As an electrical engineer in a family with farmers, it’s interesting to observe the innovations currently happening in agriculture. The controlled environment agriculture industry is quickly establishing itself as an important part of the future of farming.
I come from a generation where some food at the grocery store was truly seasonal. Produce had short windows of availability, according to each fruit and vegetable’s natural climate. When that season passed, you didn’t see it on the shelves again until the same time the next year. At home, we froze the strawberries and pickled the cucumbers that we grew in our home garden to enjoy for months. My mother was ahead of the curve when it came to organic produce, so in lieu of herbicides, she used the labor of her mischievous only son to remove weeds from the strawberry patch and the garden. Nowadays, walk into your local supermarket and you can find a vast selection of all types of produce, including exotic finds like dragon fruit, star fruit, and papayas that I couldn’t even imagine seeing as a kid. The variety is incredible, but is it sustainable?
Fast forward to today in a world experiencing a late chapter of a global pandemic, bookended by rising inflation and climate change, yet society is hopeful and determined. The pandemic exacerbated a delicate balance in our supply chain. These supply chain issues caused farmers to plow under entire harvests’ worth of crops and dump tens of thousands of gallons of milk onto the ground. Climate change has accelerated the need for innovation and sustainability in farming to maintain a food supply that supports the earth’s inhabitants without further damaging its precious ecosystem. Sriracha and coffee have recently been added to the list of products that are being significantly impacted by climate change and shortages are projected for both products. Rising labor and operational costs in the farming industry caused prices to rise, creating pressure on households. Global conflicts like the war in Ukraine prevent export of essential food products to countries that will experience famine without these food crop exports.
Controlled environment agriculture is going to be one sector of the agriculture industry that brings a whole host of benefits–access, stability, affordability, and frankly, better flavor—to the fresh produce section of the grocery store. It’s an amalgam of engineering, technological integration, horticulture, climate science, and agriculture.
By mimicking ideal conditions for growing plants, this opens the door for a fresher relationship with food while mitigating some negative impacts to the environment. Take the Palisade peach, for example. Colorado’s hot, dry days and cool, crisp nights are the ideal environment to grow these sweet peaches. Unless you’re from around here, chances are you probably haven’t had one. To grow this same peach outdoors in New York City or Wisconsin is practically impossible and the resulting taste would be different due to the local climate conditions. Imagine being able to enjoy the best of each crop – like Maine blueberries or your favorite wine grape – no matter where you live in the world, because we’re able to replicate the climate conditions that make that produce the best of its kind. It also becomes more economically viable as the storage and transportation costs are significantly decreased.
This does not mean that indoor agriculture should replace outdoor farming and put small acreage family farmers like my uncle Todd out of business. On the contrary, the biodiversity is essential to the health of the planet and our food system, and we are still years from perfecting the growth of fruit and nut trees indoors. Being able to grow accessible, consistent, and delicious produce, helps create redundancy in the event of a catastrophic crop failure due to disease, pests, drought, etc. As noted, some plants aren’t ideally suited in their current form for indoor farming and will require selective breeding or genetic optimization for the indoor environment. Selective breeding is an intensive process that takes much longer to achieve the preferred genetic profile. This approach is seen as a more socially acceptable way to ultimately arrive at a genetically modified plant type. Genetic modification done in a lab setting is a much quicker process to get results such as reduced plant height so more tiers can be grown in a 40’ tall warehouse. However, genetic modification comes with negative connotations thanks to historical GMO’s that were designed to resist powerful herbicides and appeared to impact the nutritional value of at least some of the genetically modified produce.
For the majority, simply reducing the transportation time between plant and person opens the door to what’s possible. Fresher, healthier foods and creating avenues for local economies to thrive are some benefits. Facilities in urban or suburban areas allows new industries to emerge. Because there is not a single blueprint for these facilities, growers can collaborate with their engineers and architects to determine the optimal design for their crops. These building systems can also integrate with other local industries and foster a connectedness among small businesses. For example, a major component to indoor farming is the introduction of CO2 to support large scale crop growth. It’s possible to reclaim CO2 from other industry’s processes, like ethanol from fermentation in microbreweries, to then support the growth of indoor crops. I would toast to that!
As a visionary, I see that the world is our oyster when it comes to indoor agriculture. Or perhaps more appropriately, it’s our Palisade peach or our Maine blueberry. Consulting engineers like me are ushering in the next generation of agriculture and collaborating with growers to determine the right fit of equipment they need for their buildings and crops. I’m ready to grow this industry.
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