Grow Baby Grow
04.26.14 9:45 AM ET
America’s Next Agricultural Revolution Will Happen Indoors
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released their first report in seven years, and like many sequels, it wasn’t good. Beyond melting ice caps and unprecedented heat waves, the news that most shook readers was that "all aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change."
Early proof of this impending disaster is playing out in California where farming-related losses in 2013 are estimated to be $5 billion and 2014 is not on track to be any better. Chipotle noted in a recent investor letter that they might cut back on their signature guacamole because of avocado scarcity. In a wry twist, this news caused much more concern for many Americans than the United Nations Nobel Prize winning team’s research tome of impending doom.
Meanwhile in China, the Chinese are also contending with human made pollution on an epic scale: 60% of the groundwater supply is polluted and the ubiquitous air pollution is so severe that it may be threatening photosynthesis and food supply. Other parts of the world are not faring much better. Banana republics have been ordered to more closely monitor their yellow fruits for signs of a virus poised to wipe out 45% of the world’s banana supply. In Mexico, a triple threat of extreme weather, bacterial infection, and drug cartel activity has driven lime prices to such heights that the government has intervened and bars in the U.S. have begun charging by the slice.
Mother Nature, it seems, is a bitch. Her revenge is perhaps understandable given the centuries of mistreatment, replete with oil spills, coalmines and running water while brushing ones teeth. Worldwide deaths by starvation are a punishment severe enough to stave off but until recently, finding ways to do so has been hard.
Now, the tech business has forgotten their cleantech scars and is finding happiness with their new darling, agtech. Everything from CRM for crops to machine learning weed pullers have been funded in a frenzy, but few of the startups address core issues. We live on the edge of food scarcity and are slowly making our water and land inhospitable to growing crops.
One startup toeing the line between doomsday preppers and expensive salad aficionados is Garden Fresh Farms. The Minnesota-based company has patented their Lettuce Gardens and Orbiting Gardens—industrial-grade hydroponic chambers set up in warehouses and used to grow greens and mushrooms with incredible efficiency. Hydroponics first brings to mind greenhouses and basement weed growing operations, but the practice of growing plants in fish filled water has been around since the Roman Empire. For most of its history, the process has not been energy efficient or scalable but Dave Roeser, founder of Garden Fresh Farms, found a way to change that. The CleanTech Open Global Forum, where they won the National Sustainability award in 2013, has lauded his proprietary system.
The farms are “modular commercial indoor agriculture systems that can be configured for the size of the warehouse, consumer market size, variety of crops to be sold and the investors budget. The farms can start in as little as 5,000 sq. ft.” and go up to 50,000 sq. ft. In the space roughly the size of an acre, Roeser’s farms produce 100 acres worth of produce. Harvesting is continual and despite the cold local winters at headquarters, the food stays warm in the indoor fields. Because of the controlled environment, pesticides aren’t needed and the food is virtually organic. (Actual organic certification is possible but a time consuming process.)
Local food and farm to table movements assume proximity to a farm that produces year round, but for most of the world that is unrealistic. With Garden Fresh Farms, their ability to turn old warehouses into urban farms has drawn attention from redevelopment zones, blighted cities, and metro areas outside of farming centers. They have a community supported agriculture program, with a unique partner in Williams-Sonoma. The home goods chain serves as a pick up point for locals who want to shop for cooking supplies and then pick up food to prepare as well.
Those less fortunate can benefit as well, with food deserts becoming an increasing cause for concern among poor urban Americans. The deserts, meaning a lack of ready access to healthy, fresh food, are linked to skyrocketing obesity rates among adults and children. Food security is also a concern, ensuring that a country grows enough on its own soil to avoid starvation in the event of trade isolation or war.
Unlike many do-good products, Garden Fresh Farms does not exist as a social good company. It benefits as much from its distribution in Whole Foods, where the price point is similar to expensive boutique brands, as it would in the event of a world food shortage disaster of action movie proportions. The founders have a pragmatic view of it, saying, “We live in a period of time between ice ages. Our farms prepare us for whatever happens to our climate. We improve access to healthy food anywhere, not just areas with year round outdoor farming. Since it is local, fresh and natural this improves the diets of all customers. Because of rising gas prices, economics will dictate growing food closer to the consumer year round. Our methods are revolutionary to farming.”
One area that Roeser doesn’t play in? The slowly legalizing marijuana industry—but not for the reasons you may think. According to him, “We have looked at the figures, and growing legal herbs is a more profitable business and doesn't violate any federal laws. Many varieties of marijuana sell for $7/lb. wholesale. Basil sells for $10/lb., so the economics are better.”
So next time you complain about salad costing a fortune, remember that you could literally get high for less.