Controlled-environment agriculture — also simply known as indoor farming — had a big year both in terms of activity and investment dollars. While once we might have questioned the sector’s economic viability and ability to actually feed a growing global population, a lot of those doubts have diminished and indoor ag in its many forms now has an important role in our future food system.
What that role is, however, will continue to evolve over time. Here are a few thoughts on how that will happen over the next 12 months.
Automation isn’t new to controlled-environment agriculture, but its presence as a part of indoor farming operations has increased over the last several months and will continue to in the next year.
In the context of controlled-environment farming, automation can refer to any kind of technology that removes manual human labor from the growing process. In some cases that includes robots that plant and harvest greens or move trays of produce around the farm. More often, though, automation refers to software that can calculate the optimal environmental temperature for each plant, know when plants need to be fed and harvested, and handle many other calculations that would otherwise require a person to have horticultural and technological (hardware and software) expertise.
Moving into 2021, we’ll definitely see a few more robots buzzing around the indoor farm. But the bulk of automation will be about software.
More grocery store partnerships.
Many large-scale indoor farms started out selling their leafy green wares to restaurants and hotels. The pandemic, of course, put a hold on that in 2020, and controlled-environment agriculture operations had to look elsewhere for customers.
Enter the grocery store. From container farms at local markets to Kalera’s partnership with Publix stores across the U.S., more indoor farming companies are growing their greens either onsite at grocery stores or within throwing distance of them.
This could in turn help bring the cost of greens grown on high-tech farms down, since the shipping and distribution steps will be less resource intensive in many cases and nonexistent in others.
More underutilized space.
One of my favorite stories from 2020 was this one, about a company called Wilder Fields that turned an abandoned Target store in south Chicago into a massive indoor farm.
Many companies are constructing their own facilities from the ground up, while others stick to smaller scale container farms that are a bit more mobile. Finding existing space, such as an abandoned big box retailer, seems a logical middle ground, and one we’ll likely see more of as companies work to lower costs and keep their environmental footprint down.
Predictions pieces, of course, are always a bit of a crapshoot, and even if the above forecasts turn out to be true, they’ll be but a smattering of the activity that will happen for controlled-environment ag in 2021.