Indoor Ag-Con: A plea for CEA advocacy, 6 reasons indoor farms fail

Indoor Ag-Con: A plea for CEA advocacy, 6 reasons indoor farms fail

We’re live in Las Vegas this week at Indoor Ag Con 2022. Here’s a few learnings from the show’s first day back in the CEA spotlight.

Indoor Ag Con made its triumphant return to the sun-splashed Caesars Forum on Monday as the all-things-CEA conference co-located alongside the retail-focused National Grocers Association annual meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Opening the two-days of meetings, educational sessions, and trade booth visits was a keynote address from two Steves, Steve Platt (the CEO of BrightFarms) and Steven Bradley (VP of Cox Enterprises Cleantech division, which recently acquired a majority ownership stake in BrightFarms). The two groups are working in collaboration to “transform CEA together.” 

© Photo courtesy of Indoor Ag Con/Suzanne Pruitt
Cox Enterprises' Steven Bradley (seated left) and BrightFarms CEO Steve Platt deliver the week's opening keynote address. 

“Agriculture today is a supply chain that is just toxic in so many ways,” Platt told the gathered crowd of controlled environment growers, ancillary service providers, and manufacturer reps. “It uses too much energy and oil to send crops halfway across the country, and it’s using too many pesticides and chemicals that consumers do not want in their food.”

Platt says that the recent focus on indoor produce production in the U.S. – one of the ongoing themes of the week is that we have yet to so much as scratch the surface when it comes to realizing the top-end potential of CEA production on a massive nationwide scale here in the States – has still been a win-win-win for everybody involved.

“It’s a win for the consumer who gets local, cleanly grown produce year-round, it’s a win for retailers looking for a steady, consistent supply of premium product to fill their shelves, and it’s a win for the environment and society at-large,” he explained.

Noting that BrightFarms plans to add 60 acres of greenhouse produce production to its already sizable operational footprint over the next three years, Platt drew a laugh and many knowing nods from the crowd when he blew the doors off of what he calls “CEAs dark, deep secret.”

“This shit is really hard!”

Indeed, it is, Steve. Indeed, it is.

© Photo courtesy of Indoor Ag Con/Suzanne Pruitt. 

IPM learnings

The day’s first educational session dealt with what a successful IPM program should look like. According to panelist Justin Leavitt with Biobee USA, “IPM is all about using every single tool that you have at your disposal.”

“You can’t just spray or clean your way out of pest issues,” he added.

Another tenet he typically shares with growers when helping them setup IPM protocols is that your IPM program should never be considered final. It should be a living, breathing, constantly evolving aspect of your operation.

“I love a good IPM program on an Excel spreadsheet, but that spreadsheet better be editable because I guarantee you will have to make adjustments to even the most dialed-in program,” he shared.

Erika Verrier, horticulturalist with iUNU, concurs. Leavitt’s fellow panelist says that she has never come across a successful “one-size-fits-all” IPM program. She advises those that work with growers on implementing IPM actively manage the growers’ expectations throughout the process.

“Make sure that they understand that the IPM program at their greenhouse might not end up looking exactly like another growers’ IPM program that they saw that grower have success with.”

What LED lighting specs should I actually care about?

Anyone who’s ever comparison-shopped LED grow lights knows first-hand how convoluted a LED technology spec label can be. One would guess that’s exactly why Indoor Ag Con had a panel breaking down what specs should be most important to CEA growers on an LED spec sheet.

According to Dr. Ed Stoneham, co-founder XtremeLUX, the LED fixture’s photon efficiency, and that efficiency measured at various operating outputs, is first and foremost among characteristics to weigh.

“Most fixtures have variable outputs, so most of the time you’ll be running lights at lower levels of actual output (vs. 100% output), which is exactly why it is so important to ask lighting manufacturers their lights’ photon efficiency at different lighting levels/intensities,” Dr. Stoneham explained.

The other important metric to evaluate is the spectral quality and quantity of the light, because it’s “very important that you make the best use of every single photon you’re getting from those lights,” Stoneham says. The ability to adjust your lighting spectrum to account for different growth stages in various indoor crops, aka spectrum versatility, is important so that the grower can “control and manipulate” those spectrums over time,” he says.

Blake Lange, business development manager with Signify, also participated in the lighting panel. For Lange, everything that is listed on that lighting spec sheet is critically important, but one metric he advises growers take a long hard look at is the fixture and its component’s lifetime rating. “I want to know how long that light is going to last in my growing environment,” he explains.

The panel agreed that, for greenhouse operations using LEDs supplementally, it’s is very important to have some type of dimming capabilities, whether analog or digital, so that growers can adjust based on the amount of DLI they’re already getting from the sun and, in a perfect world, save on their energy bill.

A plea for advocacy

After the morning’s educational tracks wrapped up, the day’s keynote was delivered by AppHarvest founder & CEO, Jonathan Webb, a man who is quickly becoming the face of CEA in the U.S., whether he likes it or not.

Webb delivered a high energy, some-would-say perfectly pitched plea to his industry cohorts that they need – no, they must – do more to push indoor farming’s profile as environmentally sound vs. field grown crops higher among consumers and legislators alike.

“We’re in the infancy of this whole CEA deal right now,” Webb explained. “I know we like to think we’re all really cool, that we’ve raised all of this capital and accomplished so much already, but really we’re just kind of (the) cute (underdog) as we sit here in this room today. We need to get a whole lot louder.”

Operating capital remains extremely important to the industry as a whole – after all, you can’t farm without money for inputs, land, the list goes on and on – but don’t just think a bunch of VC angel investors are going to bankroll the entire future of this industry. We need government-funded incentives and grants just as much as our field-farming compatriots. Heck, maybe even more…

“The VC dollars are not going to be enough,” Webb cautioned. “Sure, it helped us launch this industry, but if we want to take this thing to the next level we need a built out infrastructure behind us, and that’s where the government comes in. VCs don’t build infrastructure.”

Webb worries that CEA cannot advance beyond the current regional hub-and-spoke business model, where disparate independent farms serve regional markets and never really venture much further out than that.

“I don’t know what else this industry can do honestly, without help from the government and even regulators,” he says, imploring indoor growers to get active with their local reps in Congress. “We have to engage with D.C., there has never been a single industry in the U.S. that has taken off that has done it without any regulation or government incentives.”

The Farm Bill, for instance, has close to zero implications in the indoor farming world. Think about that for a second and let me know if that doesn’t enrage you as much as it enrages Webb.

“This is bulls@%$,” Webb growled. “There’s a trillion-dollar Farm Bill in this country and we don’t see a single dime from it … I mean, what the flip?!”

His closing message for growers that want to help grow CEA beyond what we have already today? Get active: “share your stories, invite local lawmakers and regulators to your farm and get them involved in the conversation.”

Why do vertical farms fail?

One of the afternoon’s educational sessions looked at why some vertical farming operations thrive, and why some fall by the wayside.

Dr. Robert Colangelo, founder of Green Sense Farms and a 12 year CEA industry veteran, shared his six reasons that vertical farming operations fail (thus, these are pratfalls you’ll want to avoid as an indoor farmer):

  1. Undercapitalized operations. Simply stated, it costs a lot of money to produce a commercial CEA crop. Understand that going in.
  2. Poor business models. Make sure you understand your market, your crop’s cost of production in your growing system, your customer, and the ins-and-outs of your production model before you start building.
  3. Inexperienced management teams. This is probably more common than most think in an industry that is barely over a decade old, Colangelo says.
  4. Investing in unproven technologies that do not deliver results for the farm.
  5. Lack of sales.
  6. A refusal or failure to pivot.