and an investment opportunity for both parties. In exchange, we look to become a hands-on shareholder to help support their future success.
How do your prices compare to the competition?
Our pricing is a bit higher than most organic products. The reason is that our indoor system costs more to operate. But, as technology becomes more affordable we hope that we will be able to lower the costs.
Is there a lot of direct competition in the indoor farming industry in Vietnam and abroad?
In Vietnam, there is only one other company doing the same thing, and they launched right around the same time we did. We haven’t met them yet, but I’ve seen their products on the shelves and I think they’re great. They’re definitely on the right path, and are working with a similar system. The only difference is they’re growing out of a warehouse, whereas we’re working within shipping containers.
However, in the APEC region there is pretty much next to no competition, and I think we are one of the most significant players.
On a global scale, the indoor farming industry is going through a really exciting time. There is high demand for indoor farming produce, and the sector is most certainly on the rise. In the US, there are a couple of companies that raised crazy amounts of money, upwards of US $200 million as of a few months ago. So, yes, it’s safe to say the international competition is huge.
Could you elaborate on the current state of agriculture in Vietnam and worldwide?
Recently, I attended a conference where there were 60 local agriculture companies present, all of whom are still engaged in outdated agricultural paradigms. Sadly, this model just doesn’t work anymore. If I was able to, I would love to introduce them to high-end technology which would help save them time, effort, money and energy.
As we already mentioned, across the globe, pesticides are a major problem. The amount of chemicals being used is astronomical. And even though there are more and more regulations regarding the level of pesticides farmers can use, I’m still skeptical about how effective those rules are. We have to build trust in systems that do not use pesticides, and in that regard we have our work cut out for us.
I am optimistic though. Many key figures are making waves in the industry, and your average consumer is becoming increasingly concerned about what they are eating. The more people express questions about what’s in their food, the agriculture industry will be forced to find alternative and safe solutions in order to keep everyone happy. It’s only a matter of time.
Do you think technology is essential to help meet the world’s food needs?
It is undoudbtedly a major factor, although I don’t think it’s the only means to do so. One of our biggest problems is wasting food. At every level, from production to delivery, from grocery store to fridge, we’re wasting ridiculous amounts. Perhaps before we start talking about large scale technological changes, we should address the issue of how to eliminate this problem first.
Who should we speak with next?
Loup-Sinh Rouan. With his new project Altoera, he’s engineering a robot that helps farmers monitor the number of pests in their crops. It’s a brilliant invention.