Big-city startups that grow produce in vertical farms have been popping up from Brooklyn to Silicon Valley for years. Yet urban farming remains a niche industry that has small operations despite its environmental credibility.
Now, a crop of these “ag tech” startups are poised to expand, thanks to advanced technologies—including artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics—and big-pocketed investors.
The Benefits and Challenges of Urban Farming
The environmental benefits of cultivating fruits and vegetables in climate-controlled indoor spaces with artificial light are clear: The practice takes a fraction of the water used in conventional farming; it eliminates the need for pesticides; and it puts an end to the emissions and food waste from trucks traveling thousands of miles to deliver less-than-fresh produce. Moreover, because vertical farming uses very little land, it could play an important role in feeding the world’s growing population.
The challenges mainly come down to cost and particularly labor, which has made it difficult to keep prices competitive. Vertical farming requires workers to climb several stories to retrieve heavy trays, creating efficiency issues as well as safety hazards. To solve this problem, at least two urban farming startups are using robots to reduce labor costs and streamline everything from planting and harvesting to pest and disease management.
One example is New York–based Bowery Farming, which recently raised $50 million from investors (on top of $90 million in 2018) and opened its largest farm yet in Baltimore. The other is Pittsburgh’s Fifth Season, which came out of its quiet period in September 2019 with $35 million in funding and plans to build its first commercial-scale farm in a former steel mill and then expand in stages to other similarly sized cities throughout the US.
The Growth of Vertical Farms
Brooklyn’s Gotham Greens, which uses sensors for precise water control and a closed-loop irrigation system in its hydroponic farming, said in December 2019 that it would build a 100,000-square-foot farm in a former warehouse in Baltimore, the company’s fourth market.
Another Brooklyn-based hydroponic grower, Square Roots, opened a Michigan-based farm in September 2019, its first after partnering with Gordon Food Service in an effort to expand across North America. Co-founded by Kimbal Musk, Square Roots creates high-tech vertical farms in shipping containers, making the model easily replicable. One of its “super farms,” comprising 25 climate-controlled containers, can be built in less than three months, the company claims.
Still, not all expansion plans come to fruition. Plenty, a Silicon Valley startup that has raised $226 million, recently shelved plans to open a huge Seattle-area farm. Plenty does its growing in tall towers using thousands of infrared cameras and sensors to collect data, which is analyzed using machine learning. The company said the Washington facility could no longer accommodate its next-generation vertical farm because the new design is too tall, so it planned to focus its growth closer to home.
“As a relatively lean company, we had to make a decision about where we were going to put our focus,” Christina Ra, Senior Director of Integrated Marketing, told GeekWire.