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Know the Future of Farming and its Potential

Story by Alina Martin.

Our farming adventure had started about a year earlier, with a confession from my husband, "Honey, I want to become a farmer!" I'm sure you can appreciate my astonishment when my commercial real-estate husband professed in the middle of his career that he wanted to change, and grow things. He wanted something that spoke to his soul and to our daughter's future, he said. He wanted to become a farmer. My gut reaction: "yeah right." Little did I know at the time that this was the beginning of our future, and the beginning of a journey that would change us. It would change me, deeply.

What is indoor vertical farming? Wikipedia says, "Vertical farming is the practice of producing food and medicine in vertically stacked layers, vertically inclined surfaces and/or integrated in other structures (such as in a skyscraper, used warehouse, or shipping container). The modern ideas of vertical farming use indoor farming techniques and controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technology, where many environmental factors can be controlled. These facilities utilize artificial control of light, environmental control (humidity, temperature, gases...) and fertigation. Some vertical farms use techniques similar to greenhouses, where natural sunlight can be augmented with artificial lighting and metal reflectors."1

While this is all true, most vertical farms today utilize hydroponic or aeroponic equipment to grow their plants. Think of growing plants in water - hydroponically - or using a combination method of water/mist and oxygen and nutrients - aeroponically. The possibility of urban-farms located in old redundant warehouses in the middle of cities are now a reality. What about roof-top gardens or greenhouses? Take a look at Lufa Farms: their website says "We built the world's first commercial rooftop greenhouse on an industrial building in Montreal, Quebec, to prove that high-yield, year-round farming is a smarter, more sustainable, and commercially viable way to feed cities." This company is doing amazing work transforming cities in Canada, and feeding us at the same time.

The possibility of repurposing over-produced land or building on under-utilized land, into indoor food cultivation facilities, in areas where you've traditionally not be able to grow, could change our world. Imagine getting local produce from right around the corner, in the dead of winter? Imagine having farmers pick produce at its prime, resulting in fresh ingredients and eating it at the peak of its vitamin density? This is not to mention the reduction of pesticides in indoor vertical farms, a benefit that further solidifies that growing food locally, closer to home, is just a better idea and more sustainable overall. According to the international development organization Development and Peace, the average meal travels 3000 km to our plate. How can that be ok? According to a Penn State University study done in 2005, spinach in particular can lose up to 90% of its vitamin C content within 24 hours of harvest. Imagine, what food value week-old spinach in fancy plastic bags contains? It probably is not a lot.

Why is it that we all dislike the flavour of a carrot that comes from the grocery store? Because it doesn't taste like the ones you pulled out of grandma's garden. Remember those carrots? Yummy. That's the way vegetables should taste.

While companies such as Browery, Plenty, The Growcer, AeroFarms, DeepWater Farms and TruLeaf are all growing plants in their vertical farms, they are primarily using hydroponic or aeroponic equipment to do so. While this is an incredibly efficient way of growing, it's quicker, creates more nutritionally dense product, limits the use of pesticides, and reduces watering at an astonishing rate compared to traditional agriculture. The limitation exists in the fact that these farms can really only grow a few products. While it's a step towards food sustainability and gives access to product in food deserts such as northern Canada (or places like the Caribbean, where a large portion of food is imported), it cannot solve the largest issue of how are we going to feed our planet when it has nine billion people on it. Why? Because you cannot grow deep-root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, beets and others in hydroponic or aeroponic farms. That's a challenge in its own right.

But, the biggest challenge with indoor vertical farming is this: they are desperately costly to start and operate. This means that the product being produced today is expensive. Remember when organic produce always meant higher price tags? That's the problem facing indoor vertical farmers today. This is not to mention securing stable supply chains, finding the right people to operate these farms as it requires a different skill set, and the capital to give these businesses a solid runway for success. Remember, farming in Canada is subsidized by the government - are we going to treat vertical farms the same? Technology-driven agriculture is still agriculture. It's just reinvented agriculture.

There are already some "causalities on the highway," in terms of vertical farms failing. Take a look at Modular Farms in Canada, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year... or Plantagon in Europe. Plantagon faced supply chain issues. Their Vice President, Owe Petterson, cited cash flow problems, and indicated it had been difficult to attract enough capital to remain financially sustainable.

So, what does the future of farming look like, not just in Canada but around the world? A few fallen farms doesn't mean that vertical farming is impossible: it just means investors and entrepreneurs entering the space need to understand the risks, and shore up these areas if they are to have a chance at surviving and changing the agricultural world.

The reality is that by 2050, there will be nine billion people on our planet. We currently don't have a way to feed them. That's a problem we need to solve, and technology-driven agriculture can help contribute towards a solution. I don't think you'll see vertical farming replace things like commodity crops, but vertical farming has created a new category of agriculture. It's not meant to compete with traditional agriculture, but to pave a new path for different ways of cultivation. I think our future is bright and I'm certain our children will thank us for all the work we are doing in this space for years to come - even though it's a daunting task.