They might be an efficient way to produce food in a world with more-extreme weather—but only if growers can figure out a successful business model.
Federico Marques feared the worst for his farm as he watched live coverage of Hurricane Harvey ravaging fields across the Gulf Coast and inundating every pocket of Houston.
Marques was trapped at home during Harvey and could only monitor his crops from his couch, anxiously viewing footage from the farm’s single working indoor camera. “We couldn’t get in here for four days,” Marques said as he showed me around on an unseasonably warm afternoon this November. “I’m looking at all these aerial photos and thinking, ‘Oh my God, everything is underwater.’ When we finally got back, we had 10 inches of water on the floor—but we only lost maybe 5 percent of the product. The rest was perfectly fine.”
In a way, Harvey was a test for Moonflower Farms. Founded by Marques in December 2015, it was one of the state’s very first indoor “vertical” farms—where plants are stacked in trays on shelves, instead of laid out horizontally across larger plots of land. In these high-tech structures, plants don’t rely on sunlight or soil, rainwater or pesticides, but LED lights and minerals instead. The goal of vertical farms isn’t just to save space; it’s also to find a more economical way of producing food for the growing population—and to reduce the costs and consequences of getting that food to where people actually live.
Moonflower is in an industrial area about 15 miles south of downtown Houston, tucked away inside a relatively small, unassuming white shack. The small farm is housed in a 900-square-foot room with a 14-foot ceiling. There are hot-pink lights and a small irrigation system quietly feeding 20 varieties of micro-greens, which sprout up from a mineral-based substitute for soil called vermiculite. In Marques’s growing room, everything from the temperature to the lighting to the watering schedule has been engineered to replicate conventional outdoor farming, but without all the interruptions that plague it: seasonal changes, droughts, bitter cold, fires, and, of course, floods.
Houston has developed other vertical-farm concepts in the past two years. There’s Space City Farms, a backyard aeroponic vertical garden; Dream Harvest, a hydroponic system similar to Moonflower; and Acre in a Box, a literal take on the operation housed in a shipping container.
Acre in a Box’s founders—Andrew Abendshein, who works for an oil and gas trading firm in Houston, and Ana Buckman, a Rice University languages and creative-writing instructor—had no background in agriculture when they invested $80,000 in their first shipping-container farm. Abendshein said he has long had an interest in getting fresh produce to urban food deserts and hopes to one day start moving shipping-container vertical farms into those neighborhoods. For now, though, Acre in a Box’s two farms are hidden in the parking lot of an abandoned drill-bit factory at the end of a dead-end street in Houston’s East Downtown, a few blocks from where Houston’s two largest bayous intersect.
Harvey, and the deluge it brought, are exactly the kind of scenario that vertical farms are designed to withstand. Catastrophic flooding events like Harvey are only expected to become more frequent, and threats of food and water scarcity are projected to worsen in the years to come—all as the population grows. The United Nations projects that the world’s population will be 9.8 billion by 2050, with roughly two-thirds of those people living in urban areas, which aren’t exactly conducive to large-scale farming.
To meet the growing demand for food, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that there needs to be a 50 percent increase in global agriculture production—a distinct challenge, the UN warns, in the face of climate change and the growing need for water conservation. Vertical farms present a potential solution: There is no fertilizer runoff into the groundwater, fewer CO2 emissions from delivery trucks’ long journeys, and no land to till. They require only a fraction of the acreage and use only a fraction of the water—anywhere from 90 to 97 percent less—that traditional farms do.
“We are kind of at the beginning of a revolution,” Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a graduate-school professor at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, told me. “We’re at the beginning of a very rapid development in the use of indoor controlled facilities for producing vegetables and some fruits,” he said. “No matter what happens with climate change, you still have your controlled environment.”
The technology used for these farms has been around for decades. In fact, Marques began studying it in the 1990s after learning that NASA used it to grow plants in space. But only in the last several years has interest in using the technology for urban, commercial-scale agriculture picked up. Indoor farms have recently sprouted up in old warehouses, shipping containers, and small skyscrapers in New Jersey, South Korea, Germany, India, and Dubai—places where traditional farming is either difficult or impossible due to climate, population density, or the land itself. In Houston, sprawling commercial and residential developments were built on top of a swamp, making large-scale outdoor farming virtually impossible.
Marques and I hopped in his minivan and headed about a mile away from his garden to the site of the Moonflower Farms expansion, where men in hard hats were surveying the land. The new facility doesn’t look like much yet—just a large elevated mound of dirt with metal poles sticking out of it. But by the time it’s operational, Marques plans to have a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse that he expects will churn out 1,000 pounds of produce per day—compared with the 20 pounds that his tiny facility produces now. He currently sells to a couple dozen restaurants but plans to expand to regional and national distributors and local grocers once the new facility is up and running.
The elimination of long, cross-country transports to get the produce to grocery stores means consumers wind up with fresher food. Right now, Marques said, the time from harvest to table is sometimes only a matter of hours, which means that produce arrives in better shape and then lasts longer both in the store and in people’s homes. “If we can make this work in the city of Houston and produce 1,000 pounds a day or more of product—high-quality product that has three times the shelf life—then we have a good model that we can pretty much [take] to any city in the world and replicate,” Marques said.
The new greenhouse will operate like a research-and-development facility, helping Marques perfect a prototype that interested farmers around the world can use as a template. He already knows that he’ll need to make some changes. For starters, he’s not going to rely exclusively on LED lighting as he does now; instead he will mostly use sunlight, plugging in energy-efficient lighting as a supplement—a measure that will cut costs significantly. Marques said he has already had inquiries about this model from a food distributor in Cairo, where the arid climate and heavy reliance on imported crops make the food supply unpredictable. Marques says he has also talked to strawberry growers in Norway, where thousands of metric tons of strawberries are imported every year due to the short growing season. And he has heard from cattle farmers in Brazil, where the shrinking availability of pastureland and prohibitions on razing rainforests mean that some farmers may need to import grass to feed their cows.
Cutting the costs of building and maintaining the systems themselves will be crucial as vertical farms continue to evolve, according to Henry Gordon-Smith, the co-founder of the international Association for Vertical Farming and a consultant at the New York–based firm Agritecture. As a result of high costs, Gordon-Smith said, several vertical farms in North America have failed in recent years. That’s what happened at LocalGarden, a rooftop vertical farm in Vancouver that went bankrupt in 2014, and at PodPonics, a shipping-container vertical farm in Atlanta, where high labor and technology costs were consistently undermining return on investment.
Mike Nasseri, who was the harvest supervisor at LocalGarden, said that design flaws had inflated the endeavor’s operational and energy costs to the point that the farm couldn’t make enough money. Even though the farm had started small, Nasseri said the crew decided to scale up too quickly to a commercial operation. To make matters worse, Nasseri said, the costs of the real estate in the middle of downtown Vancouver—a central location he said he would not recommend for new vertical farmers —were way too high. “That placement [in the middle of downtown] is basically the first way you can screw up,” Nasseri said.
Still, he’s a major proponent of vertical farming, primarily because of its environmental benefits. He’s now working at a startup called Ava Technologies, developing indoor “smart gardens,” essentially mini vertical farms that can fit on kitchen counters.
Gordon-Smith said the industry-wide goal going forward has to be to minimize the risk of failure, financial or otherwise, as much as possible in order to make vertical farming more accessible to the younger generation of produce growers, who have been moving steadily away from rural areas and toward cities over the past few decades. Still, he said, the failures serve as lessons for new investors as they continue to develop various types of vertical farms.
Like Marques, Abendshein, the founder of Acre in a Box, was stuck at home monitoring his produce from the couch during Harvey. But he knew he could rest assured that, as the waters raged, his produce was safe. Without land that could be ruined for an entire season, the worst that could happen, he thought, was that his farms would float away.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.