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Can We Build Indoor 'Vertical Farms' Near The World's Major Cities? (vox.com) 255

Vox reports on the hot new "vertical farming" startup Plenty: The company's goal is to build an indoor farm outside of every city in the world of more than 1 million residents -- around 500 in all. It claims it can build a farm in 30 days and pay investors back in three to five years (versus 20 to 40 for traditional farms). With scale, it says, it can get costs down to competitive with traditional produce (for a presumably more desirable product that could command a price premium)... It has enormous expansion plans and a bank account full of fresh investor funding, but most excitingly, it is building a 100,000 square foot vertical-farming warehouse in Kent, Washington, just outside of Seattle... It recently got a huge round of funding ($200 million in July, the largest ag-tech investment in history), including some through Jeff Bezos's investment firm, so it has the capital to scale...; heck, it even lured away the director of battery technology at Tesla, Kurt Kelty, to be executive of operations and development...

The plants receive no sunlight, just light from hanging LED lamps. There are thousands of infrared cameras and sensors covering everything, taking fine measurements of temperature, moisture, and plant growth; the data is used by agronomists and artificial intelligence nerds to fine-tune the system... There are virtually no pests in a controlled indoor environment, so Plenty doesn't have to use any pesticides or herbicides; it gets by with a few ladybugs... Relative to conventional agriculture, Plenty says that it can get as much as 350 times the produce out of a given acre of land, using 1 percent as much water.

Though it may use less water and power, to be competitive with traditional farms companies like Plenty will also have to be "even better at reducing the need for human planters and harvesters," the article warns.

"In other words, to compete, it's going to have to create as few jobs as possible."
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Can We Build Indoor 'Vertical Farms' Near The World's Major Cities?

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  • Just saw some cool vertical plant growth at Epcot center that looked pretty cool, not sure how well it would work at scale but certainly worth investigating.
    • Just saw some cool vertical plant growth at Epcot center that looked pretty cool, not sure how well it would work at scale but certainly worth investigating.

      They've had some version of those at Epcot for 35 years. I visited Epcot in the 80s and saw demos of hydroponics and automated gardening. Never amounted to much outside of some cool science demos because it cost WAY more than traditional farming.

      That said, the state of the art has progressed a LOT since then so maybe they can finally figure out how to make it economically competitive.

  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Saturday April 14, 2018 @03:47PM (#56437783)

    Okay, MANY parts of this made me chuckle... but one line made it pretty obvious the people behind this do not have a lot of actual experience with growing things...

    ”There are virtually no pests in a controlled indoor environment, so Plenty doesn't have to use any pesticides or herbicides; it gets by with a few ladybugs...”

    Yeah, good luck with the assumption there aren’t lots of pests which will find their way into your nice high-tech greenhouse and happily establish residence. There are ways to control them - there are even organic ways to control them - but it involves a fair bit of money and/or work.

    • The huge greenhouses in Canada have very few pests in comparison to traditional farms. Their pesticide and water usage is very little too.

      • They have fewer pests than outdoor agriculture. They don’t have so few to the point they don’t need detailed plans for monitoring and dealing with problems when found.

        The entirety of these guys’ thoughts regarding pests seems to be “we’ll buy a bag of ladybugs, it doesn’t even need to be part of the budget”.

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          I would guess any indoor vertical farm would be segmented in a way that reduced pest spread and would also allow a given "room" or whatever to be sterilized if pests or something became a problem. Seal it off and fumigate if necessary.

          You'd probably do it on a semi-regular basis anyway as a preventative, at least steam cleaning or something.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Saturday April 14, 2018 @03:52PM (#56437817)

    The one question I'd have is 'why'. What's the benefit? So you can grow stuff closer to large concentrations of consumers? What for? So you save in transport? Ok. Valid point. Do you conserve more energy by not transporting it than you expend by artificial lighting, watering and whatever else you get for "free" from nature, and building of those "farms"? I dare say no.

    • A plant only converts about 2% of sunlight that hits it. Solar can do 15%. That means one solar panel can "feed" 7 layers of plants using only the spectrum they absorb.

      A lot of water is lost through evaporation; this can be recollected in a semi-closed environment. You also won't have fertilizer loss from run off.

      You won't have as many natural disasters that nature gives you for free either.

      So I would think those factors would play toward the controlled environment. The only real problems I see is the po

    • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Saturday April 14, 2018 @04:27PM (#56437957)

      The one question I'd have is 'why'. What's the benefit?

      Potentially several:
      1) Crop losses due to weather no longer a concern.
      2) Reduced exposure to pests and pathogens
      3) Less transport costs to get product to market (esp for big cities)
      4) Increase crop yields due to optimized conditions
      5) Less horizontal footprint required so cost of land cheaper
      6) Complete control over conditions (light, water, nutrients, soil (if any) etc.
      7) Less need for chemicals and fertilizers
      8) Less pollution from runoff of chemicals and fertilizers as they can be controlled on site
      9) Can be located anywhere

      Disadvantages:
      1) Buildings are expensive
      2) All water, light, and nutrients have to be artificially provided which costs $
      3) The equipment isn't being produced at sufficient scale to get full economies of scale. (again $)
      4) Competing traditional farms aren't required to control their pollution and runoff (again $)
      5) Competing traditional farms have less up front capital costs because they're already in operation

      So basically the only disadvantage to farming indoors is cost. Unfortunately that's by far the most important consideration. They're basically gambling that the increased yields and reduced transport costs will offset the expensive of the building and controlling the conditions. Unclear if it will be possible to make it competitive but it's arguably a worthwhile gamble.

      • by Brockmire ( 4931623 ) on Saturday April 14, 2018 @06:24PM (#56438541)
        10) consistent supply and pricing year round They could also build this in really rural areas, like Baffin Island or Alaska, where transportation costs for fresh food is exponentially retarded. Bonus points if you can get your power from hydro damns and solar.
      • According to the following study, fruit, vegetables and fish(!) can be produced at EUR 3.50 to 4.00 per kg in vertical farms, which is surprisingly cheap:
        http://large.stanford.edu/cour... [stanford.edu]

        I'm pretty sure that the big staple crops (wheat, rIce, etc.) aren't going to be farmed in vertical farms, but I can see the Wholefoods kind of stuff being farmed there.

      • by djinn6 ( 1868030 )

        Unclear if it will be possible to make it competitive but it's arguably a worthwhile gamble.

        I don't see why it needs to be a gamble. You can find out how much everything costs and do some basic math. If your best case cost of an indoor farm is 10x more than a traditional farm, then you might have some problems.

        It always impresses me how these people can soak up so much investor funding.

        • I don't see why it needs to be a gamble.

          Really? You think nothing could go wrong? Nothing unexpected could crop up or costs couldn't be different than you expect?

          You can find out how much everything costs and do some basic math.

          You cannot find out in advance how much everything will cost. I've never seen a business plan where that actually happened and I've seen a LOT of business plans. The only thing you can be certain of is that a lot of your assumptions about costs and revenues will be wrong. Probably by a lot. You just hope you are wrong in the direction that works out well for you. Here is a short

          • by djinn6 ( 1868030 )

            You cannot find out in advance how much everything will cost... Here is a short and incomplete list of things you won't know in advance:

            You can make a reasonable estimate for most of them. And if you did, you'd know it's not going to work unless your end product is cocaine.

            1) Cost of real estate

            Have you ever heard of Zillow? City land prices are 10x rural prices so right off the bat your crops are going to be 10x more expensive.

            2) Cost of capital equipment

            What equipment can't you get a price for? Pipes? Nozzles? LEDs? Go to Home Depot and whatever price there is going to be your worst case.

            3) Cost of labor

            Go to a restaurant near your future farm, ask the cooks how much they make. You'll be paying a simila

  • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Saturday April 14, 2018 @03:55PM (#56437837)

    So for these vertical farms to work the cost of their product has to be roughly equal to or less than the cost of farming in an open field + transport + crop loss. Bear in mind that open field farming has minimal electricity costs and at least some of the irrigation comes from rain. It's basically the cost of transmuting diesel fuel into food crops. It takes a lot of space but the upside is that cost per unit area tends to be rather low.

    Indoors all the light, water, and nutrients, and crop handling have to be artificially provided, all of which costs more money than an open field under normal circumstances. Buildings + HVAC + lighting + irrigation = expensive. BUT indoors you can control the environment completely and optimize so presumably there is the opportunity for a gain in crop yields as well as reduced losses of crops due to pests, weather, etc. Plus you can farm indoors all year with minimal worry about location AND you can be closer to your destination market. You also can grow crops on multiple vertical levels so the amount of land needed is less which somewhat offsets the cost of the building.

    It's not clear to me whether indoor farming can be done economically but it seems worth trying. I tend to believe there will be at least some use cases where it makes sense. It will have to get some significant scale to be economically competitive so someone will have to take a big financial risk to try to make it work. But if they succeed the benefits could be huge.

    • Fuel costs averaged $24 per acre for corn grown in central Illinois. @192 bushels/acre, that is enough to provide a 2,000kcal diet to five people for one year. The wtc had 230acres of floor space and so could provide enough calories to sustain 1,200 people. You would need 1,700 wtc complexes to feed nyc.
  • Start with everbearing strawberries and tomatoes. Then add in additional plants as available or on request. After several generation the plants can be selected for better indoor growing properties, like smaller plant size or better flavor without concern about shipability.
  • While vertical crops could potentially produce vast amounts of food with lower environmental impact given sufficiently low energy costs, it seems a bit dangerous to have such a condensed supply chain.
    If something were to happen to the mega tower feeding Manhattan resulting in a lost crop, what would people do?
    Losing a crops happens all the time, but because there are so many farms, it doesn't really have any impact on the food supply. If you shut down all the farms and have a few towers, losing a tower to

    • If something were to happen to the mega tower feeding Manhattan resulting in a lost crop, what would people do?

      A) It wouldn't be a single tower. It would necessarily be a bunch of buildings, probably more resembling warehouses than towers.
      B) It wouldn't be any different than a farm failing now due to a weather event or crop failure. You simply pay more and get the product from elsewhere just like today.
      C) The operational costs of large towers would likely be prohibitive.

  • They grow peaches in the Okanagan, and there is lots of great fruits and veg all around there. Seattle has pretty good access to normally grown fruit & veg. I would think it would be a far easier sell to someplace like Edmonton, Alberta, or if you need to stay in the US, Anchorage. When you are starting out, your costs are going be higher, but with all the competition being flown in, you've got a real advantage... You know, places like Churchill, Manitoba: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/... [www.cbc.ca] In that ex
  • by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Saturday April 14, 2018 @04:53PM (#56438077)
    what stops the cows falling off ? velcro boots ?
  • "In other words, to compete, it's going to have to create as few jobs as possible."

    After the city jobs are automated, people will move back to the country on subsistence farms since it'll be the only thing left for them to do -- completely withdrawing from the greater economy and building their own from nothing. Knowledge and technology will still help with this, like mentioned in TFA. However, it won't be able to compete with larger megacorp factory-farms that employ the same tech.

  • > 100,000 square foot

    That's just over 2 acres.

    It takes 3 to 5 acres to feed a family.

    So they are going to do what, make it 1 million stores high?

    This is a joke, right?

    • That's just over 2 acres.

      You're still thinking in 2 dimensions.

      It takes 3 to 5 acres to feed a family.

      It's not really that simple. Your assuming traditional agriculture with traditional crop yields, traditional crop spacing, etc. Those all change when you farm indoors and control all the variables. You can get more crops out of the same space indoors AND you can do it more times per year. And your estimates are too high. It's more like 1.5-2 acres [boston.com] to feed a family of 4. There would be no point to indoor farming if they couldn't get better yield out of the same foo

    • Someone else here posted a similar comment:
      "With a 100% corn diet, you'd need ~1,000 WTCs worth of floor space to grown enough calories for Manhattan."
      This is not traditional farming, so those kinds of calculations need to be amended.

      Also -
      Think of nutrition like a machine. Corn (or any grain or vegetable oil) is carbon and is the fuel to run the body machine. Mineral, vitamins, and other chemicals are the maintenance tools that keep the machine in order and running. Growing carbon energy crops is cheap

  • In other words, to compete, it's going to have to create as few jobs as possible.

    Sadly, people are the worst possible investment,

    Any business that can remove them from its model will have an overwhelming advantage over "traditional" enterprises. But then, what do you do with all the people? The ones you rely on to buy your products. Consumerism without consumers is a meaningless failure.

  • by az-saguaro ( 1231754 ) on Saturday April 14, 2018 @06:59PM (#56438709)

    No, not a joke, but an idea in integrated efficiency. Build data farms next to or underneath these vertical food farms. The data centers already have a robust energy infrastructure, and the farms have biomass infrastructure, and together they have synergies.
    Assume that the farm is built with a conventional greenhouse outer structure to capture daytime light, and that it uses the LED's as described in the article for nighttime or interior use.

    Then, together, they could operate this way:

    1 - In colder weather, heat runoff from the data center will keep the greenhouse heated. This means no heating costs for the farm, and it can operate year round with one major expense eliminated.

    2 - In warmer weather where the farm could operate as ordinary greenhouses do, the excess heat from the data center could be used to accelerate non-human food or non-food farming, such as algae or bacteria for food, drug production, and biomass fuel.

    3 - Depending on how much sunlight is allocated to the food farming, any biomass thus produced could in turn be used as fuel for running the data center.

    4 - If the incoming sunlight could be filtered, everything between 500-700 nm could be diverted to silicon solar cells which have a peak absorption in that range, which is also the range that chlorophyll has no absorption. All captured light could be used where it is most efficient, allowing each "bucket of sunlight" to do double duty with relatively high efficiency, the green-yellow light supplying the data farm, the higher and lower energies supplying the food farm.

    Efficiencies and economies would vary with time of year, latitude of each synergistic facility, and so on. So, operations and costs might not be so perfectly automated, but it could work. Right now, we are generating massive amounts of spent heat every time Facebook steals your data, you buy dog food on Amazon, or somebody mines bitcoin. That excess heat should be seen as an already captured natural resource that can be reused.

    • I do believe they were talking about pure LED farms. No windows. No light conduits. Easier to just cover the building with solar cells and produce just the frequencies of light you need specialized for each plant.

  • Dude... what... the... fuck... is... your... obsession... with... using... these... all... the... time...? You're... doing... it... wrong...
    • by caseih ( 160668 )

      Just because you use ellipses to make a tweet sound like William Shatner doesn't mean that's the purpose of the ellipses in a quote.

      It's called editing a quote for the purpose of summarizing. Near as I can tell, he did it exactly right. He used direct quotes from the article, snipping out sections that weren't necessary, to create a concise summary from the article's own words. He even cited the source paragraphs by way of a url link to the original article. Maybe he could have edited the quote different

  • Getting to be a huge cash crop now.

    This would keep the crops protected.

  • The word "can" in "can we X?" is ambiguous.

    "Can" might mean, (1) "Is it physically or logically possible?"
    Or "can" might mean, (2) "Is it feasible to do?"
    Or "can" might mean, (3) "Will we make money trying to do this?"

    The thing is as you go down the list it gets harder and harder to say "yes", both in overcoming the possible objections and in the work you have to do to get to certainty. I am quite certain that a farm along these line could be built. I wouldn't be surprised if, given sufficient money, it

  • Disclaimer: I farm. For real. Not iFarm gaming but rather I farm as in I do the real thing growing plants and animals which I deliver to customers year round.

    I bought land in the cheapest area that was reasonably close to my markets.

    I get free energy from the sun which shines down on us.

    I get free fertilizer from the air.

    I get free water from the sky and don't even have to use pumps.

    I get free growth medium.

    Now let's examine the proposed vertical city farms where they're going to use:

    Expensive real estate p

  • People really have no idea about how big a business farming really is and how dependent it is on clean cheap water and sunshine. These people are talking about hydroponics. With the LED's they can grow any plant they want, any time of the year. As far as number of workers; they can ship whole plants to factories to be processed if really needed. But I have seen the trend in grocery stores where with compact plants they sell them with the root ball still intact.

    Further since they are so compact and use less

  • Straight away this proposal looks like it was designed to attract Silicon Valley VCs. What they're proposing to do is create automated farms with very little labour, more than likely at less than a 10:1 ratio. That's the sweet spot for startups: Disrupt an existing business model by reducing the number of workers needed by at least 90% then you can disrupt the market by having lower labour costs, i.e. put tens of thousands of people out of work.

    Currently, no machine can pick crops like agricultural workers

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