“Agriculture faces multiple challenges. Climate change is leading to more drought, flooding, and extreme heat. At the same time, as the global population grows, demand is quickly growing.”
~ Jonathan Webb per Adele Peters
Farming indoors isn’t new. The ant farms and turtle bowls we had as kids evolved in the ‘60’s into terrariums, then in the ‘70’s and later, indoor marijuana growing became popular. I’ve had a bunch of house plants for years; even shipped our favorites when we moved from Atlanta to Fairbanks. They fit in with the macrame plant hangers I briefly made as a hobby.
Nearly everyone back then kept their avocado seeds skewered with toothpicks levitating in a glass of water. The seed would sprout and a tall mini avocado tree would emerge. I don’t know of any that ever survived into real trees, though.
More recently, the big marijuana farms moved indoors to avoid the eyes of the law and the vagaries of weather and pests. Doobies laced with pesticides aren’t good for repeat sales. However, that industry created a market for all kinds of indoor growing equipment. Obviously, lighting is critical, and can be very expensive, not to mention it can attract a lot of unwanted attention. Newer systems are more easily managed and can be designed to use much less energy. Automatic watering systems with paced chemical feeds are adapted to more closely packed plant beds, and even accommodate tiered systems and shelves. Aquaponics may eliminate the need for soil, and simplify nutrient loading and pest control.
Costs tend to drive indoor farms to grow higher priced products. As with marijuana, most herbs use a small space, grow quickly and can be supplied fresh to local markets, such as restaurants. Other high-end items include some fruits and leaf vegetables.
Writer Adele Peters reports on a huge Kentucky facility, “The 2.76-million-square-foot facility, designed to grow as many as 45 million pounds of tomatoes in a year, uses far less land than traditional farms, and far less water, as it grows the food hydroponically, without soil. It doesn’t require pesticides … it relies mostly on natural light, saving energy.”
Practically, farming is about using nature to provide the food we need to live. As population increases, food production has to increase beyond ‘natural’ limits and become more ‘production’ oriented. The giant midwestern farms are already largely industrial — using fertilizers and pesticides to supplement and exceed nature. Labor is mechanized by various mechanical equipment, and monitoring can be done via electronic sensors, drones or satellites and computers.
Peters continues, “Soil is another challenge, as agriculture is now depleting fertile topsoil so quickly that it could be gone in 60 years.” Per AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb, “When we talk about other extractive industries, the one thing we’re not talking enough about is what we’re extracting from our soils, and how badly we’re degrading those soils to a point to whether or not they’re fertile.”
Backyard gardeners can commiserate. I constantly compost kitchen and yard waste to turn into my garden beds every spring. I mostly avoid fertilizers and try to never use pesticide, but growing the meager veggies I plant is a struggle. It’s certainly nowhere near enough to supply my family of two with food for the year.
Even with all the food production industrialization, the one factor that confounds us, of course, is the weather. Ask a farmer about climate change and see if they feel that’s something they can work around. Maybe climate shifts will open up new regions for farming at the rate it depletes others; however, expanding farming into new areas may take time and require the disruptive relocation of farming communities.
Of course, for any given year, we’re not sure if climate change means warmer weather, wildfires and drought or worse winters, storms and flooding. While it may be hard to relocate a 1000-acre farm, moving an indoor industrial operation may be much easier, if it is even necessary.
Peters quotes Webb, “Our big picture thesis is that most all fruit and vegetable production at scale, globally, will end up being grown in a controlled environment.”
Maybe it’s time to invest in grow lights.
Adele Peters, This State-of-the-Art Indoor Farm is Transforming Appalachia Into an Agricultural Powerhouse, 01-19-21, Fast Company