Are vertical farms ahead of their time?
(Source: Jones Food Company)

Are vertical farms ahead of their time?

The BBC (among other outlets) reported on a vertical farm in Gloucestershire, that they describe as one of the country's most technically advanced. The facility grows lettuce, basil and other herbs under special lights, in a warm humid atmosphere (27 degrees C and 75% humidity). They claim they can grow salad three times as fast as traditional outdoor agriculture thanks to its controlled, consistent climate. Their basil goes from seed to harvest in 18 days.

As the article points out, UK supermarkets sell salad leaves and herbs all year round, which means that in the winter they are imported. Hence the comparison in terms of carbon emission (and cost) that is often made between plants grown locally in controlled environments (like vertical farms), and those trucked or air freighted in from Spain or Morocco.

On that basis you can see the appeal. Especially when we think about all of the logistics miles that salad leaves and herbs clock up getting from traditional farms to our supermarket shelves. But, that might not be the right metric to focus on. Yes, farming locally is part of the answer, and it's something that we support. But we need to think beyond the headlines.

One other important aspect is cost. These farms use a lot of electricity. And this is expensive, at least in Europe. This has led to a number of vertical farm companies either closing down. And some have talked about moving to regions with cheaper electricity. But then that seems to defeat the purpose of growing locally.

(link to article 👉🏾

One answer might be microgrids (using local renewables and battery storage). But we need to be aware of the scale of renewables needed. Kale Harbick, a USDA researcher who studies controlled-environment agriculture, is quoted as saying "in a typical cold climate, you would need about five acres of solar panels to grow one acre of lettuce".

Maybe we need to start thinking that this is a solution that is ahead of its time. That it might make sense at scale in say a decade or more in the future. When local renewable electricity is cheaper. Maybe we need to focus our capital instead on less glamorous answers, such as Precision Ag - growing more with less. You can read a blog we wrote on that here 👉🏾

This article featured in What Caught Our Eye, a weekly email featuring stories we found particularly interesting during the week and why. We also give our lateral thought on each one. What Caught our Eye is available to read in full by members.

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