Freight Farms taps consumer brand vet as CEO

Rick Vanzura says he expects coronavirus will increase the urgency with which universities, hotels and governments prepare for global trends.

Freight Farms has hired a new chief executive with a background in consumer branding to service a market for onsite food production it expects to be bolstered by the spread of covid-19.

Rick Vanzura told Agri Investor that in addition to highlighting vulnerabilities in global food supply chains, the fact that the US was clearly behind where it could have been in preparedness for cornonavirus will help support demand for distributed food production.

“That just raises the broader question of: how prepared are you – fill in the blank with institution, educational, hotels or government – how prepared are you for the emerging trends that are impacting the world?” said Vanzura, describing core customer types for Freight Farms’ containerized vertical farming offerings that cost about $115,000 each and are currently sold as “the Greenery.”

“Sustainability issues, land availability, water availability; those obviously preceded covid-19, but we think there’s going to be a greater sense of urgency around folks expecting us to have an answer and be prepared for these global trends, as opposed to being reactive,” he explained.

Freight Farms co-founder Jon Friedman told Agri Investor the company has already helped customers react to the sharp drop in demand from restaurants related to covid-19 by switching crops. Vanzura added that small-scale farmers among the company’s customers have also been taking advantage of covid-inflated demand by setting up drive-through pickup of produce.

“Demand during this time for that hyper-local, fresh product has certainly ramped up,” he said. “Hopefully, once people get a taste of it and understand the difference, that’s one of those things that once we get through this [covid-19], will stick.”

Vanzura – who previously served as chief executive of the Wahlburgers restaurant chain and co-chief operating officer of Panera Bread – joined Freight Farms as its Boston-based chief executive in March. He replaces co-founder Brad McNamara, who will remain as president.

Boston-headquartered Freight Farms works with customers to determine which of more than 500 possible crops are most suitable based on local demand, prices and energy costs. It also offers management software, onsite training and maintenance to help customers optimize for efficiency or production from their farming units, which are built from shipping containers.

Vanzura said his role will focus largely on increasing awareness of the company among institutions like universities, whose demand for containerized farming units helped inspire a partnership with foodservice provider Sodexo announced in late January.

Freight Farms has sold more than 300 farming units to customers in 44 US states and 25 countries that have also included non-profit, corporate and retail organizations and hotels.

Vanzura said international expansion will be a key focus in his new role, adding that Freight Farms are a natural fit in countries with short growing seasons, low food access and challenging climatic conditions.

“There’s probably no geography where having a hyper-local, highly traceable, always available solution isn’t going to make sense in some way,” he added.

Ospraie Ag Science led a $15 million Series B for Freight Farms in February as part of an agricultural venture strategy focused on increasing efficiency in agriculture.