Picking your greens in the store – vertical farming is taking off

When you think about vertical farming, I would like you to remember this amazing vision. Because it is not just another company pitch – it is the rationale for why so many people and businesses are seeking out new ways to do things, like how we feed ourselves, how we use land, and how we relate to the rest of the natural world.

It was the last paragraph in a story about a company that does vertical farming:

“We can give the world back — a lot,” says Storey. “We can give the world back land. We can give back the jungles of Borneo to the orangutans. We can give back the Amazon to the planet. We can give back the midwest to the buffalo. We can give back the things that we’ve taken. And we can be a lot less extractive.”

Now that’s a company I’d love to work for, or buy things from. This is a company with a big vision.

And it’s in an industry that experts say is poised to grow dramatically in the post-pandemic years. “Vertical farming, long touted as too expensive, will become a key component of the food supply chain, which will bring down the cost curve. Investment into agtech has reached record highs, totaling $2.2 billion in the first two quarters of 2020 alone, up from $2.7 billion for the whole of 2019,” says Food Logistics in a recent article. It expects those numbers will keep growing.

“As technologies such as LEDs and computing power get cheaper and more efficient, indoor farming will produce significantly higher yields. In addition, indoor farms will introduce new crops beyond leafy greens as the costs of production decrease. Over time, indoor farming will bring back food varieties we haven’t seen in decades. Indoor farming’s ability to control climate, pathogens and weather will allow it to produce more consistent and flavorful crops. For these reasons, we’ll continue to see strong growth in the indoor farming industry.”

The pandemic exposed a lot of vulnerabilities in the food supply system, the article suggests, and innovative businesses have figured out a way to use that new consumer knowledge to offer us new ways to get our vegetables.

“Retailers are beginning to realize the value of indoor farming, particularly as it de-risks the volatile supply chain and allows stores to increase their green digital footprint. Improved shelf life, taste and pesticide-free growing practices will drive consumer demand for produce grown in controlled environments. This year, we’ll see vertical farms installed inside grocery stores where consumers can pick their own greens.” Food Logistics

The Freethink article profiles one of the 20 or so US companies that is ready to step up – Plenty, which is headquartered in San Francisco, California, and which was founded in 2014 by Matt Barnard and Nate Storey with a ‘simple yet powerful mission to improve the lives of plants, people, and the planet’.

Plenty, which has vertical farms in the San Francisco Bay Area, Wyoming, and Washington, supplies fresh produce including kale, arugula, and lettuce to major grocery stores like Whole Foods and Safeway. In 2019, it began building Tigris, its largest and most efficient farm yet, which will be able to grow a million plants at a time.

Farming vertically means that you can grow the equivalent of 700 acres of farmland produce in a structure that is the size of a big box store, Freethink explains. You can harvest 365 days a year, and shrink growth cycles to about 10 days for many products. You thus can get a yield of 700% while you save a million gallons of water a week and use just one per cent of the land used by traditional farms. And you don’t need pesticides. Plenty doesn’t need to ship its product because its products are grown in the urban areas where their customers live – and that reduces Plenty’s carbon footprint as well.

So how do they do this? They use air handling units that allow them to recirculate 99% of the water from the system, and LED light bulbs in a grid format that allows plants to absorb the greatest amount of energy possible.

“When you grow things outside, the elements are much more unpredictable,” Shireen Santosham, the head of strategic initiatives for Plenty, explained to Freethink. “If you grow indoors, you can control a lot of those factors in ways that are accessible to outdoor growers. And the result is that our produce can be hundreds of times cleaner.”

Sources:

Vertical Farms Could Take Over the World. Freethink, May 22, 2021

Plenty unveils its largest, most efficient farm yet. Agritecture blog, June 24, 2019

2020 Exposed Vulnerable Food Supply Chain. What’s in Store for 2021? Food Logistics, Mar 4, 2021