Greetings from the South, ground zero for sweet tea, land of unrelenting humidity, future home of a massive new vertical farming operation.
This week, an Orlando, FL-based company called Kalera (formerly Eco Convergence Group), announced that it has broken ground on a semi-autonomous vertical farming facility that will produce 5 million heads of lettuce each year, supplying Orlando and central Florida restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores with fresh greens and underscoring the growing demand for locally grown produce.
As soon as I got the news, the usual question about vertical farming entered my brain: why is it always lettuce? From Kalera’s new operation to AeroFarms’ 70,000-square-foot New Jersey farm to IGS’ fully automated vertical farm, we hear lots of talk of leafy greens, herbs, and the occasional edible flower. But nobody’s yet growing eggplant, potato, or even carrots.
Kalera’s CEO and cofounder, Cristian Toma, had a lot to say about that when I asked him about this: Unlike lettuce — short plants that can be densely packed together to maximize volume — many other types of produce need lots of space to grow upwards and outwards. In some cases they require multiple harvests. Most of them need human hands to assist with things like pruning, and all of these needs add up to the kinds of space and labor costs vertical farms simply can’t sustain right now. Not at scale, anyway.
That doesn’t mean we won’t see more non-leafy greens in vertical farms at some point in the future. As I noted this morning:
Whether the day ever comes when we’ll see vertical farms growing, say, carrots, depends a lot on developments in plant science in the future. “The varieties we are working with right now over many many years evolved to meet the challenges for outdoor production,” says Toma. “We don’t have varieties bred specifically for indoor production yet. So that’s an area where the industry can develop.”
Princeton Vertical Farming Project Shutters Its Doors — For Now
More data on growing methods might help. That’s been the credo of Paul P.G. Gauthier, former associate research scholar in plant physiology and environmental plant metabolism at Princeton University and the founder of the Princeton Vertical Farming Project.
Unfortunately, word got out late last week that PVFP has closed its doors following Gauthier’s departure from the university. We shouldn’t shutter the conversation on his ideas, however, especially those around the use of data in vertical farms. Back in January, Gauthier told The Spoon that the vertical farming industry needs more data on best practices for growing plants that can be shared around the industry in a kind of open-source framework. More data on what’s working and what isn’t could give us a more realistic idea of whether, say, tomatoes are a realistic crop to grow at large scale or if they’re better off in a greenhouse setting.
Gauthier has taken a job as Professor of Plant Science at Delaware Valley University and said he hopes to reproduce the vertical farm model from Princeton on a larger scale, and that there’s a possibility of even reviving the PVFP at Princeton in the future.
Starship’s Autonomous Delivery Bots Land on Another Campus
While vertical farms move closer to automation, more automated delivery bots are also moving onto college campuses. Starship upped the number of food delivery robots this week by announcing that its bots have landed at the University of Pittsburgh and Purdue University, joining campuses like George Mason University and Northern Arizona University, both of whom launched delivery programs with Starship earlier this year.
Starship is one of a few companies testing delivery programs with these small, wheeled bots. Kiwi, too, has bots on a number of campuses — including, possibly Purdue, a potential overlap that suggests campus is the next battleground for autonomous delivery. It is, after all, the perfect testing ground: as my colleague Chris Albrecht noted when he tested out a Kiwi earlier this year, college campuses are an ideal piloting ground for these companies: “Colleges are contained geographic areas with lots of hungry people ordering food from on-campus or nearby establishments well into the night,” he wrote.
Personally, I’m waiting for the day a six-wheeled autonomous bot can deliver a hydroponically grown baked potato to my doorstep, but if the economics of vertical potato farms don’t pan out, I’d always settle for lettuce.