Jeff Helgerson, mechanical technical manager, recently represented Henderson Engineers at Indoor Ag-Con, a conference for professionals in indoor and vertical farming along with controlled environment agriculture (CEA) that was held on February 27 – 28, 2023, at Caesars Forum in Las Vegas. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the event and saw attendance double in size from 2022.
Jeff returned from Henderson’s second trip to Indoor Ag-Con with the following key takeaways on the future of the CEA industry:
Last year proved to be challenging for the CEA industry. Contributing factors to these challenges included workforce reductions for growers as well as closures caused by the tightening of spending policies in the United States and across the globe. Additionally, the industry as whole has begun to exit the Silicon Valley “hype cycle,” where many CEA companies were more focused on trying to be “tech” companies instead of fruit and vegetable producers.
Both the evolution and growth of CEA make a well-designed (and appropriately designed) mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) system even more crucial. Not only can avoiding oversize and unnecessary items lower first costs, but more efficient systems can improve overall output as well as lower operating costs.
Moving forward, we will likely see a continued trend of consolidation of growers into a smaller number of companies. On top of this, companies will be under increased pressure to reduce expenditures and begin to turn a profit to justify additional financing from more traditional financial institutions instead of relying on venture capital. One way this might be accomplished is by focusing on what consumers want as well as attempting to utilize more “off the shelf” components in lieu of spending large amounts of capital on research and development (R&D) to try and build their own.
Additionally, companies will need to focus on improving the efficiency of their growing operations to reduce unit costs. This may involve automating both repetitive and labor-intensive tasks as well as focusing on operating more like manufacturing facilities. Long-term gains from properly designed and implemented building systems (HVAC especially) can also contribute to lower operating costs via energy reductions, increased crop yields, and reduced waste/spoilage.
The future will likely not see a single “winning” grow style. For some areas and crops, traditional greenhouses (possible with some light supplementation such as root warming systems) will be more desirable and profitable, while in other areas, vertical or stacked farms with full temperature and humidity control will prove to be a superior option. The next several years will likely see more of this “right sizing” in the industry.
One potential (and potentially large) change that will emerge from indoor agriculture is the ability to use updated genetics for the plants we consume. More localized indoor farms will reduce the shipping distance and times for products within the US especially. This will open the door for new fruit and produce varieties that are more focused on the consumer and their tastes. Possibilities include vegetables with better flavor profiles but thinner skins or sweeter strawberries like those enjoyed in parts of Europe, which don’t ship as well as the kinds commonly seen in the United States.
With the potential for a broader variety of genetics for the plants being grown, the importance of having a temperature and humidity control system that can maintain the space at broader ranges also increases. Along with that, having an engineer who understands how to design and select the equipment necessary for a more variable environment also becomes key to successful facility design.
HVAC is Key
A recurring theme of the conference was the need for production-related cost reductions in indoor farms. One notable area that could provide potential cost savings is HVAC as it can account for 25 to 50 percent of the electrical usage of the facility. Because of the short and large long-term impact of HVAC systems, utilizing engineering firms with a history in these facilities is critical to both decreasing cost and achieving a sustainable business model. Prior knowledge in this area can reduce capital expenditure costs by avoiding oversizing of systems and construction delays/rework from issues with the plans as well as decreasing ongoing operating expenditures
Henderson Knows HVAC
Henderson designs HVAC and mechanical systems that balance comfort, cost, efficiency, and aesthetics. Our approach is grounded in fundamentals and in physics. It’s a process that’s helped us to create thousands of places for people to thrive over the years, and it’s one that we’re excited to share with you on your next project.
Henderson Knows CEA
Modern farming has evolved into its own technology-driven industry. Henderson Engineers knows the intricacies of designing building systems to meet the optimal conditions for growing healthy plants and making operations efficient for owners. We design each system customized to our clients’ needs in managing drainage, temperature and humidity control, water reclamation, and other critical systems to maintain optimal conditions for the plants within.
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