Billionaire’s greenhouse now exporting produce statewide

HONOULULU — A pioneering hydroponic greenhouse farm on Lanai established by tech billionaire Larry Ellison has begun to export produce statewide.

The enterprise, Sensei Farms, announced this month that it is now supplying all 32 Foodland Super Market Ltd. stores in Hawaii with “premium” leafy greens.

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The expansion follows initial commercial sales on Lanai early this year, and represents a step toward a much larger goal to expand Sensei’s greenhouse farm model globally, especially in places where water and land limitations hamper traditional farming.

However, one element from the early Sensei vision — to produce a higher-­quality product that is sold at a lower price than imports — is not quite being met.

At the Aina Haina Foodland Farms store, 4-ounce packages of Sensei lettuce are $6.39, or $5.99 with a Foodland loyalty discount. That compares with 25% bigger, 5-ounce packages of Oahu-grown Kunia Country Farms lettuce for $6.69, or $5.99 with the discount, and 5-ounce packages of California-based Organic Girl greens for $6.99, or $6.69 with the discount, while whole heads of romaine and red or green leaf lettuce are less expensive.

In January a Sensei representative backed off Ellison’s pronouncement to undercut imports on pricing, and said initial pricing wasn’t expected to be much below or above imports.

Ellison, the co-founder of software firm Oracle Corp. who bought 98% of Lanai in 2012, announced plans for the hydroponic farm in 2017 with business partner Dr. David Agus, an esteemed physician and scientist.

“We’ve looked at agriculture, and it is one of the few industries that has not been transformed by modern technology,” Ellison said at the time.

Ellison’s estimated $15 million plan involves growing a variety of produce including tomatoes and cucumbers in water infused with nutrients under controlled and variable climate conditions in buildings equipped with computer technology.

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The operation today comprises six 20,000-square-foot greenhouses capable of growing up to 10 times more produce per acre than outdoor farming and with 90% less water, the company said.

Sensei’s initial plan for the farm includes nine greenhouses. But if it is successful, the company has suggested that there is much more room to grow given that Lanai has 16,000 acres of fallow farmland that once made the island the world’s largest pineapple producer.

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