Sunlight traditionally provides the energy for photosynthesis, and plant growth varies based on exposure to different wavelengths on the light spectrum. Aeroponics farms rely instead on LED light, which can mimic sunlight. This allows the farms to control plant size, texture, and even taste by emitting a plant’s preferred wavelength. “We look at all the organoleptic properties, like smell and taste,” says Oshima. “Our high bar is that no salad dressing is needed. People are enjoying the greens by themselves.” According to Oshima, what excites buyers is that “they feel like their palates have been woken up again.” In collaboration with local chefs, Oshima is asking, “How do we make the arugula more peppery, or the mustard greens with more heat, the romaine more sweet yet still crunchy?” Experimentation with these questions is made possible by an LED-controlled light spectrum.
Beyond data, mist, and LED lights, Bertram believes infrared cameras give vertical farmers an edge. Human eyes, though good at pattern recognition, “can [only] see wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers,” he explains, “and plants manifest their pest and disease stressors first in a wavelength that is outside the visual spectrum of human beings.” Using infrared cameras in conjunction with a variety of other sensors allows vertical farmers the ability to detect problems much sooner than a human eye normally could.
“What’s often glazed over,” says Bertram of the setup, “is HVAC—heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.” One of the biggest challenges for vertical farms is maintaining a static temperature and humidity within a dynamic system. “Each plant transpires about a gallon of water over its lifetime. Your system needs to remove that moisture from the atmosphere, and recycle it in some cases, but let the plant grow between 50–70 degrees Fahrenheit,” he describes. “To implement a constant atmosphere throughout the entire warehouse is a very difficult thing to do, and it’s too often overlooked.”
Labor, electricity, and HVAC are the largest operational expenses for vertical farms, typically in that order. Whether vertical farms will be profitable after seed funding runs out has yet to be proven. Produce from vertical farms, “can be competitive as a premium brand. Selling at commodity prices is a little ways out, and by that, I mean many months away,” says Brock Leach, COO of Oasis Biotech, a 215,000-square-foot vertical farm in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Oasis Biotech, a vertical hydroponic farm, shares AeroFarms and OnePointOne’s goal of scaling operations across the world to dense urban areas and selling local produce, but with a twist: Oasis Biotech is largely vertically integrated and is in the business of selling its technology along with its produce. A subsidiary of San’an Optoelectronics, China’s largest manufacturer of LED lights, Oasis Biotech is operating throughout the value chain. The company sells products such as lights, grow equipment, and a 6,000-square-foot vertical farm referred to as the “6k concept.” They also offer services, such as designing custom farms, trainings on how to run these businesses, and financing.
“We’re working on our 6k concept, a small farm meant to be deployed and used on a small business level,” says Leach. The concept is still in development: “Our parent company just broke land on the prototype,” he continues. The price points for the 6k concept are currently unknown.
“In 1940, 40 percent of the world’s population had some role within the agriculture industry. Today, it’s between one to two percent, and we are feeding millions more people,” comments OnePointOne’s Bertram on the impact of industrial farming on labor. If vertical farms and robotics succeed, we may enter another technological renaissance, one in which there is no direct contact between plants and people throughout the growing process. Oasis Biotech, for one, is developing Uplift: “an unmanned produce robot, automated from seed to harvest,” says Leach. Uplift could “reduce direct labor by 85 percent, reducing total cost of production by a little over 40 percent. That allows us to grow more things at a competitive price.”
From a health and safety perspective, people are a conduit for pathogens. “We will be able to tell the consumer of our produce that they are the first human being who ever touched it,” says Bertram, who studied mechanical engineering and robotics. With vertical farming roboticized, the human role would be to run operations, analyze data, observe plant health, continue to optimize the process, and market the product.
Environmentally, the carbon footprint for vertical farms can be substantial, as carefully controlling the indoor climate and replacing free sunlight with LED lights is energy intensive. “It’s the source at the power plant that matters,” writes Tamar Haspel in a Washington Post article on the viability of vertical farms, adding that the carbon footprint varies whether electricity is generated from a coal-fired versus a nuclear power plant.
Other limitations exist for vertical farms. If the entire agricultural industry went offline tomorrow could vertical farms feed the world? Not unless we’re able to subsist on salad greens. “It’s highly unlikely that in the next 10 years vertical farms will produce a high caloric crop like corn at the scale that industrial farms currently can,” says Bertram, who sees a complementary relationship between industrial and vertical farming. As he believes, “we’re maxed out on productive agricultural land in the United States and around the world, and indoor farming is a 100 percent necessary supplement to the farming industry.”