Inside the old Hewlett-Packard printer factory in east Vancouver, Ken Kaneko walks among towering rows of scaffolding that hold sprouted plants growing under LED lights.
Kaneko is the co-owner and CEO of West Village Farms, a company harnessing a new type of agriculture called “vertical farming,” and it’s among the first in Clark County that’s growing food indoors using marijuana-industry methods.
Every factor of the farm can be controlled because the operation is indoors: the temperature, the amount of light and what touches the plants — never bugs or pesticides. Growing the plants in dirt trays stacked eight rows high allows the farm to conserve space.
West Village is about a year into selling its lettuce and microgreens at high-end grocers in Oregon and Washington, including New Seasons and Chuck’s Produce, where a plastic container retails for $4.99. The young company is in a state of rapid growth as it works its way into more stores on the West Coast.
In October, the farm began harvesting three times a week, up from twice, to get fresher products to customers. It’s also seeing double or triple revenue growth each month, Kaneko said.
“Compared to last year, we made 80 times more,” he said of the revenue. “But we’re still in the infant stages of the company.”
Kaneko expects to expand operations inside West Village Farm‘s rented space at 18110 S.E. 34th St. It’s using a little more than half its 25,000-square-foot space and plans to be at full capacity by the first quarter of 2020.
Unlike any outdoor farm, West Village also plans to expand operations upward by adding at least four more rows, which are bundled into a “pod” reaching nearly to the ceiling.
Kaneko touts both health and environmental benefits of consuming indoor-grown plants. Even outdoor-grown food labeled organic can sometimes be exposed to herbicides or pesticides, he said.
Another advantage is having a short farm-to-table time. Compared with plants harvested on outdoor farms and trucked long distances to the grocer, harvesting plants in Vancouver means putting them on shelves in one or two days.
“A lot of microgreens are shipped here from (California), but it takes two weeks before they hit the shelves,” he said. “With West Village Farms, the product arrives at grocery stores a day or two after it’s harvested. That’s how we provide quality to our customers.”
West Village Farm’s method uses 95 percent less water compared with an outdoor farm, Kaneko said. Part of that is due to the company’s patented irrigation system.
Before Kaneko co-founded West Village, he worked for Apple in California, and often traveled for work. He recalls a business trip to Japan, where he saw a vertical farm operating out of a defunct semiconductor factory.
“I thought it was an interesting idea,” he said. “It was a thing in Japan, especially after the Fukushima disaster, to secure the supply chains of food.”
The vertical farms also reminded Kaneko of his time at Stanford University studying computer hardware manufacturing. At Stanford, where Kaneko earned a degree in materials science and engineering, he learned about two of the legends to come out of the department: Craig Barrett, former CEO of Intel, and Ko Nishimura. Nishimura fell victim to American internment during World War II but eventually became CEO of Solectron, one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturing companies.
“I idolized both those people,” Kaneko said.
After Kaneko toured the vertical farm in Japan, he learned that Nishimura owned one in California called Ecopia, so he reached out to him via email.
The two met for lunch, and Kaneko began to materialize his interest in starting his own vertical farm in the Pacific Northwest, where Kaneko held his first job after college at Intel’s Hillsboro, Ore., complex.
Over the next year, Nishimura “probably was vetting me out,” Kaneko said. “Afterward, when we felt comfortable with each other, we decided to create this new company.”
Kaneko, Nishimura and some other investors eventually decided to name the company after Nishimura, which in Japanese translates to “West Village.”