Last year I noted a vertical farming project, Fifth Season, in Braddock, Pennsylvania (that’s where Oz-slaying Senator-Elect John Fetterman was mayor!) as an example of the innovative agricultural practices South Dakota could promote to diversify and green its food production. Skeptics may wish to cite a new article in Wired noting that Infarm, Europe’s biggest vertical farming company, is laying off workers, scaling back operations, and struggling to stay afloat due to rising electricity costs:
According to Cindy van Rijswick, a strategist at the Dutch research firm RaboResearch, several pressures that have always existed for vertical farms have really come to a head in 2022. For starters, the industry is extremely vulnerable to increases in electricity prices. Powering all of those plant-growing LEDs uses a lot of electricity, and between December 2020 and July 2022 consumer energy prices in the EU went up by nearly 58 percent. Eighteen months ago, European vertical farms might have spent around 25 percent of their operational costs on electricity, but that might have gone up to around 40 percent, estimates van Rijswick [Matt Reynolds, “Vertical Farming Has Found Its Fatal Flaw,” Wired, 2022.12.22].
Vertical farms also aren’t showing advantages in greenhouse-gas emissions, since they need all that power from the fossil-fuel-burning grid:
For a long time the industry has touted itself as a more sustainable way to grow vegetables, but all the energy needed to light up those LED bulbs means that vegetables grown on vertical farms can end up having higher CO2 emissionsthan those grown in open fields and trucked hundreds of miles to their final destination. In a world where all electricity is generated by renewables, those emissions would be much lower, but that’s not the world we’re living in right now [Reynolds, 2022.12.22].
However—that’s the next word: However:
However, vertical farms use a lot less water and pesticides than open fields, which is another reason why water-stressed regions are so interested in the technology [Reynolds, 2022.12.22].
In order to create an optimal indoor farming environment, Fifth Season needs to ensure affordable, clean and reliable power.
The microgrid at Fifth Season utilizes a combination of solar, battery, and a dispatchable generator outfitted with advanced emissions control technology.
The solar panels used on this project have a peel and stick application that doesn’t require a frame or mounting equipment. This unique technical feature makes for extremely light construction by eliminating the need to make structural changes to existing roofs [Scale Microgrid Solutions, press release, 2022.09.15].
There are plenty of practical obstacles to widespread adoption of vertical farming. But if we can develop the technology to affordably overcome those obstacles, vertical farming and other large-scale indoor crop-production systems can withstand the climate-change vagaries of worsening weather and keep food on the world’s tables. Consider this example from Australia:
But for Barden Farms, in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, about 100 kilometres west of Brisbane, the investment in protective cropping has paid off.
When floods swept through the region early this year, some farms were out of action for months.
But national manager Nathan Clackson said workers were able to get into its greenhouse just days after flooding in Gatton to harvest crops including basil and Asian greens.
The greenhouse, he said, had been the most consistent part of the business in the past 12 months.
“This year, we had massive orders from some customers because their regular suppliers fell over,” he said.
“They couldn’t compete in the winter” [David Chen, “Vertical Farms, Indoor Crops a Growing Trend as Climate Change Drives Advances in Protected Farming,” ABC (Australia) News, 2022.12.05].
I still see opportunity for South Dakota to get in on the ground floor of future agriculture. We have lots of renewable energy potential, lots of food production and engineering experts, lots of affordable real estate where we could experiment with building resilient indoor farms. Farmers, researchers, think vertical!