University of Wyoming graduate Nate Storey has a vision to feed the world into the 21st century, and has the motivation and means to do it.
The Wyoming State Lands and Investments Board announced a $20 million grant this week for Storey to build a new research facility in Laramie for what’s promised to be the world’s largest and most advanced indoor agricultural research center.
This grant was applied for by the city of Laramie on behalf of Plenty Unlimited, Inc., a vertical farming company that Storey co-founded.
Plenty already grows fresh fruits and produce in an indoor facility about the size of a big-box store in the city. With the SLIB money it will build “Project Jupiter,” about 60,000 square feet of research and development space.
Project Jupiter will be used to conduct plant science research to streamline Plenty’s farming methods.
The 16.35-acre indoor facility will be built in a technology park owned by the Laramie Chamber Business Alliance.
It’s being promoted as a state-of-the-art research and development cluster.
The company is projecting the project will create about 120 in addition to the 82 positions it already has in Laramie. The new jobs will pay more than $32 per hour.
Already Raised $1 Billion
Gov. Mark Gordon spoke in support of the facility during a press conference at the Wyoming Capitol on Thursday afternoon.
He said the capacity that Project Jupiter will operate at is what makes it special. The company has been able to raise nearly $1 billion.
“That really is, quite frankly, a very impressive number,” Gordon said.
Jupiter will pay $7.2 million rent on the facility for six years, after which it will have the opportunity to buy the complex for $3 million.
LCBA will receive 75% of the net revenues from the lease and will invest 80% of the money back into economic development projects. The Wyoming Business Council will retain the remaining 25%.
The projected economic impact for the project is expected to be $4.1 million with the state’s return on investment, measured by economic impact, expected to be realized in less than five years.
Total annualized return on the investment is expected to be 8.4%.
The company has two locations in California and is headquartered there.
Storey said the company had been made offers by two other states to host this project, but he chose Wyoming.
“It allows us to take our research and development and take our presence in Wyoming to the next level,” said Plenty CEO Arama Kukutai.
Plenty will provide $500,000 for the project with a potential match of $5.4 million in the future. The total project is expected to cost $27.9 million.
Plenty also pledges to invest $10 million in capital investment over the next five years.
“Capital goes where it’s needed, but it stays where it’s appreciated, and we feel very appreciated,” Kukutai said.
Feeding A Growing World
Food shortages will become an increasing challenge over the 21st century, Storey said.
As world populations continue to grow and viable agricultural land continues to diminish due to property being sold off for home development and climate change, there will be less space to produce food for the world.
“That’s basically the problem we’re trying to address,” Storey said. “We built the business because ag can’t go everywhere. It can’t grow everything, everywhere.”
Storey said what makes Plenty’s work so special is that while most traditional agricultural operations work to see how they can best grow produce in less-than-ideal conditions, Plenty seeks to grow produce under the most ideal conditions by attempting to control as many environmental variables as possible.
“We spend a lot of attention trying to figure out how we optimize those conditions to make the plants grow better, to keep them happy, growing as fast as they possibly can,” Storey said. “That’s a very different approach from the research that has historically been done, which is mostly focused on how you keep plants growing in conditions that are less than ideal.”
Kukutai said an indoor setting opens up many more opportunities for growing produce. Also, being located much closer to grocery stores alleviates possible cycle chain disruptions.
He mentioned how California, one of the largest agricultural producing states in the country, has fluctuated between years of drought and record-high precipitation over the last decade.
“Consumers rely on good retailers as well as their farmers and their connected network to provide what we need. Every day, every week we shop,” Kukutai said. “We’re a part of that solution.”
It’s Storey’s goal to have facilities like Project Jupiter in communities throughout the world where large-scale agricultural production is unattainable.
There also is a vertical garden in Jackson.
Storey said there are no immediate plans to add other locations in Wyoming.
“There’s an unbelievable amount of work that goes into taking a crop that was meant to be grown in the field, or in a greenhouse and figuring out how to grow it indoors,” he said.
A Step Toward Diversity
Gordon has been a longtime proponent of efforts like these that will diversify Wyoming’s economy if successful.
“The level at which Plenty will be operating in this new facility will truly advance Wyoming’s preeminence as a global center of indoor agricultural research,” he said. “This center gives us a tremendous opportunity to promote a state-of-the-art R&D cluster and further diversify our state’s economy.”
The project passed SLIB with a 4-1 vote.
“It’s a huge vote of confidence in our company,” Kukutai said.
Little Debate, But Gray Opposes
Secretary of State Chuck Gray was the only member of SLIB to vote against the project.
“I voted against the $20 million motion because it violated the WBC’s established rules setting the maximum grant amount for business committed projects at $3 million,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “I thought it was inappropriate to violate established rule and approve a project over six times the established limit.”
He also said the amount of private capital invested in Plenty and Project Jupiter from large corporations like Walmart made him question the need for public involvement.
Gray said a previous investment of $2.6 million in state money to Plenty was accompanied by a temporary elimination of 23 Wyoming jobs.
Gray also opposed $2.9 million in funding for McGinley Manufacturing to build an 8,400-square-foot facility in Glenrock.
The project was proposed by company owner Joe McGinley, who also is a member of the Natrona County Republican Party. McGinley has spoken publicly against staunchly conservative members of his county and state party, a contingency to which Gray aligns himself.
Gray said McGinley’s project did not meet the guidelines of the Business Committed Grant he applied for.
Gray did vote to support another project for a community center in Bar Nunn that Gordon criticized because he said it didn’t follow the intended purpose of the grant program.
Gray defended the project, saying the Business Council did not effectively communicate a change in rules for the grant program the town of Bar Nunn applied for.