There is a lot of interest in large-scale, indoor farms. Nanofarms may be necessary to alter agriculture, and they might be set up in your own house.
Plant scientist Paul Gauthier, who is affiliated with Princeton University, made a short journey up the New Jersey Turnpike to see whether the East Coast’s largest vertical farm was doing well. It’s not as simple as you believe.
Newark-based AeroFarms is one of the most high-profile firms based on the idea that growing crops inside would revolutionize farming. The plants in these aeroponic indoor farms are grown in racks and are irrigated with mist and lit with LEDs or HPS lights. No soil or pesticides are used and they can function year round. AeroFarms automates the sowing, harvesting, packing, and cleaning of its food in order to increase productivity.
Plants need a lot of power to acquire the light and heat they would otherwise get from the outside world. Rather, the assumption is that vertical farms in large metropolitan areas would save money and the environment by avoiding inputs like hazardous pesticides and long-distance transportation to customers.
As far as I can tell, yes. When it comes to producing food in an indoor environment, Gauthier is interested in the science and economics involved. However, the glamorous indoor farms that are gaining a lot of attention aren’t releasing their figures. With this in mind, Gauthier has taken the time to visit many of them and investigate their methodologies for calculating costs and benefits.
Gauthier, who was born and reared in Nantes, France, and had his graduate and postdoctoral training there and in Paris, performs a French thing with his lips that translates to an existential shrug when asked whether the farms are profitable or on track for any real financial sustainability. “I don’t know,” he responds. In their opinion, at least.” As for why vertical farms haven’t taken off, the author thinks it has a lot to do with economics.
In order to feed 10 billion people in a fast changing environment, a new green revolution is needed, but one that doesn’t include practices that damage land and water. However, despite the fact that vertical farms could be technically possible, they may not be able to sustain themselves as companies.
As Gauthier predicts, indoor farming is not really a venture capitalist’s dream, with microgreens and other exotic types of lettuce sold at massive markups in the near future. If the entrepreneurs want to have a real global effect, they should also be looking at ways to increase the nutritional content of basic crops that are under danger from climate change. Gauthier and others suggest that these agricultural entrepreneurs should also think small—encouraging cottage and studio-apartment farmers to grow their own indoor tomatoes and strawberries and participate in what might become an information-sharing revolution.
Six years at Princeton, Gauthier has a normal academic’s enthusiasm, but he also has a French smile to his demeanor. According to him, he pondered attending medical school but “then someone informed him that even if we cure all the illnesses on Earth, people would still have to feed.” “Also, they’re pretty.”
Because producing food inside in rapidly increasing metropolitan areas seemed like a great way to help save the globe. Because of these overly optimistic projections, he was left perplexed. According to a 2013 research by German economists at the Macrothink Institute, high-density metropolitan regions, such as India and China, might benefit from vertical farming because to the reduced transportation costs. Increasing food availability and decreasing hunger are two of their potential outcomes.
There was a lack of current, deep, and comparative data to support the claims made for the majority of vertical farms by Gauthier. “This was not acceptable to me as a scientist,” he declares. Many of the things they said were purely for show. In order to figure out what can and cannot work economically, he started Princeton’s Vertical Farming Project two years ago.
He looked at the Ivy League graduates seeking for investment and Silicon Valley venture capitalists sponsoring indoor vertical farms with a dubious eye. For him, it’s more probable that these vast facilities will be converted to marijuana cultivation, the only indoor crop that can be counted on to make a profit, rather than to be used to raise food.
A high price markup for lettuce, microgreens and herbs, which are the major crops of vertical farms, makes them ideal for short transit times from the indoor farm to the retail market. Commercial crops, on the other hand, don’t often tick the same quick-profit boxes. Kale is a strange product for vertical farms to sell, given how inexpensive it is and how little money it generates. Is it worth it? Since “everyone can grow kale and it grows everywhere,” Gauthier leans over to share a huge secret.
As a technological idea, vertical farms could function. To succeed as enterprises that change the face of farming is an entirely other challenge.
Any food produced in a vertical farm might find a market in China, where customers are willing to pay a premium for food they perceive to be safe, such as fast food. Pesticides and fertilizers, both of which are used in conventional farming, are unnecessary in vertical agriculture, which saves water. There is a good chance that San Francisco’s Plenty, which has funded over $200 million, aims to create 300 vertical farms in China as part of its expansion into the country.
Adding a variety of crops to vertical farms is also a good idea. According to the upbeat German research from 2013, a farm that grew not just vegetables but even tilapia in tanks was modeled. A business’s ability to survive in the event of the failure of a single product is protected by diversifying its output, but this is not the current practice in vertical farms. What’s the problem? Perhaps this is due to the fact that new businesses tend to model themselves after those who have already found success. Most likely as a result of the relative lack of progress in protein-rich foods like chickpeas and fish compared to more commercially viable options like bagged lettuce. This may be due to the fact that various crops need varying levels of light, humidity, and nutrients, and hence less efficient production might occur in a same area. Mr. Rosenberg claims that AeroFarms has tried producing 700 different kinds of plants, but baby greens make up 98% of its output (plants that have sprouted their first true leaves, but are not yet a mature plant). The remainder are microgreens (plants that have embryonic seed-leaves, called cotyledons, but do not yet have true leaves). The price of a pound of microgreens can reach $40, but Rosenberg is happy to have transformed tiny greens into a successful crop by selling them for just $6.
It is easier to grow a wide variety of crops in vertical farms, but it is also more cost-effective in the long run, Gauthier believes. The business models for businesses seeking investment is more difficult to put together. Inside his geosciences building lab and a few miles outside Princeton, he has two indoor test gardens: one on wire shelves in an adjacent room, and a second on the outskirts. He takes great pride in the luscious strawberries he plants in his little home gardens. However, they aren’t efficient enough for today’s vertical farms.
It’s unclear if AeroFarms is making money, but Rosenberg has the same doubts about many of his vertical farming rivals as Gauthier. A keynote talk at an indoor-farming conference last year projected that 60 to 90 percent of indoor farms will fail within three years of commencing. Some of them have already filed for bankruptcy.
As Rosenberg points out, not all of them have a full grasp on how much it will cost to construct and operate their first robot in an environmentally appropriate growing medium before their first seed is planted. In the course of expanding into four downtown Newark buildings, he claims that he and his 120-strong team of engineers have learnt this lesson the hard way. As he argues, “biological systems scale in unexpected ways.”
He claims that four firms who were about to go out of business contacted him about purchasing their assets in the previous year alone. He calls the designs of such corporations “dumb.” “They were beaten early.”
Lettuce, microgreens, and herbs command a premium price because of their short shelf lives and high perishability. Not all commercial crops meet those criteria.
About 60% to 70% of a vertical farm’s operating costs are attributed to lighting and temperature control costs. If you include in the greater cost of labor in metropolitan areas, where most vertical farms are situated, you’re looking at a profit margin of about 4% to 5%. Most American farmers, hampered by global competition and the ongoing trade war, aren’t able to produce anything close to that. Venture capitalists, on the other hand, are looking for returns of 10%, 15%, and even 20%. The higher profit margins of AeroFarms are achievable, according to Rosenberg, but only if debt service and real estate expenses are minimal and a large number of operations are automated.
It is not that a few well-funded farmers will generate a minor profit selling specialist commodities to boutiques whose clients can pay exorbitant markups, according to Gauthier, but that the dangers are worse than this. It’s that many indoor farms will fail because anyone who tries the things he thinks would be best for the industry—crop diversity within the same indoor space, research into lower-margin staples like wheat that are threatened by climate change, efficient techniques for growing high-protein crops—won’t appeal to funders who expect too much too quickly.
a mini-farm in your living room
If vertical farmers got real-world data on what works, they could have a greater chance of nailing the math. And it’s a rare commodity. Indoor farms that are well-funded don’t reveal the expenses of building out and climate control and manpower; how plant development changes with nutrients they feed plants; the quantity and color of the light and heat or humidity or growing period for each one, the pricing of the harvests.
What if all of that information was made readily accessible to anybody who wanted to change agriculture by bringing it indoors? Do you know how much it costs to outfit a store with everything from lighting to shelves? How long does it take for the interest to be repaid? Is it possible to grow plants in a variety of indoor environments, rather than merely in the futuristic towers of vertical farms with 37 levels of perfectly regulated atmosphere?
By contrast, Gauthier envisions the future of thousands upon thousands of small-scale farms—in basements and bedroom corners—growing a wide variety of crops such as strawberry basil lettuce tomato, and uploading data to central servers that benefit both cottage farmers and large-scale indoor growers. A “basement or a corner” for everyone, Gauthier argues. There will be no more than 15 minutes of care every day, he assures. For all we know, actual gardens aren’t exactly specialized to one plant, and the same can’t be said for the temperature and lighting conditions in the virtual world.
There would be no need for the colorful lights that large-scale vertical farms utilize if these micro-farms were installed in every rec room, study nook, and garage. LEDs of the sort Gauthier uses in his lab are all that is needed. In contrast to the drab fluorescent light shining down on his research workers in the next room, the bright natural light in this area is warm and welcoming. It’s common for visitors to comment, ‘I could put my desk here,'” the man claims. Gauthier’s spirits are lifted just by being here and tending to his wilting strawberry and basil plants.
What makes you think it’s a good idea to go out and get the supplies for a hideout in your own basement or closet? Window-box and patio gardeners are motivated by the same thing: the desire to eat fresh, homegrown food for a fraction of what it would cost at the grocery store. Unlike window boxes and mini-terraces, indoor plants may thrive regardless of the weather.
Using basil as a source of data
For MIT’s Media Lab’s Caleb Harper, it’s all about the small indoor farms across the globe. Open data, hardware, and software are the cornerstones of his OpenAg initiative, which he established. Because of his efforts to link “digital farmers” worldwide, he seeks to bring back the “neighborly tip-sharing” that formerly took place at the feed and seed shop by providing them with easy-to-use information and tools.
“Food computers” were among Harper’s earliest projects, released in 2015, which included plans for milk carton-sized, digitally controlled hydroponic growth environments for even one basil stem. For the first prototype, materials cost between $2,500 and $4,000 for a spicier model. Currently, V3 costs about $500, making it the most expensive. It has a “central nervous system” that contains a printed circuit board, USB camera, LED lights, fans, and sensors that detect temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide. The beginning equipment Plant data is sent to cloud servers through Wi-Fi-connected processors in the box, allowing others to reproduce and share their findings.
As Harper points out, the VC companies who are supporting vertical farms seem to assume that they must stockpile the finest and most efficient technology and formulae in order to farm within. Aside from Harper’s own food computers, the resources that go into vertical farms aren’t much more advanced than greenhouse equipment and other commonly used greenhouse supplies. He believes that few if any methods are going to be so distinct from what anybody else is utilizing as to generate windfalls.
Indoor farming data is still kept under wraps by corporations. Harper is being asked, “Why are you leaking our secrets to the Muggles?” “I want to make vertical farming work,” he said. As a result, I can observe how often false claims are made—and the number of bankruptcies that have occurred in the preceding decade.”
OpenAg runs two food computers at MIT, one in the shiny, glassy Media Lab building and another in three repurposed shipping containers in a former warehouse for a decommissioned linear accelerator. OpenAg manages both of these food computers. Throughout the year, Harper travels all over the globe to raise awareness and funds for the cause. He does research to find out what his donors are looking for. For Ferrero, the family-owned creator of Nutella, one of the shipping containers at MIT includes a special-sized growth chamber that can accommodate hazelnut plants. Welspun, a maker of sheets and towels hoping to expand the restricted supply of responsibly cultivated cotton, recently sent half of Harper’s crew to India to rig up a shipping container. The MIT team’s research is open-source, despite the fact that his high-profile customers tend to be discreet, according to the Open Agriculture Initiative’s contract.
‘Why are you leaking our secrets to the Muggle world?'”
OpenAg’s assistant director, Hildreth England, is fluent in English and comes from a long line of engineers. An ethereal light display illuminates her head as she describes how the food computers create an incredible 3.5 million data points per plant per growth cycle. Using a small window in the honeycomb cube’s dark interior, the user can program the food computer to cycle through several colors of light beaming on a basil plant. To counteract the effects of microorganisms, wind, and drought, plants create volatile essential oils and perfumes in response to these stresses, and these molecules may be used as nutritional supplements and medications, says the researcher. She and Harper believe that indoor farms will one day produce pharmaceutical-grade plant derivatives with high profit margins, as well as tomato varieties that have been genetically engineered to produce more cancer-fighting lycopene.
To offer fresh food in refugee camps in Amman, Jordan, the Initiative collaborated with the United Nations World Food Program and installed food computers. For many individuals, drinking herbal tea rather than taking Prozac is more culturally acceptable. A professor who was a refugee came up with the notion of experimenting with ways to boost the active components in St. John’s wort.
If indoor farming can be used in a variety of ways, so can its location and the people who care for it. Gauthier believes that the basic technology may well be the same over the globe. The iPhone is a good analogy: Apple gathers data on how people use it so that it can make the next iteration even simpler to use. The minor plots he and Harper envision, the ones that can convert the newest attractive breakthrough into tomorrow’s world-changing revolution, might very well lead to large leaps and modest serendipities.