Ames Indoor Farm is expanding rapidly

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AMES, Iowa (AP) — Ames Nebullam Indoor Farm has been renamed Clayton Farms as it expands to the Twin Cities and sets its sights on eastern Iowa and beyond.

The new name is a nod to Chief Farmer Clayton Mooney, the company’s charismatic and public co-founder. He is an energetic combination of farmer, boxing trainer, ultra-marathoner and former professional poker player.

With a direct-to-consumer business model that provides same-day-picked produce to approximately 500 subscribers in Iowa, Clayton Farms has experienced “40% growth, month-over-month, for approximately five consecutive quarters” , Mooney said.

“It’s great and it works. That’s why we’ve been able to expand into new markets, expand the team and raise another round of funding,” a round that will likely be finalized in September, he said. “Last year we had about 600% growth.”

Serving weekly customers in the Ames, Ankeny and Des Moines areas, the indoor farm also has a pilot project in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, where it delivers bi-weekly.

“We are testing the market here in this way. Essentially, if demand continues to grow in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, we will launch a farm there as well,” Mooney said. “We’re only a few dozen subscribers away from having to find space there to launch the farm because we won’t be able to meet demand from there.”

On August 4, Clayton Farms launched its second indoor farm in Edina, Minnesota, its first foray outside of Iowa. This farm will be fully operational in September. Anyone in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area can become a subscriber.

Subscriptions are available weekly or less frequently, depending on the needs of each customer.

After securing the Edina space, demolition quickly began on the site. A full paint job followed and the installation of equipment developed by Clayton Farms early in its existence.

“So it’s a very, very quick turnaround,” Mooney said. “It’s so fast. I like to describe it like this: You could spend two years and $20 million to start a grocery store in a community. But you could spend two months and $150,000 to start a Clayton Farms in your community. From getting the keys to the first harvest, two months ago.

“It’s gone, gone. Danen (Pool, the other co-founder of Clayton Farms) and I like to joke that we’re aging in dog years. But we also get wisdom at this rate too.

Clayton Farms six-stack vertical growing systems provide year-round harvesting of pesticide-free, soil-free produce. Produce grown includes tomatoes and leafy greens such as head lettuce, oakleaf lettuce, pea shoots, Swiss chard and a peppery variety of arugula specially requested by customers. Microgreens are also popular and include radish, bok choy and broccoli sprouts.

With about 1,000 square feet of commercial space located in Iowa State University’s research park, Clayton Farms has about a quarter of a million plants growing at any one time, Mooney said.

Judi Eyles, director of the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at Iowa State, describes herself as a super fan of Clayton Farms. One of the first subscribers, she recently received her 100th delivery of fresh produce.

“For me, it has always been about the product. I eat a LOT of salad. Their lettuce is truly superior to anything you can buy at a store, and it stays fresh FOREVER! Eyles told the Tribune in an email.

When Pool and Mooney launched Nebullam in 2017, they had a very different take on what has now become Clayton Farms. The COVID-19 pandemic has pivoted them in a direction that has had very positive results, Mooney said.

“We saw ourselves wanting to be the John Deere of indoor farming,” he said. “We planned to design and build grow equipment to get it into the hands of new and expanding indoor growers. We planned to sell the equipment to them and then license the software that runs our equipment for recurring revenue.

“For the first three years, we never thought we would be a farm.”

As Pool and Mooney brought their prototypes to commercial scale, they brought people in for tours. As they harvested working prototypes, they wholesaled the products to local grocers and restaurants.

“Back then, when the pandemic hit, we lost all that income overnight. We were sitting there, six days before our next harvest and we said, ‘What do we do? How can we keep the lights on? Said Mooney.

That’s when they came up with the idea of ​​a direct-to-consumer model. It all started in Ames with a dozen clients, with the clientele doubling every month or so and experiencing big bumps due to some viral media events.

“I really feel, over the last year and a half, that we’re a different company now,” Mooney said.

The move from a business-to-business model to a direct-to-consumer model has emphasized the consumer brand of Clayton Farms. Growth went from around 3% per month to 40%.

The first three and a half years of research and development were vital, however, as the company had both the equipment and the software ready to be able to make this pivot.

“Essentially, we have software that runs everything. Each six-stack system has a brain that communicates with the lighting schedule, water, nutrient levels, temperature, humidity,” Mooney said. “The big thing that it also communicates that really takes the guesswork out of it is our dosing system, which is just how often the nutrients in the water are dispersed, using algorithms to improve that.

“We are always learning and adjusting these parameters to grow happier, healthier plants.”

Clayton Farms is making the data it collects on its farm open source so other indoor farmers around the world can learn and be inspired, Mooney said.

Eyles thinks Clayton Farms’ move from selling indoor farm equipment to expanding indoor farms was smart.

“Not only that, they’ve stepped up their marketing, packaging and customer engagement,” she wrote. “That was the brilliant part of their move to home delivery. They created dedicated customers (fans) and provided an exceptional product at a fair price. They use smart gadgets and freebies to build relationships with customers and make people want more.”

With Pool as chief engineer and Mooney as chief farmer, the co-founders and their investors thought the new name Clayton Farms was a good change to reflect the company’s identity as a farm and connect the name to its founder in contact with customers.

“Danen’s background is in plant biology and mechanical engineering. He’s the one who brings the ideas, the designs, the builds – all the equipment – ​​to life, which then brings the food to life,” Mooney said. “So I feel like we’re a really good team with a kind of founders yin and yang where our strengths together equals a complete company.”

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