Forget bucolic images of farmers toiling in the fields. As farmland gets more expensive (or disappears altogether) and awareness of the environmental impact of tilling and pesticide use increases, scientists and entrepreneurs are developing creative solutions for growing food. One of the most popular is forgoing the field to grow bumper crops of produce indoors.
"A 'field-free' approach to farming gives people the ability to grow food in places that can't typically support traditional agriculture," explains Caroline Katsiroubas, marketing manager for Freight Farms, Boston-based creators of self-contained farms housed in shipping containers. "As we seek to increase food production for the growing global population, it is crucial to begin considering alternative production methods to mitigate some of the environmental effect of traditional farming."
Foods grown in indoor farms maintain their nutritional value but the high-tech growing methods use up to 98 percent less water and 70 percent less fertilizer than traditional farms and no pesticides, according to the Association for Vertical Farming. Since many indoor farms are located in urban areas (and often upcycle unused buildings or shipping containers), food miles are also reduced.
So who is exploring this vast new arena? Here are four pioneers in the indoor farming world:
Software developer Matt Liotta used his programming skills to create a high tech farm inside old shipping containers as a solution to increasing local food production. Located on a patch of barren land in the flight path of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, each shipping container, which measures just 350 square feet, grows the equivalent amount of lettuce, kale and basil produced on 1.5 acres of farmland.
The greens are grown with hydroponics and Liotta created a software program to control the light, temperature, water, CO2 and humidity levels in the shipping containers; the program can make constant adjustments to ensure optimal year-round growing conditions.
In 2014, PodPonics expanded into the Middle East, setting up shipping containers in Dubai. All of the lettuce grown in the desert is served through food service operations in schools and hospitals.
Unlike other indoor farms, Freight Farms doesn't grow and sell produce. Instead, the Boston-based startup sells shipping containers retrofitted into self-contained farms to individuals and companies interested in indoor farming.
Their flagship product, Leafy Green Machine, is equipped to grow herbs and vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. The commercial farming systems use LEDs and hydroponics and "farmers" are connected to the cloud, using remote control and monitoring.
By pinpointing the optimal nutrient blend, air temperature and light exposure for crop production, Freight Farms takes the guesswork out of indoor farming. The company also captures data from the farms and uses it to provide resources and support to customers like Courtyard Marriott who have embraced the "farm in a box" concept.
Panasonic's indoor vegetable farming in Singapore. (Photo: Panasonic)
The electronics giant is using its expertise in engineering, manufacturing and factory automation to take a high tech approach to farming.
Panasonic started experimenting with indoor farming in 2014 to test the feasibility of using its technology to grow produce. It's the first licensed indoor vegetable farm in Singapore. To date, the farm grows 10 varieties of premium crops, including lettuce, radishes, spinach, basil and mizuna.
Although the farm measures just 2,600 square feet, it produces more than 7,000 pounds of produce annually – and has a goal to reach its 1,000-tonne production capacity by 2017, enabling the electronics-manufacturer-turned-indoor-farming-giant to produce five percent of locally grown vegetables thanks to efficient lighting, temperature control and computer monitoring.
Green Sense Farms
While the average fruit or vegetable travels 1,500 miles from the farm to our plates, the lettuce and greens grown at Green Sense Farms travels just 75 miles to its retail, commercial and restaurant customers. In addition to cutting down on food miles, the farm also uses a fraction of the water, land and fertilizer to grow similar crops on traditional farms.
Hailed as the largest indoor, commercial, vertical farm in the nation, the farm occupies a 30,000 square foot facility in Portage, Indiana, and grows 20 varieties of herbs and vegetables in 14 growing towers that are 25 feet tall.
All of the produce on the vertical farm, including arugula, basil, cilantro, chives, nasturtium, dill and mint, is grown from non-GMO seeds and without the use of pesticides or herbicides.
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