Much of the recent news (and investment dollars) in vertical farming has centered on massive, stationary plant factories that produce pounds of leafy greens in the millions.
Bucking this norm — and possibly building a new one for indoor agriculture in the process — is a company called InFarm. Those that follow indoor ag developments closely will be familiar with the name, and may even have purchased greens at one of the stores where the company keeps its farms.
The Berlin, Germany-based company, founded in 2013, has long been known for its small, pod-like hydroponic farms it installs in grocery stores in restaurants. Greens can be harvested onsite — a major advantage when it comes to leafy greens, which are delicate and often get harmed during shipping and distribution. These mini-farms are currently in a few hundred locations around the world.
Earlier this year, the company also launched the first of a planned 15 InFarm Growing Center facilities. Each of these will produce the equivalent of 10,000 square meters of farmland, which is 1 hectare or about 2.47 acres in traditional farmland.
Modularity is a key component of both concepts, as is the idea of a decentralized network of farms that share data with a main hub. Right now, the norm for vertical farming tends towards large, warehouse-sized farms that are stationary and can therefore only serve certain regions. Typically, companies like West Coast-based Plenty or AeroFarms in the Northeast and Kalera in the South distribute their greens to grocery retailers within a certain distance, usually no more than one day’s drive. If these companies want to expand to new markets, another lengthy construction must be planned and executed.
InFarm’s pods don’t go up overnight, but as CEO Erez Galonska explained to The Spoon recently, the company can respond more quickly to demand in any given area because of the pods’ modular design. For example, a farm might be built and operating within six weeks, versus eighteen months for a larger, less mobile build like those of other vertical farm companies.
Size-wise, InFarm’s units are anywhere between 30 and 100 feet tall. At maximum capacity, they can produce more than 500,000 plants per year. For now, crops are largely in the leafy greens space, though InFarm did recently say it is expanding its crop capabilities to mushrooms, tomatoes, and chilis. Galonska says the company has more than 75 products, and eventually wants “to fulfill our ultimate goal of offering the whole vegetable and fruit baskets.”
Leafy greens require fewer inputs (water, energy) than other vegetables to grow, which is one of the reasons they’re such a popular crop. And as was recently explained by World Wildlife Fund, energy consumption is still a major hurdle (among others) for indoor farming, and one reason the sector hasn’t moved far beyond leafy greens.
Collecting more data on plant growth and optimal growing conditions could help companies like InFarm eventually lower costs. It’s one of the reasons we see more and more indoor farming companies now talk about their “network,” where all farms are connected to the same network and feed data on plant growth back to the main system. InFarm’s units connect to the company’s HQ via the cloud and generate billions of data points that inform InFarm research and production.
“The most important factor is the quantity and quality of the data that we are able to collect and generate insights from,” says Galonska. “Embedded in each and every one of our farms are more than 75 lab-grade sensors. Using hyperspectral cameras and scanning lasers, we track growth speed, photosynthesis activity and stress responses of our crops, giving real time biofeed back to how our plants are doing.”
He adds that his company has seen an 82 percent reduction in unit costs since 2018 and a 240 percent improvement in yield. The challenge, of course, will be continuing to get those gains as the company widens its crop varieties outside of the leafy green realm.
Galonska agrees that vertical farming is still a fairly capital-intensive business, which is another reason InFarm has chosen a de-centralized network for its business. “If you think of larger-scale farms, they require a lot of upfront investment and can take some time to set up,” he says. “We took a modular approach to help address this, reducing the amount of cash needed to start operations and speeding up the process.”