Pitt partners with Fifth Season for local, robotically grown greens

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Image courtesy of Ali Trachta

Fifth Season’s biodome in Braddock.

By Diana Velasquez, Culture Editor

For those that often frequent Forbes Street Market for a snack or some groceries, you might soon find yourself face to face with Fifth Season ambassadors and a table full of salads.

Pitt Eats has recently partnered with Fifth Season, a robotically operated farm company, that grows greens like spinach and lettuce in a specifically curated biodome just outside of Pittsburgh in Braddock.

Fifth Season currently has partnerships with Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Ohio State University, where they bring fresh greens and food to their dining halls and on-campus dining locations. Pitt uses Fifth Season greens at most of its dining locations including all dining halls and more mobile food locations like the Smokeland BBQ food truck.

Fifth Season also partners with some students on campus in ambassadorship positions. Gillian Mullins, a senior marketing and supply chain management major, is one of these ambassadors.

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Her job is to promote Fifth Season products in person and on social media. She said she was initially contacted on Instagram by Fifth Season with a job offer. Mullins had already worked in a similar ambassador role for Red Bull, but said she loved the more hands-on aspect of working for Fifth Season.

“I was really interested in using social media and stepping into that type of aspect of marketing because clearly, that is huge right now,” Mullins said. “And then once I got to know the brand better, and know the employees better, I just fell in love with the company. And we also got to tour their farm, which is amazing.”

As a part of her ambassadorship, Mullins has created pop-up events around Oakland to promote Fifth Season products. She recently organized an event with Kappa Delta sorority, where she took over 150 of Fifth Season’s pre-packaged salads. Mullins has also held pop-ups at Forbes Street Market.

The Fifth Season farm in Braddock is seven miles southeast of Downtown Pittsburgh, which despite not being as tightly packed as the City, is certainly not a wide stretch of rural farmland. Grant Vandenbussche, Fifth Seasons’ chief category officer, said the biodomes located in Braddock were built so their products could stay local to the area.

“We built a 60,000 square foot facility that has two different biodomes. Inside the biodomes are these rooms that are lit in purple and blue colors, and they’re human free, meaning that nobody goes in there,” Vandenbussche said. “So nobody has to attend to the plants. The watering and the movement of the plants, that’s all done by robots.”

These robots are fully autonomous, and run on a software system developed by Fifth Season’s founders, who graduated together from nearby Carnegie Mellon University. The software system is programmed to give the plants the exact amount of air, humidity, light and temperature that they need.

Vandenbussche said this complex system inspired the company’s name, because they’ve created a perfect fifth season for the plants to grow in, with all their optimal environmental settings.

“We’ve given it the optimal growing recipe its entire life. That’s how we get to our name Fifth Season, because we’re able to completely create the perfect environment for the plants,” Vandenbussche said. “Which is really unique because leafy greens, there are no GMO seeds. So it’s a fully natural plant. It’s a fully natural product. It’s just a highly engineered environment.”

Fifth Season launched in 2020. They had planned to launch in early 2020 but were sidetracked when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit. Vandenbussche said initially that Fifth Season had planned to grow more herbs with the intention of selling to restaurants, but had to pivot to selling leafy green products like their ready-to-go salads when many restaurants shuttered.

“We developed [ready-to-go salads] in just about 30 days and we were able to hit the market in early 2020. While we were in the pandemic, Forbes Street Market and Pitt were some of the very first customers to use that product,” Vandenbussche said.

Meredith Rosenberg, a spokesperson for Pitt dining contractor Compass, said the University had been looking to find locally sourced greens and vegetables for a long time and executive chef Danielle Gallaway led this search.

“Pitt Eats Campus executive chef, Danielle, reached out to Fifth Seasons after searching for local farmers. Chef Danielle visited the farm and production facility and was impressed with the quality and service,” Rosenberg said. “As our relationship with Fifth Seasons has grown, we have expanded the variety of offerings and increased production.”

Mullins said she can see that message of sustainability taking root in the Pitt community. Despite reservations about Pitt’s sustainability efforts during her early years on campus, she said there is a tangible change, especially with Fifth Seasons’ involvement in campus dining.

“When I first came to Pitt, I didn’t really feel that they were doing enough in terms of sustainability,” Mullins said. “But after my four years here, I do think they’re making more of an effort and this partnership with Fifth Season definitely shows that. Not only are they sustainable, but they’re very healthy and their products are very good for you.”

Rosenberg said Fifth Season has been happy to work with Pitt Eats on growing and delivering their products. Fifth Season has even grown new crops, like romaine lettuce, at Pitt’s suggestion.

“They have continued to work and partner with us, by planting new crops [romaine] and expanding their facilities to accommodate the growth and needs of the campus,” Rosenberg said. “Fifth Season took on a new local partnership with a major production facility to support the UPitt business, which has a staff of 10 plus daily.”

Vandenbussche said Pitt and other colleges that they work with are great partners for their products not just because of their dining situations, but because of student enthusiasm for Fifth Season’s message of sustainability.

“Students are a really powerful voice in helping shape your company’s brand and products,” Vandenbussche said. “They’re actually in many cases, focused on the long term for what the world needs from the companies and the brands that they choose to select. So partnering with universities is a great way to bring a brand that’s focused on climate change and sustainability to life.”

For Mullins, she said while she was initially unfamiliar with Fifth Seasons’ products and goals in the early days of her ambassadorship, it didn’t take her long to fall in love with their message of sustainability and connection with the Pittsburgh community. 

“They truly do care about Pittsburgh. The farm is based in Braddock, and they do a lot to give back to the underserved community, which I really really love. And I genuinely just have the biggest soft spot in my heart for these people. They’re doing good out here,” Mullins said.