Larry Nixon, general manager of a greenhouse on the outskirts of Lockhart, showed me some of the most emerald-green basil I’d ever seen. “That’s a healthy plant,” he said, pointing one out. Its leaves curved like a sail catching a gust of wind. “They are heavy in oils, so they’ll be more flavorful,” he added. I lowered my face toward the plants to smell them. It was at this point a robot rolled by.
Grover, as the robot is named, is a squat square of molded plastic with black wheels. Think of a Zamboni squashed to a height of a few inches. A twentysomething employee whose title is “robot safety officer” guided the machine with what looked like a Sony PlayStation controller. He was teaching Grover so that it could soon navigate autonomously.
The 535,000-square-foot greenhouse is a venture-capitalist vision of the future of Texas agriculture. Built by Iron Ox, a Silicon Valley start-up, the facility resembles the offspring of a farmer’s vegetable patch and an Amazon fulfillment center. Robots glide across the poured-cement floors, moving plants in hydroponic tubs. The plants are digitally photographed and flooded with nutrient-rich water. The photos generate a data trail that is analyzed by both farmers and data scientists to create fresh produce that is available year-round and grown in a sustainable manner, with less water and fewer greenhouse gases.
Iron Ox chose Lockhart because it is located within a couple hundred miles of 12 million people and numerous high-end grocery stores and restaurants in Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. The $10 million facility sits on 25 acres across the street from the Caldwell County jail and the headquarters of a 4H club. The company opened its first full-scale automated greenhouse in Gilroy, California, in 2020 as a trial run. Lockhart’s facility, when completed in early 2022, will be fifty times larger. Not long after receiving $53 million in venture capital, Iron Ox announced plans for a second Lockhart facility, telling the Lockhart City Council this one would be nearly twice as large as the one under construction.
The Texas greenhouses represent a homecoming for Iron Ox chief executive Brandon Alexander, who grew up in Fort Bend County and studied computer science and robotics at the University of Texas at Austin. Several years out of college, he ended up at a Google-funded start-up working on drone deliveries for food. Alexander said his team was “building a literal taco copter . . . the ultimate impact we’re going to have is thirty percent quicker burritos.” He grew disillusioned: “I am at Google, at one of the wealthiest companies in the world, with an amazing team, and this is what we’re solving?”
He cast about for his next project and landed on agriculture. Growing up, he worked summers at his grandfather’s ranch in the Panhandle. “I didn’t like it,” he said. “I hated it, actually.” The rest of this family shared—to one extent or another—his disinclination to sign up for a rural lifestyle. And over the past half century, Texas became steadily more urban. Iron Ox is the latest manifestation of that transformation. “Fewer and fewer people want to stay on a traditional farm,” said John Miller, a farm-marketing consultant who lives near College Station.
Aside from labor concerns, Iron Ox is focused on the environmental issues associated with traditional farming. The company says its greenhouses use 90 percent less water to grow crops than conventional farms. Alexander challenged me to go to my local grocery store and look at where the produce was coming from. Most of it was from either California or Mexico, both faraway areas with water shortages. In the lettuce aisle, there was one local: organic mustard greens from Wharton, near the Gulf Coast.
The bet Alexander and his financial backers are making is that droughts, wildfires, and the need to drill water wells deeper and deeper will make traditional outdoor farming more difficult. In this future, Iron Ox’s greenhouses could grab a reasonable share of the produce market.
Adjacent to the greenhouse I visited, workers were finishing the inside of a large metal building painted in a barn-red hue. It is where the Grovers will bring produce for analysis and fine-tuning to improve yields and attractiveness, as well as harvesting and packaging. The clamshells full of lettuce and strawberries will be of uniform quality throughout the year. Iron Ox is in talks with Whole Foods and other grocery stores to carry its products in their produce sections.
Nixon has the passionate intensity of a convert. A large man with a bald head who favors Hawaiian shirts, he is from a farming family near Bakersfield, California. The agriculture there was great until the water got scarce, he said. Then he went to Hawaii to grow pineapples and macadamia nuts before getting recruited to open up the Lockhart greenhouse.
In an outdoor field, he says, if he wanted to give his crop more nutrients, it would take four people a few hours with a spray rig. “Here, I just press a button,” he marveled.
It almost feels like cheating, he said, but he’s willing to overlook that feeling, because the final product will be consistently better tasting and will generate a higher yield. With a gloved hand, I snapped off a fat leaf from a variegated red-leaf lettuce plant and tasted it. It was deliciously peppery. Next, I tried some green oakleaf lettuce. It was mellower and buttery. “A romaine flavor without the drama,” Nixon told me, noting that romaine is notoriously complicated to grow.
Our final stop was a tub of mizuna hybrid, a salad blend of two different leaves. “You’re only the second person to taste this,” he told me. Who was the first person? “That was me,” he said. “I need to know how it finishes, that it doesn’t have any knock-back.” This is a farming term for a lingering taste, he explained. I grabbed a handful of leaves, removed my face mask, and started chewing. Some of the leaves had a sharp radish taste, while others had a smoother flavor. It was delicious. I barely noticed the robot passing by.