Indoor crop farming in Cities

Most of the world lives in cities, and that trend is growing. So if buildings had more roof top gardens, or even multi level buildings entirely devoted to indoor agriculture, this would reduce food transportation costs and the associated environmental footprint of transport. It would also eliminate pest issues, and allow for near total capture and reuse of water. It also mitigates the effects of extreme weather, but has its own energy costs (mitigated by solar power). It could also serve as a center for the community to better understand their own food production.

This food could be directly fed to people, taking the inefficient animal out of the equation. This shift to less animal products would allow more of the fields currently in use to raise feed for animals to be freed for other production, or to be returned to their more natural state which would be a plus for the overall environment. Ruminants could naturally repopulate these areas as needed (as the bison roamed free in years passed).

@David_Meyer, this is already happening. The indoor/local growing of greens is fast-growing! No pun intended. A few years ago Plenty raised $200M from Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Eric Schmidt of Alphabet, and a Japanese hedge fund. Plenty is all about growing indoors using hydroponics for local markets, and they are only one player in the segment.

This development is one example of hydroponics moving from large operations to smaller ones that will continue to expand and decentralize further until the technology reaches the home where individuals can grow meaningful amounts of food for themselves and their communities.

Currently, the crop selection is limited mostly to various greens. As the tech becomes more ubiquitous individuals will be able to experiment with different crops, different varieties, etc.

As hydroponic (and aquaponic) technology becomes more and more user-friendly and costs drop to where the systems can more than pay for themselves in a single season by growing meaningful volumes of common foods in a typical backyard, farming in cities and other population centers will flourish.

Relatively speaking it would take very little investment to make the technology available for individuals and entrepreneurs to be able to adopt and put to very good use.

Super interesting!

@gmcevilly, @Cory_Brugger, you might have thoughts on this as well. Do you think this could be applied on a large scale? Are there regulatory issues we should be aware of?

@NickOttens - There is definitely growing interest and momentum around urban and peri-urban agriculture. As mentioned above there is a influx of VC funding being invested in companies that are addressing agricultural production and supply chain through technology and innovation; particularly around indoor agriculture. Production focused start-ups that have benefited from these investments include Plenty, Bowery, AeroFarms, Gotham Greens, Bright OX, Bright Farms (to name a few in the US). Most of these are large-scale operations that bolster (or compete with) the existing agricultural industry in urban centers. There are also local/micro-applications of urban agriculture like Infarm in Germany. I definitely see the growth and advancement in the industry as a benefit and necessary in the global ability to address food scarcity, however I do see some obstacles in the near and long-term.

In regards to regulatory issues there are a few barriers (real and perceived):

Agriculture Inclusive Ordinances: The lack of clear regulations related to agriculural activities including land-use, electricity demands, plumbing requirements, water run-off, fencing, farmers’ markets, etc creates little assurance and support for farmers.

Zoning Codes and Special Use Permits: Most urban jurisdictions do not classify agriculture as a primary land-use. Therefore, many current urban agriculture operations are classified as ‘gardens’ which is an accessory use and typically limited to side and rear yards or they have been granted special use permits which is a demanding process and not a permanent solution as the special use permit can be modified or revoked in the future.

Insurance: Personal liability and Environmental liability insurance are difficult and costly to obtain as this is an emerging market and most insurance companies haven’t figured out how to accurately assess the risk profile for indoor, urban and rooftop farms.

The bigger concern that I would see are around the general economics of the agriculture industry:

Lack of available space: As mentioned in the initial post, many of our urban centers are growing rapidly and this influx of new residents has already caused housing shortages which increases the cost of every square foot of available space putting most open space out of reach of urban farmers.

High Development Cost: In areas where open and vacant lots are an option the high cost of clearing, remediation, development and preparation can be cost prohibitive.

Government Funding and Subsidies: The majority of the food market is driven by commodity crops which in turn are supported by federal subsidies. Most urban and local farms do not involve the production of commodity crops so there is little support or funding to advance urban and peri-urban agriculture which increases the financial risk for farmers.

Thanks, @Cory_Brugger! This is very helpful!

There are some solid reviews on the potential of this from the pro and the con camps. I posted a bunch of links to stories on both sides of this in the HeroX Wiki.

I love what Caleb Harper is doing at MIT. I had the good fortune to meet him at a tour of Masdar Institute back in 2013.

Add to the list above, companies that convert used shipping containers into hydroponic setups and sell them to entrepreneurs to start hyper-local farms. Elon Musks’ brother Kimball does this with Square Roots in Brooklyn, New York. There’s also Growtainers in Dallas, Texas, Freight Farms in Boston, Massachusetts, Stud Pac in Dubai, UAE, and Local Roots in Los Angeles, California.

One grower reports bringing in about $15,000 a month from a pair of these containers by selling their wares mostly to high-end restaurants in the Boston area.

Many of the container farms use a patented vertical growing method invented by Nate Storey of Zipgrow (formally Bright Agrotech) which was acquired by Plenty a month before raising $200M. The vertical grow method incorporates what is essentially a vinyl fencepost with a slot cut along the length of one face of the extrusion for plants to grow through.

While Plenty aims to build massive indoor farms on the periphery of 500 cities to speed the delivery of fresh food from days or weeks to hours and provide Whole Foods quality at Walmart prices, Zipgrow sells the same essential components to educators, hobbyists, and entrepreneurs.

When you get down to it, a lot is riding on this labor-intensive method

It’s clunky, spendy, and user-hostile, but it’s an advance over the prior art that attracted a $200M investment! And it’s made up of repurposed, modified or make-do off the shelf parts and pieces.

ZipGrow is a static plant container system. There are others; PVC pipes with holes for plants to grow through, or plastic gullies used to grow lettuce such as American Hydroponics uses, or buckets of rocks, and many others.

A static plant container system is one part of a three-part universal hydroponic system. A second part would be an electric appliance for automatic feeding, watering, and pH control of the nutrient solution. An enhanced version could upload data to the internet to help improve harvests and to send alerts when fault conditions arise.

The third part of the universal system is an optional trellis for supporting the plant container. In the case of ZipGrow, the trellis might take the place of a wall that a ZipGrow or other system gets hung on, or other structure used to hold them up. The trellis is not always needed, but it is a part of a universal solution.

Current technology can be used to manufacture the above appliance, about the size of a countertop microwave oven for less than $200, and it could supply 40 or more ZipGrow towers, for example. As an option, it could be powered using solar panels with battery backup.

Current technology can also be used to manufacture advanced, consumable plant containers that could compete with ZipGrow, for less than five cents per foot.

A small, fully automated garden, without trellis, could retail for $999.99 or less, could pay for itself in a single season, and it could expand to virtually any size.

In crazy high volume, the prices could drop dramatically, making the technology available to the broadest possible market, for the widest possible range of uses. So much so that we couldn’t begin to predict all the places it could be used or what they’d be growing.

**Early Prototype of a Disposable Backyard Garden. **

The idea was to design a one-time use garden system that could grow a wide variety of plants. I wanted to lay it out on the ground, connect a water and power supply, add plants and plant food and let it grow. I tested this one design with cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, cantaloupe, parsley, basil, and peppers.

Scroll to the bottom of the page at the link to see photos.

This garden is 40 linear feet laid out in a square, but it could have been longer or shorter and could have taken other shapes.

It had automatic watering and worked rather well. No tilling, no weeding, and the designs have come a very long way since then.

Looking back I realize that an amazing amount was learned from these early experiments.

For these early trials Hibco plastics of Yadkinville, NC generously donated materials as did JR Peters in Allentown, PA, and RJ Reynolds packaging in Winston Salem, NC. And although I don’t know how they got my name, a manufacturer in China sent me an excellent hydroponic nutrient solution tester to use in my experiments.

This early work laid the foundation of a system that will include automatic dosing of plant food and pH adjusters, that can connect to the internet, and can be solar powered with battery backup. A basic version could be more than ten times as productive as the early prototypes and can expand by a couple of orders of magnitude with the same basic appliance. In theory, there is no upper limit to the size of these systems.

While the growing container is consumable, the appliance is designed to last 20 years or more. A complete basic system could cost under $200 to manufacture.

The focus has always been on the lowest common denominators, such as growing with the seasons in the open air since access to a little bit of space for a garden is more common than access to a greenhouse for example. The systems can be used in greenhouses, or warehouses, rooftops, etc. but aren’t limited by those. Also growing indoors requires more know-how.

Designing for mass markets, and with the economy of scale, the retail cost should plummet to well below the cost of a basic refrigerator or a reasonably good washing machine. The amount of raw material in those major appliances is many times what goes into these garden appliances. Also, the fundamental technology isn’t all that daunting. Demystifying and simplifying required a lot of work, but making it into a desirable product is perhaps the greatest challenge.