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Indoor vertical farming provides potential solutions to food supply problems

Indoor vertical farming provides potential solutions to food supply problems
Posted at 3:51 PM, Aug 20, 2021

From lettuce to basil, where some of your food comes from could be changing. Indoor vertical farming is gaining traction in the food industry.

“Today we’re at our research and development facility,” Henry Sztul, the chief science officer at Bowery Farming, said.

From seed… "we’re constantly experimenting with different types of seeds,” he said. To germination flats put in a chamber for a few days, to their final home for growing. “What we look for are the leaves starting to be more fully developed.”

The process takes about a month.

“It’s a 25, 30-day grow cycle for the plant, from seed to shelf,” Katie Seawell, the chief commercial officer at Bowery Farming, said.

It’s an efficient process and this facility only shows a small portion of what they are growing

“We are building local indoor smart farms close to the cities that we operate,” Seawell said. She said they are re-imagining agriculture, and controlling every aspect of the growing process.

“We are not susceptible to some of the external variables or factors that can disrupt the supply chain or the growing process for crops,” she explained. “The ability for the current food system to pivot with agility to meet market demand based on market disruption is very, very limited.”

It’s a problem we saw during the pandemic. Disruptions in the food supply chain and transportation, leasing to rotting piles of unsold produce in some states and food shortages in others.

“What kind of opportunities did the pandemic present, I think one of those is food security,” Joshua Craver, an assistant professor of controlled environment horticulture at Colorado State University, said.

However, Craver said this indoor vertical farming isn’t an ideal solution for every crop.

“There are some crops that just don't make a lot of sense in a controlled environment setting...those range from grain crops or orchard crops,” he said.

Another downfall is the lighting needed. “We typically use a lot more energy to grow our crops in vertical farms that we do compared to fields, or even greenhouse production,” AJ Both, a professor at Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, said. Both does research in plant lighting.

“I think that's an area where we still need to do a lot of work, to try to help the vertical farming industry become even more efficient,” he said.

However, control of lighting does have benefits as well, as it gives growers more control over crop growth, all while taking up less space.

“The benefits of that, of course, are that you can grow a lot more plants on the same footprint,” Both said.

“We are taking non-arable land and transforming it into highly productive farms,” Seawell said.

While it may not be the ideal solution for every crop right now, Craver said it’s a valuable addition to the food industry.

“A lot of the ways I like to describe controlled environments and vertical farming is being another tool in our toolbox,” he said.

Back at Bowery, they are continuing to experiment with new crops and provide fresh food for those at a cost comparable to organic foods.

“As we scale…we will want to compete not only at a premium price point but against traditional agriculture prices as well,” Seawell said.

They currently have 13 products in the marketplace, and the capability to grow 365 days a year.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in this space and I think there's real recognition that we have to think differently about how we build resilience and strengthen our local and regional food supply systems. We don't believe we’re the only answer to that, but we believe we are a part, a critical part of that answer.”