Image courtesy of Princeton University

Vertical farming got a lot of attention at the very end of 2018, from Bowery’s $90 million funding round to news of major corporations starting their own farms.

But amid all those numbers and names, one vital piece of information was (and is) missing: We don’t actually know how well the vertical farming market as a whole is doing — if it’s on track to reach its projected $13 billion marketshare by 2024, and if the concept is even as promising a food source as the headlines would have you believe.

That’s where universities come in to play — Princeton University, to be exact. The Princeton Vertical Farming Project (PVFP) researches what the most optimal growing conditions are for indoor farming and how to produce the best crop yield while using the fewest amount of resources (e.g., water, electricity). Led by Paul P.G. Gauthier, an associate research scholar in plant physiology and environmental plant metabolism, PVFP also wants to provide a model for other initiatives and companies by releasing data on their experiments about what works in vertical farming, and what doesn’t.

“I just wanted to study and provide data,” Gauthier said in a phone interview. “Yes, we’re putting [farms] indoors. We never talk about where the waste water is going, how we get the water. Is it really worth it?”

If you’re a startup operating under the pressure of turning a profit, that’s a scary question. However, Gauthier and his PVFP team are free of that burden, so they can afford to ask questions and conduct more experiments: whether that’s trying to grow wheat or questioning the very value of, say, hydroponics, the current darling of the vertical farming startup scene. “It seems that hydroponic would be more efficient, but that’s never really been proven that that’s true,” says Gauthier. The industry as a whole tends to claim things that aren’t, he says, necessarily backed up by data.

The answer, as he sees it, is open-source vertical farming. That is, turning current data about vertical farming into a framework other projects and startups can use to guide their own efforts in the space. Gauthier would like to see PVFP provide an open-source model for vertical farming so the industry can start to answer some of those tough questions and gain a better understanding of the future.

Tied to that ideal is also the need for data to tell us about the not-so-successful stories. For every AeroFarms out there, there are others who go under for various reasons: operational costs, failure to break even, etc. We know very little, for example, about why Chicago-based startup FarmedHere shuttered in 2017. But the answer could help other vertical farming companies operate more successfully.

Gauthier agrees: “A lot of the small companies have something to tell, and we should hear their story.”

He’s quick to point out, though, that even with more robust data to learn from, vertical farming shouldn’t be treated as a savior come to end world hunger. “There’s really a lot of possibility and a lot of strategy, but it’s important to put everything into a context,” he says. Right now, leafy greens and cannabis are the most successful crops grown in vertical farms; neither make for a meal by themselves, particularly when you look at them in the context of food-insecure populations who need higher-calorie food as fuel.

That said, Gauthier does believe there’s a place in our agricultural future for vertical farming. “It will save us space,” he explains. “And eventually in the future, some of the space we’re using for [traditional] agriculture we can restore to forestry and improve biodiversity.” And initiatives like PVFP can also help train a new generation of labor to understand the science and process behind caring for plants, especially in this indoor context.

Right now, PVFP is working towards realizing that open-source model mentioned above, though no data is currently available publicly as of yet. Currently, the project fuels student theses at Princeton, and the greens produced by their experiments are making their way around campus eating establishments, most notably at the Terrance F. Club, one of Princeton’s dining clubs. PVFP would like to eventually supply all of the school’s dining outposts with vertically farmed greens.

There remains a lot of debate around the merits of vertical farming. I could write a 95-page opus on the complexities of the space, and how it’s neither a worrying distraction nor the robot-manned future of indoor agriculture, and instead lies somewhere in between those two extremes. But I don’t have to: research initiatives like PVFP — not to mention a growing number of others, including University of Arizona and Cornell University — are already delving deep into those complexities as they harness data that gets to the heart of vertical farming’s real value.

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