Is the future of farming indoors?

Humans have been farming for the last several thousand years but most of the advancements in agriculture have occurred in the recent centuries. These advancements have ranged from machinery and equipment like tractors and combines all the way to developing pest resistant crops, fertilizers, to get higher yields. Increased crop productivity, and further advances in food storage and global transportation gives me the privilege to purchase a ripe tropical mango in my local grocery store in the middle of snowy winter in Iowa.

However, COVID-19 pandemic changed all that, and disrupted the food supply chain creating a havoc. Similarly in 2011, the earthquake and Tsunami that hit Japan caused widespread damage to agriculture, fish and forest resources in Japan, with the economic damage being estimated to be $21.5 billion. These natural disasters can have long lasting effects on food production and they occur across different parts of the globe every year. As we face an uncertain future with rapid climate change, and global supply chain disruptions, there are several concerns about food production safety and food security.

Controlled Environment Agriculture may be the answer

In the traditional agricultural cycle, a farmer prepares the soil, sows the seed, and then hopes the weather turns out to be suitable throughout the season for a good harvest. Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) takes the unpredictability of the weather out of the picture by moving the farming indoors. Using the boons of technology, through CEA, we can make improvements to the traditional process of farming by regulating the growing conditions, collecting data, and closing the loop by giving feedback. The tech boom in the early 21st century has fed into this progress by lowering the cost of technology and making it accessible to be used in agriculture in ways that were never possible before. The next step in technological progress of food production therefore seems to be CEA . The image below explains the number of different categories that are encompassed by the CEA umbrella.

Source: 2019 CEA Census Report

Even though there are multiple ways in which food can be grown indoors, the common factor among those, is regulating the environment in which the plants grow. Each of these methods have their own benefits, making indoor farming to be more feasible and lucrative to become the farming of the future.

The edge over traditional farming.!

  • More Control: Can easily dial in environmental factors needed for the optimal growth of the plant based on the growth stage in the plant life cycle.
  • Sustainable: Use 90% less water than traditional farming and can recycle it.
  • Space efficient 1: Indoor farms can be installed in densely populated areas in the same footprint as a high rise or smaller.
  • More yield: A 2-acre vertical farm produces more than ‘Flat Farms” produce in 720 acres.
  • No pesticides: The controlled environment makes it possible to prevent pests and insects from reaching the plants.
  • Closer to consumer: Indoor farms range in size, from refrigerator sized Gropods, shipping container sizes that will fit in a car lot, or warehouse sized factories that fit in a corner of a city, bringing it closer to the consumer.
A warehouse vertical Farm
Source: AeroFarms, New Jersey.

Current constraints.!

  • Limited variety: Can grow types of leafy greens like lettuce, arugula, kale, etc. And some fruit varieties like strawberries, tomatoes and a few more. Difficult to grow staple crops that actually feed the world.
  • High Costs: The initial investment and capital costs to build large structures for indoor farms and the technology that goes into it needs a lot of financial backing.
  • More control is not always good: More things to worry about, more numbers and getting the right balance. Machine learning and AI can play a big role in solving the giant multi-variable optimization problem.
  • Energy consumption: The amount of energy they consume is colossal. Competing with the free solar energy that plants need to grow is a highly biased game.

Venture Capitalist interest in the indoor farming space

There exist big warehouse sized plant factories churning out tonnes of green produce every week that gained significant attention from the VC’s over the past few years. In the vertical farming space, SoftBank backed Plenty raised $140 million in series D funding, Aerofarms raised $100 million from Abu Dhabi Investment office. Greenhouse companies like Gotham Greens plans for expansion with $87 million fresh funding, Bright Farms raised $100 million, Appharvest intends to make the Appalachia region the AgTech capital of the world and plans to go public and raise $475 million with a valuation of $1billion.

Then there are some medium sized companies like Freight Farms that raised $15 million giving you the the ability to indoor farm in a shipping container from your backyard. Some smaller startups like Gropod make it easy to fit an indoor farm in your kitchen. Although a nascent field with many startups vying for the VC funds, all these investments show there is rising investor confidence in indoor AgTech space.

Source: Plenty Unlimited

Things are speeding up in the indoor AgTech Space.!

Climate change is a race against time and we need to find solutions to tackle it in all industries. In the food production space, with so much money being poured toward the indoor farming companies, and also the consumer eating habits shifting towards plant based diets. This paves the way for a supply demand boost that will propel the indoor Ag scene at great speeds.

I believe the future of farming is rapidly progressing toward being indoors, but there maybe a long way before row crops like corn and soybean are grown indoors to become economically feasible, and energy efficient. With the current pace of technological progress in the indoor agriculture space, I would say, THIS IS A START.

Further Reading:

  • Stephen Pankhurst brilliantly explains vertical farming in his 3 part YouTube series.
  • Found this cool info graphic on six levels of Automation and AI in vertical farming.
  • Ultimate Guide to start a farm
  • Vertical Farming podcast hosted by Harry Duran is great resource to know the stories of whos who and their journey in the vertical farming industry.

#verticalfarming #sustainibility #agtech #futurefarming #indoorfarming #futureofood

1- Leading greenhouse farming company Appharvest built a 2.75million sq.ft farm, greenhouses may be an exception to being space efficient.

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