Indoor Ag-Con New York, a conference held for professionals in the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry on Oct. 15, highlighted the opportunities that CEA and urban agriculture present on local and global scales.
Twelve keynote presentations given by pioneers in the industry (AeroFarms, Gotham Greens, FarmedHere, See Jane Farm, Illumitex, Agrilyst, Cornell University and Wageningen UR, just to name a few) covered topics such as investment, lighting, robotics, shortening the supply chain, the importance of data analysis and food safety practices.
Broadening to a global scale
CEA presents beneficial opportunities on a global scale, minimal use of land and water, protecting rivers, reducing pollution, improving food safety and combatting global warming, said Viraj Puri, co-founder of Gotham Greens.
“We can’t hang our hats just on ‘local,’” Puri said.
Viraj Puri, co-founder of Gotham Greens
From an economic standpoint, CEA can lead to the creation of jobs, the boost of local manufacturing and access to fresh produce (2 billion people worldwide are malnourished or undernourished), reduction of food waste (50 percent of food worldwide is wasted, thrown out), and can provide pedagogical platform for science, nutrition and public health, Puri said.
Gotham Greens owns and operates rooftop greenhouses in Brooklyn, and is building its fourth facility in Chicago,which will be the largest rooftop greenhouse in the country at 75,000 square feet.
Transparency in competition and community
Matt Matros, CEO of FarmedHere, a Chicago-based indoor farm considered to be the largest in the country, recently joined the indoor agriculture industry after operating a 20-restaurant chain called Protein Bar.
Matros stressed the importance of collaboration and friendliness throughout the industry.
“We’re competing with Central Valley, not each other,” he said.
“At our most aggressive, we still all win. To the extent that we can share, it gets us there faster. Let’s not let the environment and the world continue to crumble,” Matros said later in an interview.
Matros also shared FarmedHere’s plans for better transparency and community outreach through public events for consumers who may not know what growing systems like hydroponics and aquaponics entail.
Taste, quality and food safety
“Food safety is no joke,” says David Rosenberg, CEO and co-founder of AeroFarms. Rosenberg warned other CEA operations not to “cut corners” when it comes to production so not to harm the consumer, first and foremost, or the industry as a whole.
He also discussed the three components necessary for indoor agriculture to exist: horticulture, engineering and data science. AeroFarms uses 20,000 data points to measure the greens it produces, which puts them in a position to optimize the quality of the product, including taste (which is a bit more difficult to measure because of consumer perception of characteristics like bitter, sweet, hard, soft, etc., Rosenberg said).
“Light is key for year-round production,” said Neil Mattson, CEA co-director at Cornell University. In NYC, a head of lettuce takes 105 days to grow. With supplemental lighting, lettuce production is cut down to 35 days from seed to harvest.
Mattson also evaluated the carbon footprint of greenhouses versus plant factories (vertical farms). When lettuce is imported to New York, there is an output of .7 lbs. of CO2 per pound of lettuce. For a local greenhouse, that CO2 output increases to 1.3 lbs. per pound of lettuce, and 3.8 pounds of CO2 per pound of lettuce in a local vertical farm. Mattson also reported that the injection of CO2 can reduce the need for electric light by 50 percent.
Lighting itself can detect pathogens and pests with a “recognizable signature—like DNA,” said Chris Hammelef, CEO of Illumitex. Hammelef also said lighting is a key component in developing cutting-edge medicine and vaccines.
Chris Hammelef, CEO of Illumitex
Jochen Hemming of Wageningen UR talked robotics, noting that SWEEPER robots that harvest sweet peppers will be tested during the winter growing season for time and efficiency. The arm gripper of the robot can cut off produce while maneuvering through tight spaces.
While Hemming believes that the software and hardware of robotics will continue and intensify, robotics still need robust mechanics, advanced data handling and more R&D, he said.
Products from sponsers were on display at roundtables during networking breaks.
Global resource scarcity
Paul Lightfoot of BrightFarms (which designs, builds and operates ultra-local greenhouses from Pennsylvania to Missouri) discussed the status of the drought in California.
Salinas Valley, a major produce hub, uses the highest percentage of groundwater, relative to surface water, of any California region, he said, calling it a “tragedy of the commons.” The depletion of groundwater will make it more difficult for California agriculture not to increase wholesale prices, he said, which may provide opportunity for CEA.
What’s important for the Australia-based commercial grower Sundrop Farms is sustainability. CEO Philip Saumweber said Sundrop’s desalination seawater greenhouse located in Port Augusta is powered primarily from solar energy. He said greenhouses can be restorative, rather than extractive, in nature.
Another way to combat the overuse of resources and cut costs is to analyze data, said Allison Kopf, CEO of Agrilyst, a data analysis company geared toward CEA.
Instead of looking at a macroeconomic level, professionals in the industry must look inward at individual uses of energy on their own farms, Kopf said. Digging into data can help growers save by identifying what they’re doing right, and ways they can improve.
Nicole Day of AgriForaging, Inc. posed questions to attendees about what they should consider when growing produce for their restaurant and corporate customers. The questions were open-ended, and many hypothetical, but were all interesting points to consider when it comes to CEA, including What are the long-term effects of soilless growing? Should you be diversifying your crop options? What are your plans for food safety? What is perishability timeline of your products? What is your pricing structure?
Matt Barnard, CEO of the AgTech firm See Jane Farm, said the biggest problem with the produce supply chain is unreliability. Seventy percent of produce comes from west of the Rocky Mountains, while 77 percent of the U.S. population is living east of the Rocky Mountains, Barnard reported. The taste quality suffers, he said, because produce must be made to last through travel to the consumer.
Because consumers want hyper local, now is the time for CEA for several reasons, Barnard said. He reported that LED cost per lumen dropped 10 times in the past six years, and that the online grocery market is growing. It now holds 3 percent of the $500 billion industry, and continues to grow.
David Smiles, also known as “Farmer Dave” of Florida-based Uriah’s Urban Farms, showed a video of one of his customers, a chef, overwhelmingly pleased after trying microgreens grown in a vertical farm for the first time. He talked about how connected people can be with their food after picking it, then immediately consuming it. Smiles said that what people want is something deeper, fresh and raised in an environmentally responsible manner.
Attendees had the opportunity to meet each other during networking breaks held between presentations.
Some of the biggest challenges to indoor agriculture include gaining upfront investment, hiring a qualified team and food safety.
Several keynotes agreed that they look outside traditional sources for hiring, and prefer data-driven candidates, though they’re difficult to find.
At the conference, Mark Thomann, former CEO of FarmedHere, announced that he has joined PodPonics, a major hydroponic grower based in Georgia.
In case you weren’t able to attend Indoor Ag-Con in New York City, mark your calendars for 2016’s conferences: Jan. 19 and 20, 2016 in Singapore, and April 5 and 6, 2016 in Las Vegas. For more information, visit https://indoor.ag/