Upward and onward

The future is very much yet to be written about vertical farming. In many ways, the technology presents hope in the midst of rising food safety concerns, aging populations and potential environmental collapse. It’s also an intensely hard row to hoe, as it were. Early companies in the space are going to be the ones focused on driving down unit economics (hopefully) to a point where the technology makes sense from a price perspective.

But sometimes being early to a party means you’re among the first to leave. Last January, we covered what looked to be an important next step for Upward Farms, as the company announced plans to open a 250,000-square-foot farm in Northeastern, Pennsylvania early this year. The Brooklyn-based firm recently announced, however, that it has closed up shop.

“We found that vertical farming is almost infinitely complex — as we tackled challenges, new ones emerged,” founders Jason Green, Ben Silverman and Matt La Rosa said in an open letter. “Our team faced these challenges head on, humbly asking ourselves, ‘If not me, who, and if not now, when?’ ”

Even in a thriving market, building this stuff is intensely difficult. After three years of economic and other challenges, one imagines that it becomes even harder to convince potential backers to stick out what is ultimately a long runway.

The startup is closing up its decade-long project, but the founders point at some potential silver lining. “While Upward Farms is closing its doors,” they note, “a small portion of our team will continue working to unleash the magic of the microbiome. In the coming months, we’ll have more to share.”

There are still plenty of big names in the space, including Bowery and AeroFarms. It probably shouldn't be a big surprise that the herd is going to thin for a bit, until the path to success gets clearer. Meantime, perhaps the Upward team has valuable innovations it can share with a potential industry partner.