“We believe everybody should have access to fresh food,” Michael Choi, CEO of Ponix Farms tells me over the phone. Ponix is a New York City-based “food utility company” — only up and running in Atlanta, so far — that creatively uses hydroponics technology to grow produce in solar-powered container farms, not unlike shipping containers. Ponix’s primary goal is to establish food security in urban areas, namely in food deserts; additionally, the company wants to yield more nutritious, local produce; to reduce the environmental impact of the agriculture industry; and to provide more transparency about agricultural supply chains.
By “food utility" company, Ponix strives to function not unlike the utility companies that supply homes and businesses with heat, water, and electricity. “Very similar to how a power plant provides residents and businesses with electricity, we’re trying to … produce food at the point of consumption,” Choi says. “We’re trying to move the farm, and not the food.”
As Choi points out, produce is often much more expensive — and environmentally unfriendly — than it needs to be because we are importing it all over the world. “Right now, cities are looking to secure food supply that is transparent, that is safe, and nutritionally dense. And cities are looking to become more resilient,” he says. “And then because most of our [food comes] from centralized big, big farms, food prices fluctuate because the pricing is directly correlated with petroleum prices, and then there’s seasonal gaps. There are crops that don’t make it because of geography, or there are seasonal crops.”
But with hydroponics, “you can essentially grow food indoors anytime,” without a need for soil, pesticides, or nearly as much water as other farming methods, Choi explains. Hydroponics, which is Latin for “working water,” is “a form of growing food or crops without soil … in a clean and controlled environment.” Instead of being planted in soil, the crops are planted in pipes or similar containers filled with water, which is typically supplemented with a nutrient solution, according to Simply Hydroponics.
Ponix grows its crops in custom-built container farms, utilizing hydroponics techniques along with solar power and the company’s proprietary technology. Choi says the containers can grow plants from pretty much anywhere — the weather conditions outside the container do not affect what happens inside.
Ponix offers two services: licensing the technology, and the food itself. On the licensing side, Ponix primarily wants to work with municipalities (either at the state or local levels) to get Ponix containers installed in urban areas and food deserts. The company also hopes to eventually work with grocery stores to achieve these same goals. On the food side of the business, Ponix will also market its fruits, vegetables, and herbs to customers, who can purchase produce grown in local Ponix containers.
Following several years of research and development, Ponix recently launched in Atlanta, thanks to winning the city’s IoT.ATL AgTech Challenge. IoT.ATL is a 12-month pilot program that partners with companies and organizations working to bring sustainable agriculture to Atlanta.
As a result of that partnership, Ponix is now selling its produce in four markets across the city — which Choi hopes will help get the company to the next level. As he puts it, “Once we get this model down, we’re going to scale it and implement that in different parts of the country where there are food deserts.”
And that’s what Choi is most passionate about when it comes to the potential of the company. “I’m most excited about bringing farms to places where there’s no access to food,” he says. “There are tons of Americans and tons of people in the world who don’t have access to fresh food. They don’t know where to get it. And according to a study by the University of Illinois, there are only nine counties in the country that are responsible for our food." Interestingly, most of those counties are in California — meaning the further towards the east coast you live, the further most of your food has to travel.
And in addition to potentially increasing food security, Choi is also proud of how sustainable it is to grow food hydroponically with Ponix. For one thing, growing crops indoors eliminates the need for pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, all of which contribute to soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and pollution of the soil and waterways.
Ponix recirculates its water, a process that Choi claims results in 95 percent less water being used compared to a traditional farm. Additionally, Ponix harnesses its energy from solar panels — so even though the crops are not growing directly under the sun’s rays like conventionally-grown crops, these panels are “very quick to convert to sustainable and alternative sources of energy,” Choi says. “We have an abundant amount of sun. If we just harness it correctly, we’ll be able to power our farms in a more effective manner.”
Additionally, fruits, veggies, and herbs grown locally (as they would be with Ponix) are typically more nutritious than foods that traveled across the country (or the world) to get to your grocery store. That’s because most produce begins to lose its nutrients within 24 hours after being harvested; not to mention, a lot of produce you’ll find in your grocery store is actually picked before it is ripe, which reduces the nutrition content of the food as well, as explained by Virtua.
And finally, Choi hopes that Ponix will set a new standard for transparency when it comes to supply chains. [“The U.S.’s] supply chain is very complicated, and we just want to provide a more transparent supply chain, and we can do that by some of our methods,” he tells me. “We just want to provide honesty and transparency to how the food is grown, and where it comes from, and tell people exactly what they’re putting into their bodies.”