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Could the future of farming lie indoors?

Innovation: The scale seems much too small, say farmers. But that may be its greatest strength

Robotica’s indoor farming modules have style-conscious Italian consumers in mind. “Our vision is to grow food on every desk in every house,” its builders say.
Lilian Schaer. photo: Supplied

Outside of maybe the health care field, there are few sectors that are as innovative and changing as rapidly as agriculture.

It’s what I’ll write about in this series of columns for Country Guide, because frankly, some of the technologies that are coming off the drawing boards are going to challenge the way we think about and the way we will profit from agriculture.

Here’s a case in point. Thanks in part to scholarship funds from the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation professional development fund, I was able to attend a global food innovation summit called the 2018 Seeds and Chips Conference this past spring.

From block chains to sensors and from millennials to insect proteins, both the agenda and trade show were full of innovations, products and ideas that until recently would never have been linked to the business of agriculture.

As I walked the trade show floor, I was struck by the sheer number of exhibits dedicated to indoor agriculture and controlled environments, both on a commercial scale and for home or small business/restaurant use.

Indoor or container farming is an opportunity for farmers to grow fresh food in harsh northern climates, as well as to grow crops year-round in more southern regions. It also helps consumers and specialized businesses like restaurants or small food companies to sustainably grow their own high-quality food ingredients.

In mainstream agriculture, we might think it’s all so hobby scale, and that it can’t be real business. But we’re being told to think again. Hasn’t the same been said of so many other technologies that today are mainstream.

Growing vegetables indoors avoids disease, insect and weather damage, allowing producers to grow top-quality crops all year long. photo: Lilian Schaer

Italian company Robotica has developed a scalable indoor agriculture solution for home use that can provide users with an authentic gourmet food experience year-round, says CEO Harald Cosenza.

“We made a scalable technology with multiple applications in the home, business, greenhouses or vertical farms,” Cosenza says. “Our vision is to grow food on every desk in every house.”

That’s right… every desk, every house.

The soil-less self-contained unit, which Cosenza said had to be packaged in a beautiful design or else Italians wouldn’t consider using it, includes LED lights, camera, temperature and humidity controls and an automated dosing system for water and nutrients — all of which can be monitored and controlled through an app.

SpoutsIO meanwhile is a U.S. indoor microgardening system that was first developed to meet the needs of high-end chefs seeking fresh, local ingredients year-round. Currently, users can grow nine different types of produce, from red mustard to carrot tops, making fresh regional, seasonal and heirloom crops possible any time.

“Our software lets you grow produce to your taste and everything we harvest comes out perfectly,” says co-founder and CEO Jennifer Broutin-Farrah. “We have 100 per cent yields and the leaves are perfect with no insect or sun damage — we can’t get this anywhere else.”

Aponix of Germany has developed a vertical barrel system for commercial growers to grow soil-less plants in controlled environments. The benefits range from up to 90 per cent less water use than field production of the same crops to herbicide-free production due to the lack of weeds.

The Aponix vertical barrel system reduces water and herbicide use for growers, says inventor Marco Tidona, making it more affordable to grow high-value crops. photo: Lilian Schaer

“You can grow all the varieties, for example, that aren’t available in the supermarket now (due to costs) but are very tasty,” inventor Marco Tidona explains, adding the barrel is an ideal solution for small space environments.

The Ygdrasyl Project has a vertical solar farm design that also functions as a renewable energy power plant. Their system focuses on automating the indoor farming process, particularly for countries heavily reliant on food imports, like Norway or Singapore.

Estonia’s Click & Grow specializes in smart gardens, farms and walls that can grow food without manual watering and fertilization, and Agrobiotica of Italy has developed a module that can accommodate different growing systems from hydroponics to drip irrigation.

For areas struggling with limited infrastructure or lack of modern farming technology, California startup Farm from a Box has developed a solution to strengthen local food production. A solar-powered modified shipping container with micro-drip irrigation, internal cold storage and cloud-based data control is a sustainable, turnkey system that supports a full two-acre farm.

Users of Agrobiotica’s system can switch between different growing techniques, from hydroponics to drip irrigation. photo: Lilian Schaer

And this past winter, Indoor Farms of America launched new containerized versions of its indoor farm models that can grow more than just basil or leafy lettuces, two leading crops traditionally grown in containerized or modular environments. CEO David Martin notes users of the new platforms can grow fresh leafy lettuce, herbs and greens alongside strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans.

Closer to home, Ottawa-based The Growcer has developed a similar product, offering a plug-and-play shipping container-based hydroponic system through a partnership with U.S.-based Vertical Harvest Hydroponics. So far, the company has established projects in a variety of regions, from Churchill, Man., to Iqaluit, Nunavut. Each system has the capacity to produce approximately 12,000 pounds of fresh produce — that’s enough for five servings of vegetables for 100 people per day.

Indoor agriculture isn’t likely to displace conventional food production in the immediate future, but with changing attitudes towards sustainability and the environment and increasing climate volatility, there’s no denying it’s a sector with growth potential.

Already by 2017 the global indoor farming technologies market was estimated at US$25.4 billion, and it is projected to rise to $40.25 billion by 2022, driven by a rising need for food security, demand for fresh foods with high nutritive values, and the adoption of protected cultivation to ensure crop volume and quality in environments faced with changing climates.

“Why do we need to act when it comes to our food system? We are losing 23 hectares of land every minute through drought, flood or contaminated soil,” said futurist and U.N. sustainable development goal advocate Marc Buckley in a speech at the conference about why indoor farming has a key role to play in the future of food security.

The ultimate goal is a continuous supply of fresh, high-quality food that is sustainably produced, using less or no pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers, and resulting in little or no waste or emissions. Even for those not into indoor farming, it’s a direction all sectors of agriculture will find themselves moving towards.

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