Has Vertical Farming Come Of Age?

Finally? Vertical farming–which is essentially growing crops in buildings–might have finally arrived. The problem has always been that it wasn’t clear that these farms could make money. According this article, that doesn’t seem to be a problem (boldface mine):

Most of America’s baby greens are grown in irrigated fields in the Salinas Valley, in California. During the winter months, some production moves to similar fields in Arizona or goes even farther south, into Mexico. If you look at the shelves of baby greens in a store, you may find plastic clamshells holding five ounces of greens for $3.99 (organicgirl, from Salinas), or for $3.29 (Earthbound Farm, from near Salinas), or for $2.99 (Fresh Attitude, from Quebec and Florida). Harwood’s magic number of eight dollars a pound would be on the cheap side today. Four dollars for five ounces comes to about thirteen dollars a pound.

AeroFarms supplies greens to the dining rooms at the Times, Goldman Sachs, and several other corporate accounts in New York. At the moment, the greens can be purchased retail only at two ShopRite supermarkets, one on Springfield Avenue in Newark and the other on Broad Street in Bloomfield. The AeroFarms clamshell package (clear plastic, No. 1 recyclable) appears to be the same size as its competition’s but it holds slightly less—4.5 ounces instead of five. It is priced at the highest end, at $3.99. The company plans to have its greens on the shelves soon at Whole Foods stores and Kings, also in the local area. Greens that come from California ride in trucks for days. The driving time from AeroFarms’ farm to the Newark ShopRite is about eleven minutes. The company’s bigger plan is to put similar vertical farms in metro areas all over the country and eventually around the world, so that its distribution will always be local, thereby saving transportation costs and fuel and riding the enthusiasm for the locally grown.

At the Bloomfield ShopRite, I watched a woman pick up a clamshell of AeroFarms arugula, look at it, and put it back. Then she picked up a clamshell of Fresh Attitude arugula and dropped it in her cart. I asked her if she knew that AeroFarms was grown in Newark. She said, “I thought it was only distributed from Newark.” I told her the arugula was indeed Newark-grown and explained about the vertical farm. She put the out-of-state arugula back, picked up the Newark arugula, and thanked me for telling her. I think AeroFarms does not play up Newark enough on the packaging. They should call their product Newark Greens.

But in another sense it could be anywhere. The technology it uses derives partly from systems designed to grow crops on the moon. The interior space is its own sealed-off world; nothing inside the vertical-farm buildings is uncontrolled. Countless algorithm-driven computer commands combine to induce the greens to grow, night and day, so that a crop can go from seed to shoot to harvest in eighteen days. Every known influence on the plant’s wellbeing is measured, adjusted, remeasured. Tens of thousands of sensing devices monitor what’s going on. The ambient air is Newark’s, but filtered, ventilated, heated, and cooled. Like all air today, it has an average CO2 content of about four hundred parts per million (we exceeded the three-fifty-p.p.m. threshold a while ago), but an even higher content is better for the plants, so tanks of CO2 enrich the concentration inside the building to a thousand p.p.m.

This could really transform a lot of down-and-out urban areas as well as decaying suburbs and towns. There is a lot of commercial infrastructure, such as out-of-business strip malls, unused office buildings, along with unsold houses from the 2008 bubble. All of these properties have water and electrical hookups, and could very easily be converted to vertical farming. While the New Yorker article plays up the local angle, decaying suburbs and exurbs aren’t that far from cities, and land, both for the farm and for loading docks and so on, is cheap. At the same time, valuable urban land should be used for housing, not farming.

There’s an opportunity here, especially if some smart government types were to figure out how to get some Department of Agriculture money thrown at these farms. Then they could really take off–and by ‘take off’, I also mean provide jobs.

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5 Responses to Has Vertical Farming Come Of Age?

  1. doug says:

    Fourteen buck a pound for something with the nutritional value of a half a sheet of last week’s newspaper with a bit of ascorbic acid sprinkled on it. Don’t pretend this is producing food. It’s producing table decorations for the wealthy. Don’t pretend that growing anything in the dismal interiors of urban buildings isn’t going to demand a lot of electricity. But then for most urban areas, it is easy to pretend that electricity isn’t polluting because the crap dumped into water, on land and into the air is generally dumped far from the stinking city.

  2. DMC says:

    Solar got cheaper than coal in Chile last month and the price per KWH continues to drop across the board. We are coming into an era of cheap electricity whether the carbon barons like it or not. With sufficiently cheap electricity comes mass desalinization, irrigation and ever dropping expense for hydroponics as the technology evolves.

  3. Doug, one of the startups I work for manufactures fuel cells for buildings power needs. Runs mostly on water, so once that unit is built, the only real energy use is in the h2o generation on site from water, rest go’s to power the building. and outputs drinking water as the waste.

  4. doug says:

    The fact remains that regardless of what electrical power sources may be available, using large amounts of electricity to provide light to grow so-called food indoors is a desperation measure – something that would be appropriate when outdoors has dried up or gone dark. There are better uses for clean electricity than growing decorative produce that only the rich can afford. Fuel cells and photovoltics have been touted for a great many years and mostly failed to deliver. Solar is becoming more realistic, but at this time the best that can be hoped for is about 200 watts per square metre unless you use bird-evaporating concentrators. If you can put the array on the roof of the building, great. Unless the building is low with a large footprint, you are unlikely to be able to generate sufficient electricity with a roof-mounted array to sustain the astounding number of high-power artificial light sources required make that fancy lettuce grow fast enough to make the operation viable. If you build the solar array in a desert because you are so ignorant of what a real desert is that you think that is OK, then I raise my middle finger to you.

    I’ll believe fuel cells as practical sources for more than a few hundred watts when I see them for sale with decent warranties and at a price that isn’t vastly higher than burning carbon. Again, if they become reality, there are better current uses for their current. (A local well-established company with considerable expertise loudly announced their fabulous fuel cells several years ago. Their actual marketed product is still thermoelectric generators that are about the most inefficient electrical power generators used anywhere.)

    The notion that it is easy to convert existing buildings to use for growing is also complete nonsense in many areas. In some areas it is probably fairly simple. In any area where it is cold outdoors the building is likely to need a lot of work to improve insulation and vapor barriers on external walls and ceilings. Without these measures the high inside humidity will result in water running down the interiors of walls and/or ice forming. The formerly abandoned buildings will “self”-demolish.

  5. kaleberg says:

    I remember seeing this technology proposed in the 1980s. The idea was that certain fast growing plants like greens and herbs could be grown on an assembly line and slowly – they are still plants – pass through various optimal growing conditions. The newer model has dropped the linear assembly line and takes advantage of modern robotics, sensors and controls. These farms could create jobs, but they are highly automated compared to ordinary gardens. There are all sorts of garden robots coming out these days. One looks like an oversized 3D printer which manages a fixed bed: seeding, watering, weeding and potentially harvesting. There’s also a Roomba like weed killer coming out this spring. I’m guessing that these farms use similar technology, but at a larger scale.

    They don’t really solve the big food problems. Most of our calories come directly or indirectly from corn and wheat fields largely in the mid-west and all highly automated since before the Civil War. These farms are more about providing fresh food, locally produced. That’s a luxury, a wonderful luxury, but a luxury for all that. All told, I am in favor of urban agriculture for cultural reasons more than agricultural reasons. Modern agriculture is increasingly automated. The local marijuana farms, for example, are completely indoor operations and currently more energy intensive than they need to be. The problem is that people are so completely cut off from where there food comes from. Having some of the base production being more visible might help somewhat. A lot will depend on whether these operations are completely closed or offer some other urban amenity, perhaps a salad oriented lunch spot in a part of the greenhouse.

    There used to be assembly line tours run by companies like Ford, Kodak and Hershey’s. When they stopped, manufacturing was somehow culturally deprecated. I don’t think you could build a modern car plant in an urban area these days for logistical reasons, but making small scale manufacturing and agriculture more visible could have positive cultural effects.

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