July 18, 2022
Digital urban agriculture. Vertical farms. Plant factories.
Known by many monikers, this emerging sector of controlled-environment agriculture has generated a lot of buzz over the past few years — particularly since 2020, when the pandemic threw supply chains into upheaval and communities saw food insecurity rates skyrocket. Today, venture capitalists and economic developers alike are investigating and investing in what some are calling the future of food.
Urban agriculture (UA), or the cultivation of food in cities, is as old as cities themselves. Traditionally, UA comprises community gardens, urban farms, backyard or patio gardens, and cultivation of space-thrifty animals (like chickens). Many practitioners of traditional UA lean into regenerative agriculture and permaculture practices that reconnect farming with nature.
Digital urban agriculture (DUA) is a different variety of UA. A technology-driven form of indoor food production, DUA is also known as Z-farming (zero-acreage farming) or building-integrated agriculture. Implementations range from rooftop greenhouses and vertical plant factories to shipping container farms, edible walls, and other indoor growing approaches. Generally speaking, its growing practices rely on one of three technological methods: hydroponics, aeroponics, or aquaponics. All three systems depend on artificial lighting, HVAC systems to control temperature, and automation technology — which has made these sites big energy consumers and expensive to set up and operate.
But where venture capitalists once saw obstacles, they're now seeing opportunity. The vertical farming sector has raised more than $1 billion in funding since 2015 and was valued at $14.5 billion in 2020. Already widespread in the Netherlands, Japan, and parts of Scandinavia and China, DUA operations are popping up in geographically diverse areas across North America, with footprints ranging from the size of a parking space to 20 football fields.
Plenty Farms, which will soon complete a 95,000-square-foot vertical farm in Los Angeles County's Compton, recently announced it raised $400 million in a Series E funding round and formed a strategic retail partnership with Walmart. Other big players in the DUA sector include AppHarvest, Cox Enterprises (which bought BrightFarms), Bowery Farming, and Netherlands-based InFarm, among many others.
What's driving the boom? Advancements in full-spectrum, energy-efficient LED lighting and renewable energy that are making the sector more environmentally friendly and financially viable. Interest in agricultural technology (ag-tech) has also increased in response to multi-fold threats to traditional farming, like soil and water degradation, agricultural land loss to development, erratic weather due to climate change, and weaknesses in the food supply chain exposed by the pandemic. Together, these concerns have sparked intense research and development into new approaches to farming that emphasize more efficient, all-season food growth.
"Local" is the key, says environmental and food justice advocate Niaz Dorry, who calls for community-based food solutions. As the joint director of the National Family Farm Coalition and the North American Marine Alliance, Dorry works toward sustainable approaches to both land and seafood production. She says aquaponics, hydroponics, and other ag-tech production solutions can be part of a sustainable local food system, but she urges planners to do their research before green-lighting projects.
"To understand the issues around any innovative operation, you have to ask three questions: What's the scale? Who owns it? To what end?" she says.
Based in the nation's oldest fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, her food systems goal is "re-localizing" — which, she says, "may mean exploring some new forms of agriculture" without divorcing food production from nature. She references Mi Oh My Farms, a small-scale hydroponic farm co-op in the Bronx that "is actually meeting food access needs" by employing a local workforce to produce and distribute CSA shares to 25 member families.
Dorry also cites New Orleans's Recirculating Farms, a nonprofit that, according to the organization, "builds eco-efficient farms that use clean, recycled water to grow fresh local food almost anywhere and create sustainable jobs." The group runs several farm spaces in New Orleans in cooperation with veterans, musicians, senior housing, and community health and wellness organizations, managed under Growing Local NOLA Farms. And every week, it runs a locally sourced, low-cost, fresh food delivery and holistic health program called Growing Local On the Geaux, which brings DUA farm-raised produce and various health-supportive services into New Orleans neighborhoods with little access to such resources.
Some for-profit operations see the value of scaling down and focusing on rightsized solutions for various community-based applications. Boston-based Freight Farms, for example, has created vertical farms inside shipping containers that can be trucked anywhere — hence their tagline, "Move Farms, Not Food."
Freight Farms provides ready-built farms to small-scale aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs (think restaurants and grocery stores), as well as to existing farmers that lack all-season growing capacity. The company also works with schools like like Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, to provide hands-on learning experiences across a range of subjects, including chemistry, biology, and business.
In America's heartland, the city of Rochelle, Illinois, has taken a different approach. Jason Anderson, economic development director of Rochelle, says it's poised to become a food hub capable of distribution across the country. A city of 9,000 residents, it's also home to MightyVine, a hydroponic tomato farm inside a series of greenhouses that span nearly 30 acres.
MightyVine offered an attractive solution to several issues faced by the city's planners, starting with the site. Once a traditional farm, the farmer sold his land to a developer in the mid-aughts; the city worked with the developer to annex the site and zone it as an industrial park. It was then scraped of topsoil and prepped to become a large distribution center. However, the project fizzled, and the pad-ready site sat idle for more than a decade. When the farmer bought back the land, the lack of topsoil made it impossible to farm.
Enter MightyVine. Zoned for medium industrial use, the site was perfect for a greenhouse, and had the added advantage of reverting the land to farm use. Anderson highlights some of MightyVine's advantages over a traditional farm: With just 10 percent of the water required for field-grown tomatoes, it can reportedly produce more than 16 tons per acre of tomatoes each year on its 30 acres. Contrast that with an outdoor tomato farm, which yields an annual average of about 20 tons per acre, and one starts to appreciate the efficiencies from a land-use perspective.
Given its small population, it's clear that Rochelle isn't the target market for MightyVine's vast production — though, Anderson notes, locals sometimes benefit from overproduction that gets donated to local food banks. The company distributes nationally, with its products going from "field" to fork in 24 to 48 hours, according to Anderson. The distribution model is similar to that of a large, traditional farm; the distinctions are on the production side.
MightyVine touts various sustainability features, including rainwater capture, a closed water system that doesn't leech chemicals into groundwater, integrated pest management to control harmful bugs, and bumblebees to aid pollination. The growing environment, as well as vine health and progress, is monitored 24/7 using automated technology that can be managed from afar, thanks to the city's beefy broadband infrastructure. MightyVine's hefty energy needs are met by Rochelle's natural gas–fed municipal utility, which has added a new substation to meet demand as the operation expanded.
Anderson is enthusiastic about not just the future of MightyVine, but also the city's future as a food hub. Highlighting Rochelle's advantages in attracting similar ag-tech businesses, he cites its distribution-friendly location at the country's transit crossroads, its history as an agricultural community with a trained workforce to match, and — perhaps most importantly — infrastructure investments made by his predecessors that give the city a leg up when pitching site selectors.
MightyVine brought part of Rochelle's farmland full circle. The site where its clean, efficient greenhouses now stand was once a traditional farm. And, Anderson says, there's more farmland to be had. "It's a win-win-win scenario for our community," he says, noting that retiring farmers can get top dollar for their land if it's annexed by the city and zoned for industrial development. Sites that are part of Rochelle's Enterprise Zone are also eligible for a variety of incentives, from tax abatement to tax credits and exemptions.
A blended approach
In the far northern reaches of the continent, entrepreneur Sonny Gray is pursuing a different approach to DUA. The CEO of NorthStar Agriculture, based in Canada's Yukon Territory, Gray's mission is to "feed the North." He works closely with First Nations and other Indigenous communities to help design and build farms to address food insecurity and contribute to food sovereignty, or the ability of communities or groups to control the means of their own food production.
Gray notes that food justice advocates and others doing this type of work are committed to traditional agricultural practices. They can react strongly against the introduction of tech-driven solutions. "In each camp," he says, "you have people very dedicated to their perspective." He tends to advocate for "a blended approach."
"It's too late to go back to the old ways of growing food. We're used to being able to get strawberries year-round, no matter where you live," he says. "People don't can anymore, they don't have root cellars. It's unrealistic to think that we can meet communities' food needs through community gardens and permaculture alone, as important as those things are."
NorthStar Ag is currently engaged in research and development of DUA solutions appropriate for the Yukon, both in terms of weather resilience and operating scale. Gray aims to blend traditional field farming, small-scale fish farming using aquaculture, indoor vertical farming as a winter or small-space supplement, and small animal husbandry, including microdairies and production of "dual-purpose animals" that can both produce milk or eggs and be processed as meat.
He notes that an important component to the plan is integrating farm energy systems. "By locating indoor farms next to power plants producing heat or off-gassing, we can harness that energy and use it." He notes that this approach could be scaled up to large urban areas as well.
Key to this work is community engagement, Gray says. Through community meetings, listening sessions, and conversations with community leaders, he works hard to suss out the "food champions" in the areas where he works, tapping into their knowledge to help guide his projects.
"Building something without first engaging the community would be a breach of trust," he explains. "You don't even know what people want to eat [if you don't talk to them]!"