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Stephen Riccardi shows off hydroponically-grown butterhead lettuce at Sustainable Aqua Farms, in Berlin, Rensselaer County, N.Y. The firm's 3.5 acres of greenhouse space is an example of the many new types of controlled environment agriculture that are becoming popular throughout the U.S.

Natural disasters and extreme weather triggered by climate change present major challenges for feeding a hungry world whose global population is growing rapidly.

A panel of experts recently discussed how controlled-environment agriculture — which spans greenhouse production, vertical farming and urban agriculture — can play a role in filling this need as the century unfolds.

The webinar was held April 14 as part of the Cornell Business Impact Symposium.

“I think CEA has a bright future,” said Henry Gordon-Smith, founder and CEO of Brooklyn, New York-based Agritecture. “The fundamentals of climate change and consumer demand for quality are in our favor. As a sector, growth will be most dramatic in regions where drivers for vertical farms, greenhouses and growing indoors, pesticide free with reduced water, are going to make the biggest difference.”

His firm advises and provides data, strategy and farm design services, mostly related to controlled-environment growing, to 130 clients in 26 countries.

Farming Outside the Box

Vertical farming’s main goal is producing as much food as possible per square meter. Growing techniques are similar to those used in greenhouse production, but instead of one level, food is grown in stacked layers in a shipping container or building.

“There are a lot of benefits to vertical farming because essentially we can put them anywhere,” said Shireen Santosham, head of strategic initiatives at Plenty, which runs a vertical farm in San Francisco.

Plenty saw demand for its products triple over the past year.

“COVID actually helped make the business case around vertical farming and CEA agriculture in general much more clear,” Santosham said. “It’s proving that we do need more local production. It really matters in times like this.”

Paul Sellew, founder and CEO of Little Leaf Farms in Devens, Massachusetts, said he’s a big believer in food production near population centers, where land, water, energy and labor are often in short supply.

“Doing business in cities is very expensive,” Sellew said. “If you’re 20 to 40 miles outside, real estate is much cheaper and you can select the kind of energy you want to use. We’re tied to solar fields.”

Little Leaf has 10 acres of greenhouses a few miles from Boston’s outer beltway.

“If you can get the yields — which drive the cost of production — you can compete against the West Coast growers using what nature gives us for free,” Sellew said. “There’s a lot of rain and sunlight in the Northeast. Greenhouses are completely designed for using the sun. That means you can minimize supplemental grow lights and thereby the carbon footprint. Also, you can capture rainwater on the roof.”

Growing Close to Consumers

AeroFarms opened its first growing location in 2009 at a charter school in Newark, New Jersey. The goal was to educate students, who had little access to fresh food, about agriculture. The company now has farms in several other states and abroad.

“Whether it’s in a city, suburb or rural area, we’re trying to feed the most mouths as efficiently as possible,” said Alina Zolotareva, the company’s marketing director.

Zolotareva studied nutritional dietetics at Cornell and was always interested in how food affects public health.

“I really saw this as the future of food,” she said of controlled-environment growing. “I saw the research and development in downtown Newark, and something clicked. I haven’t looked back since. It’s been super exciting to see AeroFarms and the industry grow.”

Idealism aside, companies have to make some practical decisions before they invest in indoor growing, Gordon-Smith said.

They should decide whether to focus on experimentation, profit, education or crop variety. They need to find a location close to consumers, and get energy and labor at a reasonable price.

And of course, they need to choose a product that people will want.

“It has to be the right crop in the right condition for that crop to be bought consistently,” Gordon-Smith said.

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