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.