Sustainability Environment

This is where the food of the future will be grown

a photo of vertical farming
AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey is growing produce indoors in a vertical arrangement. Getty

Story at a glance

  • Indoor vertical farms are expanding across the country.
  • It still costs more to raise produce inside than out, but prices are dropping, and some indoor farms are profitable.
  • Yields can be up to 350 times outdoor equivalents, with substantial savings in water, pesticides and food miles.

On a cold, blustery day while bare tree branches sway in the winter wind, vibrant, leafy salad greens packed with nutrition and bursting with flavor are flourishing at FreshBox Farms, an indoor vertical farm — where it doesn’t matter what the weather is outside — in Millis, Massachusetts, about 30 miles southwest of Boston.

With the world’s growing population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sees indoor vertical farms — which can operate year-round — as having potential in addressing food security. In a vertical farm, crops are grown in vertically stacked layers to save space and in a climate-controlled system to optimize growing conditions.

FreshBox Farms, which has been operating since 2015, joins a growing number of indoor vertical farms that have been sprouting up in recent years and spanning the country. These include 80 Acres Farm in Cincinnati,  which claims to be the world’s first fully automated indoor farm, all the way to the West Coast, where kale, tatsoi, beet leaves, arugula and mizuna greens thrive at the California-based Plenty.

For many consumers like Maria Quintas-Herron of Mechanicsville, Virginia, produce grown at indoor vertical farms is desirable, but needs to be pocketbook-friendly. Quintas-Herron is an avid runner who appreciates the value of good nutrition to fuel her runs, but she says, “I would love nothing more than to be able to always go for the best, most natural, organic products available. But at the end of the day my budget dictates: cheaper is preferable.”

A report in AgFunder Network Partners estimates that it is “3 to 5 times more costly to grow in a vertical farm compared to conventional farming.”

However, Crop One Holdings — the platform under which FreshBox Farms’ brand falls — reports that technology is reducing costs and that the product is competitive as a result. “Crop One now has accumulated the largest database in vertical farming – a critical basis for AI/predictive agriculture,” says a company spokesperson in an interview with Changing America. “The company has invested in best-in-class plant science, software and control systems that control plant growth to generate the best outcomes – increased yields and reduced costs.”

In fact, Crop One says the success of its profitable farm in the Boston area is why it will expand across the globe, growing in Dubai in 2020. “The $40 million joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering will be the world’s largest vertical farming facility — a 130,000 square-foot controlled environment that will produce three U.S. tons daily of high-quality leafy greens at capacity,” reports a company spokesperson.

Headquartered in the Silicon Valley region of California, Plenty, like the other indoor vertical farms across the country, uses technology and science to nurture rows of hydroponic greens. Robots assist in the farming process while layers of produce from floor-to-ceiling are lit by LED lights. According to the company’s website, “Plenty’s vertical farms grow crops up 20-foot towers, achieving yields up to 350 times that of the most productive outdoor equivalent.” Here’s a link to a Plenty company video for an inside look.

These indoor vertical farms may be crucial in fulfilling a key tenet of urban resilience, which is strengthening local food production. “Generally, fresh produce grown in vertical farms travels only a few miles to reach grocery store shelves compared to conventional produce, which can travel thousands of miles by truck or plane,” states the USDA’s website

This is important, because according to the USDA, by 2050, “two out of every three people are expected to live in urban areas. Producing fresh greens and vegetables close to these growing urban populations could help meet growing global food demands in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way by reducing distribution chains to offer lower emissions, providing higher-nutrient produce, and drastically reducing water usage and runoff.”

FreshBox Farms adds that because their produce is grown in sealed, climate-controlled rooms, the result is a fraction of the pathogen risk compared to conventional outdoor farming. A company spokesman says, “Vertical farming is how we safeguard crops from weather volatility and from pathogen spread such as the romaine e-coli contamination. Greens grown at FreshBox Farms have 1/600th the bacteria of washed, field-grown greens. Its grow units use 18,000 gallons of water per year — in order to grow the same amount in the field, a farmer would require 46 million gallons of water.”

And the food simply tastes better, according to Plenty, which promotes produce with “zero pesticides and just-picked, cravable flavor” while supporting the local economy and teaching kids to eat healthier: “When kids grow up with access to delicious vegetables, they learn to eat healthier, a habit that will stay with them all their lives.”

Helping the community eat healthier is why Mark Lilly started Farm to Family CSA/The FarmBus, based in the Richmond, Virginia, area, with the mission of distributing food from local, sustainable farms. Lilly doesn’t think indoor vertical farms will replace outdoor agriculture. “Because you can only grow a certain number of things in indoor farms,” he says. “You have to have outdoor space for certain varieties, like pumpkins and watermelons which take a lot of space. You have to have pollination and organic, dense, nutrient-based soil.”

Lilly says the food tastes different when grown outdoors. “You’ve got the natural sunlight. You’ve got the natural air.” As far as the different types of farming, Lilly says, “We’re all part of the whole. It doesn’t matter who’s growing what, where. It all needs to be done.”