SCIENCE NEWS: Vertical farms are now branching out

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SCIENCE NEWS:

Teake Zuridema is an Atlanta-based writer and photographer. This story was originally published on NexusMedia News ,, a non-profit news site about climate change.

On a sunny day last August, Daniel Malechuk opened the door to a 77,000-square-foot warehouse just outside Atlanta.

Inside, five varieties of hydroponic lettuce were grown under the soft magenta glow from LED lights. They were stacked nine stories high. A few employees were busy picking the greens. Their pace matched Malechuk’s ambition: to grow 10 million heads of lettuce by next spring.

If they succeed, Kalera, the vertical farming company that began operations here in April 2021, will not only have the largest-yield vertical farm in the Southeast, but will also be Georgia’s largest lettuce producer.

“This facility will produce 12 times as much lettuce in one year as the entire state can produce in the same amount of time,” Malechuk enthused. (According to Georgia’s department of agriculture, the state imports more than 99 percent of its lettuce).

The world’s population is projected to swell to nearly 10 billion by the middle of the century; global food production will need to double by then to keep up with demand. Photo: Teake Zuidema

These farms, not dependent on specific weather patterns or terrain, can thrive almost anywhere, cutting down transportation costs and associated emissions. They also operate cleaner, without releasing pesticides or fertilizers runoff.

According to PitchBook, investors poured nearly $1 billion into indoor farming companies in 2020, more than twice what they invested the year before.

As the planet grows hotter and drier, and arable land scarcer, food producers are looking for new ways to farm that require fewer resources. Vertical farming is promising, as it requires less land and water to grow than traditional agriculture. Photo: Teake Zuidema

But there’s a catch: indoor farms rely on the artificial light of tens of thousands of LED lights. A farm like Malechuk can use huge amounts of energy to maintain temperature control and water circulation.

” The single biggest obstacle facing the industry is its use of a lot of electricity,” stated Julia Kurnik (director of innovation startups at World Wildlife Fund). Vertical farming requires a number of economic and environmental tradeoffs, she said. It may not be practical everywhere, but it may make sense if you live in the Middle East, where there isn’t much land. However, you can use renewable energy [solar] to power your farm. She stated that the source of the energy is critical to determine the net environmental impact.

Stephan David, plant scientist at Wageningen University & Research, researches which light recipes are best for growing strawberries indoors. Two batches of strawberries are behind him, which were grown under different lighting conditions but were planted simultaneously. Photo: Teake Zuidema

Lowering vertical farms’ energy costs is one of the main goals at Signify, a Dutch LED lighting company, said Udo van Slooten, a business leader in horticulture. He stated that “Our goal was to find the best way to convert watts into biomass.”

LED systems have become much more efficient since he began working in the field 15 years ago, but additional gains will have to come from improving the entire growing system: optimizing light recipes, spacing and nutrients, and determining which varieties of plants produce the best results.

As these farms become more energy-efficient it will start to make more economic sense to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, and many other products indoors. Photo: Teake Zuidema

As the price of renewable energy continues to fall, proponents of vertical farming say it can become a more accessible, greener way to put food on the table.

Maluchuk of Kalera farms said that making greens affordable is his top priority. A head of Kalera leaf retails for $3 in most grocery stores. Malechuk sampled romaine, red oak leaves, and Kalera Krunch lettuces fresh from the tower at the farm. The Kalera Krunch was slightly sweet, but all were bright and crunchy.

“Welcome, to the future agriculture,” he stated.

Vertical farmers inspect strawberries at Signify in the Netherlands. Photo: Teake Zuidema

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