In a bright greenhouse about an hour outside of Dallas, workers wearing hairnets and gloves place lettuce and other vegetables into small plastic containers, hundreds of thousands of which are stacked to the ceiling. Weeks later, once the vegetables reach full size, they are picked, packed and shipped to local shelves within 48 hours.
That’s Eden Green Technology, one of the latest in a wave of indoor farming companies seeking fortunes with green factories designed to produce fresh produce year-round. The company operates two greenhouses and has broken ground on two more at its Cleburne campus, indoor facilities designed to protect part of the food supply from the impacts of climate change while reducing water and land use.
But only if the concept works. Even as competitors falter and fail, players in the industry are betting big. California-based Plenty Unlimited broke ground on a $300 million facility this summer, while Kroger announced it would expand its produce vertical. Meanwhile, two indoor farming companies that attracted significant amounts of startup capital—New Jersey’s AeroFarms and Kentucky’s AppHarvest—filed for bankruptcy reorganization. Planted Detroit, a five-year-old Detroit company, collapsed this summer, with its CEO citing financial problems just months after announcing plans to open a second farm.
The loss of the industry doesn’t faze Eden Green grower Jacob Portillo, who leads a plant health team that monitors irrigation, nutrients and other factors related to crop needs.
“The fact is, other people have failed, other people have succeeded, and that happens in any industry you’re in, but especially for us, I think especially we’re trying to be sustainable, I think sustainable The competitors are going to start winning,” he said.
Indoor farming is growing indoors, which experts sometimes call “controlled environment farming.” There are different methods; vertical farming involves stacking produce from floor to ceiling, often under artificial light, and plants growing in nutrient-rich water. Other growers are experimenting with industrial-scale greenhouses, indoor soil beds in large warehouses, and special robots to mechanize parts of the farming process.
Supporters say indoor growing uses less water and land and allows food to be grown closer to consumers, saving on transportation. It’s also a way to protect crops from increasingly extreme weather caused by climate change. These companies often claim that their products are pesticide-free, although they are often not marketed as organic.
But skeptics question the sustainability of operations requiring energy-intensive artificial light. They say paying for the lights could make it impossible to make a profit.
Tom Kimmerer, a plant physiologist who teaches at the University of Kentucky, has followed indoor farming while studying outdoor and indoor plant growth. He said his first thought about vertical farming startups, especially ones that rely heavily on artificial light, was, “Oh my gosh, this is a stupid idea” — mostly because of the high energy costs.
The industry has acknowledged these high costs. Some companies are looking to reduce costs by relying on solar energy, which they say also supports sustainable development. Even those businesses that rely most heavily on artificial light from non-renewable sources insist they can eventually turn a profit by producing large amounts of produce year-round.
But Kimmeler believes there are better ways to provide food locally and extend the outdoor growing season. He noted that Elmwood Ranch outside of Lexington, Ky., is an organic-oriented farm that can grow tomatoes and vegetables year-round using tools like high tunnels, also known as “hoop houses” — similar to greenhouses. of arches that can provide shelter for crops while still being partially open to the outdoors.
He believes the investment flowing into new indoor agriculture would be better spent on practical solutions for outdoor farmers, such as weed-killing robots, or even climate solutions, such as subsidizing farmers to adopt regenerative practices.
Moving agriculture indoors can solve some pest problems, but it can also create new ones. Hannah Burrack, an ecologist at Michigan State University who specializes in pest management, said smaller creatures such as aphids, thrips and spider mites can become pests if not actively managed. Very difficult to control.
“If you create the perfect environment for plants, in many cases you also create the perfect environment for pests to grow,” Brack said.
Indoor farming companies have responded to this problem by emphasizing high levels of hygiene; Eden Green, for example, advertises “laboratory conditions” on its website and says workers monitor greenhouses closely to catch any pests immediately. They also say vertical farms actually require fewer pesticides than outdoor farms, reducing their environmental impact.
Evan Lucas, an associate professor in the Department of Construction Management at Northern Michigan University who teaches students about proper infrastructure design for indoor farms, said he is not concerned about the ongoing shuffle. He said some companies may be struggling to expand because of the problems associated with operating in spaces not necessarily built specifically for indoor farming.
“My guess is, based on what’s going on, everyone sees an opportunity and starts trying to do a lot of things very quickly,” Lucas said.
Some companies say they are on the right track. Eden Green CEO Eddy Badrina said the company has found a way to allow plants to rely primarily on natural light. Plenty CEO Arama Kukutai said the company’s lighting systems are efficient enough to make the company profitable. Soli Organic CEO Matt Ryan said growing indoors in soil gives the company a better product than growing in water.
Plenty received a major vote of confidence last year when Walmart participated in a $400 million investment round also aimed at bringing the company’s products into its stores.
But Curt Covington, senior director of institutional operations at AgAmerica Lending, a private investment manager and lender focused on agricultural land, isn’t convinced that indoor farming operations are feasible — unless a major retailer partners with greenhouses, such as Walmart. and many, or can serve as a form of socially conscious venture capital to fund urban and vertical farming operations that benefit communities.
“Given the capital intensity of this type of business, it’s difficult to achieve high profits,” Covington said.