When you traverse our nation by plane, train or car, you will notice that as soon as you get away from either coast, the country becomes much more sparsely populated. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of nothing. So I wonder why we worry about population growth and the ability to feed ourselves. Surely there is enough land available to grow crops infinitely. When I get to this point in the conversation in my mind, I must remind myself that it has to be all about the money.
Vertical farming has been around since the early part of the 20th century, but technology and financing were about a century behind. So what is vertical farming and what does it look like. Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), a “vertical farming” company based at Invergowrie, near Dundee, in Scotland, is one example.
Inside a small barn that occupies roughly 40 square yards, sits trays stacked nine high of lettuce, strawberries, kale and others sparkling produce being lit by a rainbow of colors of light. By stacking, IGS is farming the equivalent of 350 square yards. Now the lightbulb is starting to go off. Here is the amazing part. This entire production is run by one person with a smartphone! Their app changes the colors and brightness of the 1,000 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) strung out above each tray.
The app can also control the temperature, humidity and ventilation, and the hydroponic system that supplies the plants, growing on various non-soil substrates, with water and nutrients. Armed with his trusty phone, Mr. Elder, the production manager, says he can run the farm almost single-handedly.
As if on cue the fintech giants enter the game. SoftBank, a Japanese firm, Google’s former boss Eric Schmidt and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have between them plowed more than $200 million into Plenty, a vertical-farming company based in San Francisco. As with any hot sector there is competition.
To vertical farming, it is the greenhouse. Companies like Gotham Greens have set up greenhouses on rooftops in New York and other cities. Their power source, the sun, is essentially free. Location makes just-in-time delivery an added plus. On the other hand, the LED expense to vertical farming is significant, and commercially only viable to perishable produce like herbs and lettuce. In 2014 Louis Albright, an emeritus professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, calculated that a loaf of bread made from wheat grown in a vertical farm would be priced at about $23. That’s a bit steep. So there is your downside.
The jury is still out on whether greenhouses or vertical farming will be the wave of the future. Cost of production is key, and currently can’t compete with farming as we know it. Bezos and the likes need this to work, as their life on Mars will require indoor farming. Vertical farming then will not feed the world, but it will help provide more fresh produce to more people.