Vertical Farm Start-Ups Flourish

Eilene Zimmerman reported in today’s New York Times that, “Dan Albert’s farm is far from traditional. There are no picturesque, rolling fields, no tractors tilling soil; there is no white farmhouse or red barn. For that matter, there is no soil, or sunlight.

“The farm, Farmbox Greens, is inside a two-car garage behind Mr. Albert’s Seattle home. It consists of 600 square feet of microgreens grown in vertically stacked trays beneath LED lights.

The ability to grow in such a small space is the result of hydroponics, a system in which a plant’s roots sit in nutrient-rich water instead of soil.”

The article explained that, “Microgreens — the first, tiny greens on plants like arugula, radishes and bok choy — can go from seed to harvest in less than two weeks. That enables Farmbox Greens to compete on price against produce delivered from far away.

“‘We are fresher and our greens last 20 to 30 percent longer than those grown outside the area,’ said Mr. Albert, who co-owns the farm with his wife, Lindsay Sidlauskas.

It has revenue of under $500,000, but was profitable enough in 2014 that Mr. Albert quit his day job as a landscape architect to farm full time. He now has three employees and sells his greens to about 50 restaurants in the Seattle area, a local grocery chain and four weekly farmers’ markets.”

Today’s Times article noted that, “Vertical farming uses no chemical pesticides and far less water and fertilizer than traditional farms, but energy costs can be high;” and added that, “Investment in food and agriculture technology start-ups was $4.6 billion in 2015, nearly double what it was in 2014, according to AgFunder, an online investment platform for the agricultural technology industry. And local foods generated $11.7 billion in sales in 2014, which is predicted to increase to $20.2 billion by 2019, according to the consumer market research firm Packaged Facts.”

Such setups are also labor-intensive, with multiple systems requiring constant monitoring, in addition to harvesting and packing. A peer-reviewed survey of commercial aquaponics operations conducted in 2013 found that fewer than one-third of farms were profitable in the previous year,” the article said.

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