Indoor Farming’s Bright Lights

The Lempert Report
February 24, 2021

In Niagra, Canada there is a one-million-pound green leaf lettuce vertical farming facility owned by a company called Elevate Farms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says urban farming increases food security at a time of rising inflation and limited global supplies. Here in North America, produce output is concentrated in Mexico, the U.S. Southwest and California, which, as we have seen over the past couple decades is prone to wildfires, droughts and other severe weather as a direct result to climate change.

During the pandemic, investments in global indoor farms totaled $394 million in 2020, AgFunder research head Louisa Burwood-Taylor reported; and the reason is simple. Indoor farms are now also positioning themselves as one of the solutions to pandemic-induced disruptions to the harvesting, shipping, and sale of food. And experts like Joe Crotty, director of corporate finance at investment bank KPMG, which advises vertical farms say we haven’t seen anything yet. He told Reuters that a big funding acceleration lies ahead, “The real ramp-up is the next three to five years,” Crotty said. Vegetables grown in vertical farms or greenhouses are still just a fraction of overall production. U.S. sales of food crops grown under cover, including tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, amounted to 790 million pounds in 2019, up 50% from 2014, according to the USDA. California’s outdoor head lettuce production alone was nearly four times larger, at 2.9 billion pounds. As the indoor farming industry grows, so is the scope of the farms themselves. According to Fast Company, a new series of projects will build multistory greenhouses directly inside affordable housing developments.“Bringing the farm back to the city center can have a lot of benefits,” Nona Yehia, CEO of Vertical Harvest, told the magazine.

Vertical Harvest is a company that will soon break ground on a new building in Westbrook, Maine, that combines a vertical farm with affordable housing. Similar developments will follow in Chicago and in Philadelphia, where a farm-plus-housing will be built in the Tioga District, an opportunity zone. “I think what we’ve truly understood in the past year and a half—although we’ve been rooted in it all along—is that we have in this country converging economic, climate, and health crises that are rooted in people’s access to healthy food, resilient, nourishing jobs, and fair housing,” Yehia says. “And we saw this as an urban redevelopment tool that has the potential to address all three.” The company launched in 2015 on a vacant lot in Jackson, Wyoming, aiming in part to create jobs for people with physical and developmental disabilities in the area. In 2019, it got a contract from Fannie Mae to explore how its greenhouses could help with the challenge of food security and nutrition, studying how a farm could be integrated into an existing affordable housing development in Chicago as a model for new projects. As the company expands to other cities, it will also create new jobs for people who might have otherwise had difficulty finding work, working with local stakeholders to identify underserved populations. “Part of this is providing healthy, nutritious food,” Yehia says, “but also jobs at livable wages. We’re positioning all of our firms to address the new minimum wage level of $15 an hour with a path towards career development.”

Inside each building, the ground level will offer community access, while the greenhouse fills the second, third, and fourth floors, covering 70,000 square feet and growing around a million pounds of produce a year. The amount of housing varies by site. In Chicago, there may be a community kitchen on the first level. In each location, residents will be able to buy fresh produce on-site; Vertical Harvest also plans to let others in the neighborhood buy greens directly from the farm. While it will sell to supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, and other large customers, it also plans to subsidize 10-15% of its harvest for local food pantries and other community organizations.  “By creating a large-scale farm in a food desert we are creating a large source of healthy, locally grown food 365 days a year,” she says. It’s a plan that supermarket chains should be watching very carefully and emulate.