Vertical farming company Fifth Season moves to Braddock
Steps away from one of the longest running steel mills in the region, a solar-powered, fully-automated, vertical farming operation is setting up shop in Braddock.
“It’s a big part of our social mission — we always say, we could put these farms anywhere, so we really like to put them in hard-working communities like Braddock where there’s an industry-defining legacy,” said Austin Webb, co-founder and CEO of Fifth Season. “We’re creating a new standard in our industry and trying to do the same.”
There was also plenty of space: The 60,000-square-foot warehouse on Talbot Avenue will house the equivalent of about 2.5 acres of traditional farmland, according to Grant Vandenbussche, senior strategy and business development lead at Fifth Season.
Pesticide-free lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula and herbs will be grown in bookshelf-like racks stacked 30 feet high. Growing will take place 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
The facility is expected to produce over 500,000 pounds of leafy greens and herbs to be sold in area grocery stores and used in local restaurants by the end of next year .
“So if you can imagine, it never stops, it’s always a perfect environment,” Webb said. “Even in the middle of winter, you can get fresh food that’s coming out of here.”
The facility will be partially solar-powered and will make use of recycled carbon dioxide output from the neighboring the U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Plant, where steel production takes place.
Founded as RoBotany in 2016, the company was incubated at Carnegie Mellon University’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship.
It has raised over $35 million to date with help from the Columbus, Ohio-based Drive Capital, as well as other private investors with ties to Carnegie Mellon, according to a statement from the company.
Since then, Fifth Season has been developing its technology at two research and development facilities in Pittsburgh’s South Side.
The Braddock site, developed by Pittsburgh-based real estate developer RDC, is the first completed federal Qualified Opportunity Zone project in Allegheny County.
A federal law passed in 2017 allows the governor to designate high-poverty census tracks as Qualified Opportunity Zones. This allows individuals who invest in those areas to defer or eliminate federal taxes on capital gains, according to information provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
“We’re delighted to see businesses taking advantage of opportunity zones in our communities,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The use of this tool helps create jobs and rebuild the municipalities in which they’re located.”
Fifth Season expects to employ about 60 people at the Braddock facility to help with growing, harvesting and packaging, Webb said. Those jobs will resemble jobs on any manufacturing floor and will likely involve monitoring the robots running the facility around the clock.
“We are energized and encouraged by your commitment to hire local people,” said Braddock Council President Tina Doose. “So there will be local folks from (ZIP code) 15104 that will be employed at this facility. And to hear that commitment does my heart well.”
Fifth Season isn’t the only tech company to find a home in Braddock.
Engineering and manufacturing shop Phillips Tank and Structure and software companies like MeterFeeder and Unicentric have all been operating in the borough for several years.
“We’re at the point where we can create a new identity for ourselves as a community,” said Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones. “And the fact that we can be whatever we choose to be, and the fact that we are so close to Downtown Pittsburgh, I think plays in our favor.”
The borough is still missing some necessities, like a grocery store and a gas station, Jones said. She’s hopeful that those businesses will move in alongside the tech companies.
“It’s really been amazingly safe for us and crime free,” said Lenny Phillips, founder and president of Phillips Tank and Structure. He was initially attracted to Braddock for the affordable industrial space, but has opened up a second office space in the borough since relocating from Bloomfield about six years ago. “I also just love the vibe. It feels like we’re part of something that’s coming to life again.”
Evan Indianer, CEO at the software company Unicentric, said he’s watched several restaurants launch in Braddock since the company moved from Pittsburgh’s Strip District to the former synagogue-turned-Baptist church across the street from Fifth Season on Talbot Avenue about four years ago.
Indianer also witnessed the opening of the Braddock Civic Plaza — an open space to sit outside in the middle of town — the expansion of community organizations and the growth of Barebones Black Box theater, he said.
Braddock, along with nearby communities of Rankin and Swissvale, are open for business, he said.
“That’s a pretty special place,” Indianer said of Braddock. “At the same time, you have community around it that makes it one of those special nuggets that you find. And to be this close to the city on top of that — it’s a great place to work, live, play.”
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .