Looking to the future: Are we there yet?

You’re driving in the car and have been for the entirety of the day. You’re tired, worn out, and for the umpteenth time one of your passengers asks “Are we there yet?”

Now imagine, that instead of being a car, it’s agriculture, and instead of your being the driver, you are now a farmer. You’ve been farming the land for the last thirteen and a half thousand years, and now the soil is tired and worn out. You’ve heard of these new and developing indoor farming technologies, and desperately want to move to those technologies but they aren’t readily available and one of your fellow farmers keeps asking “Are we there yet?”

Well, the answer to that question is a solid sort-of. Vertical farming faces several challenges when being grown in and around cities, challenges that can crush the possibility of vertical farms with the current technologies.

Location

Location is important for any endeavour because if you can’t sell your product or service, you shouldn’t offer it. Thus if a vertical farm is going to be built, it needs to grow a product it can sell. Any given farm could focus on premium plants, like herbs and spices, aimed at supplying local restaurants, or on fast growing, high value, leafy greens aimed at everyday consumers. Another option is to grow out-of-season crops, that would otherwise have to import into the area.

Selling the produce is only one half of the battle, as a farm also needs to think about how the produce will be distributed. The most efficient model is to deliver direct-to-distributor, so if a farm is supplying herbs and spices to restaurants, then deliver the produce directly to those businesses. But those arrangements need to be established, just as confirmed buyers for the produce do.

Infrastructure

Once you have decided on the produce, you’ve lined up the buyers and figured out the distribution, you need a building to set up shop in.

An ideal location puts the building in the most efficient proximity to the buyers and an ideal building meets all the infrastructure needs of the farm. The ideal vertical farm is a custom built construction that is tailored to the needs of the farm, but at this point in time, this is a pipe dream. The more realistic option is the conversion of existing buildings, like underground cellars and subways or large warehouses.

Whatever the structure of choice, the building needs to have the electrical infrastructure to meet the demands of the farm.

Cost & Pricing

The next two points are interlinked – the cost of running the farm, and the price of the produce.

Running costs shouldn’t be underestimated, including things like labour costs and electrical costs. These costs can be reduced before the farm even starts producing by building the farm in more efficient ways, as illustrated below:

Growing structure efficiency src: https://university.upstartfarmers.com/blog/9-reasons-why-vertical-farms-fail

The other consideration is the pricing of the produce – localized growth and far fewer transport costs allow for prices to be lower that food is that grown elsewhere, but the improved freshness and quality of the food shouldn’t be discounted either – price the produce too cheaply or too expensively and vertical farms will struggle to remain operational.

So… are we there yet?

Well, sort of. Vertical farmers are capable of choosing a product, finding buyers and planning distribution. And those businesses that have started up have done so in warehouses or unused subways. But those businesses have and continue to face challenges. Some businesses have closed down due to high costs.

A  lot of the development that needs to happen in order to produce more efficient systems is currently largely only being driven by the vertical farming companies themselves, as there is not enough urgency in peoples minds of the impacts and rising issues stemming from climate change and how current agricultural practices fit into that.

However, it is those current pioneers that are driving the technology forward, with a few companies in the process of building their first custom facilities – which are good signs toward progress.

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