Fields of a futuristic kind are coming to the former Brooks Field, now known just as Brooks, a thriving mixed-use community on the South Side.
The Virginia-based grower and marketer of fresh produce, Soli Organic, broke ground in November on an indoor farming facility at Brooks that will annually produce up to 5 million pounds of organic herbs and leafy greens starting in 2024.
The facility is the second such operation for Soli Organic, a fast-growing indoor farming operation looking to supply affordable, fresh produce to a growing number of retailers, including H-E-B.
At the Soli plant, herbs like cilantro, basil, mint and dill, plus spinach and Romaine lettuce will be sown in layers up to 35 feet tall.
Plants grow in soil and are fed a “secret sauce” of nitrogen fertilizer developed by Soli Organic, said Philip Karp, the company’s president. Produce is harvested and packaged by robots for distribution throughout the region.
Founded in 1989 as Shenandoah Growers, Soli Organic grows and markets fresh organic culinary herbs and claims to have developed the nation’s largest commercial indoor organic, soil-based growing system.
“We began our transition to indoor farming because we recognized early on some of the coming challenges of traditional outdoor farming,” stated Matt Ryan, CEO of Soli Organic, adding that climate change is making it harder to provide year-round, affordable produce using traditional farming methods.
Joeris General Contractors is building the facility on an 18-acre site at Brooks. Completion is expected near the end of 2023. The company plans to hire about 100 people, including high-tech machine operators.
A future phase of the project also is planned, adding another 100,000 square feet to the facility.
The indoor farm will be fully automated, Karp said. When most people see the operation, it is “mind-blowing,” and they ask, “This is what agriculture is today?”
A Reuters report in 2021 stated that indoor farming is being positioned as a solution to pandemic-induced disruptions in the harvesting, shipping and sale of food.
In 2020, investment in U.S. indoor farming ventures totaled $929 million, more than double the investments in 2019, according to PitchBook data.
Soli Organic supplies fresh herbs and produce to grocers nationwide, including Walmart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Central Market and Berkshire Brothers. But not the largest grocer in Texas — H-E-B — yet.
“This is actually one of the reasons we’re putting up this farm,” Karp said. “This is in response to a company like H-E-B and Whole Foods and many others that are looking for high-quality organic produce, grown locally, grown year-round and at an affordable price.”
The company built its first greenhouses in Virginia, Karp said. The Brooks facility will be one of Soli Organic’s 10 farm facilities already in operation and one of seven indoor farms.
It chose Brooks because it is a federally designated “opportunity zone” providing tax benefits to investors, he said.
The San Antonio plant will be the second of 15 such operations that Soli Organic has is planning in various parts of the country following a round of venture funding. The first was in Anderson County, South Carolina, and the third will be north of Seattle.
In San Antonio, Karp said the company plans to develop partnerships with local universities and technical colleges as it has done with Clemson University and Virginia Tech, as well as with local manufacturing companies and suppliers.