One thing we can say about indoor farming in 2020: it grew, both in market size and investment.
At the start of the year, a big part of our attention focused on the potential of smaller vertical farms in grocery stores and consumer homes. Writing on the topic at the end of Dec. 2019, I figured we would see the most compelling developments in this area over the next 12 months when it came to controlled-environment agriculture.
There certainly were a lot of notable happenings. InFarm further expanded its concept of placing its pod-like mini farms in grocery stores. A number of companies, including Aerogarden, MyFood, Rise Gardens, Aspara, and Farmshelf offered vertical gardens built for the consumer home. And on that note, at CES 2020, both LG and GE unveiled concepts to turn indoor farming into the next big home appliance category. Manufacturers of at-home farms, in particular, reported spikes in demand resulting from the pandemic and our sudden collective interest in at-home food sovereignty.
There’s one drawback to at-home vertical farms and smart gardens: for now, at least, they come with a price tag that’s too high for many households. See Aspara’s $350 countertop farm on the low end and, on the high end, the $13,000 Natufia Kitchen Garden. When it comes to providing fresher, more local, and affordable greens to everyone, it was actually the large-scale commercial farms that made the most news.
A glance at some of the major announcements shows just how big controlled-environment agriculture got in 2020, both in terms of physical space and investment dollars:
- At the start of the year, Freight farms partnered with food distributor Sodexo to bring containerized vertical farms to U.S. schools. It quickly followed that news with a $15 million Series B fundraise.
- AeroFarms was among the companies that received a $100 million investment from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) to turn sand into farmland with controlled ag.
- Elevate Farms nabbed a $10 million investment to build a series of large-scale vertical farms in remote, food insecure regions of Canada.
- AppHarvest struck a partnership with the Dutch government to turn the Appalachian region of the U.S. into a controlled ag powerhouse via its high-tech greenhouse facilities. The company followed that up with a $28 million funding round.
- Kalera announced new locations and expansions throughout the year, including large-scale farms in Atlanta, Houston, and Denver.
- Plenty raised $140 million and also partnered with Driscoll’s to grow strawberries on its massive vertical farms.
- BrightFarms raised $100 million to grow its network of controlled-ag farms across various U.S. states.
- Bowery announced its most technologically advanced indoor farm yet, which the company said will serve nearly 50 million people within a 200-mile radius.
There are plenty of differences in the way these companies approach controlled-environment agriculture. Some rely on vertical farming, while others stick to the greenhouse method aided by automation and AI. Many stick to growing leafy greens; others have expanded their wares to include tomatoes, the aforementioned strawberries, and other types of produce.
What all of these have in common is that they are trying to bring the concept of healthier, fresher food to more people at a price point the majority of households can manage. Many of them also provide much-needed jobs for local communities.
The world’s population is expected to hit nearly 10 billion people by 2050. At the same time, the limitations — and environmental dangers — of relying solely on traditional agriculture get more apparent each year. The past 12 months have shown us that these controlled-environment farms, which occupy millions of square feet and are now producing just as much produce, will be a major part of agricultural innovation going forward.
Stay tuned for more developments in 2021.