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Coronavirus Pandemic Highlights Vital Need for Vertical Farms In World Cities

Coronavirus Pandemic Highlights Vital Need for Vertical Farms in World Cities

by Dr. Joel Cuello, Ph.D.
Coronavirus Pandemic Highlights Vital Need for Vertical Farms  in World Cities
Image modified from Martin Sanchez/Unsplash

The speed with which the coronovirus outbreaks in Asia, Europe and North America metastasized into a full-blown global pandemic — catching many world governments by surprise and with little preparation — underscores just how our world today is highly interconnected and how, in order to contain and stem the surging pandemic, temporary disconnection from the physically-networked world by cities, regions and even entire nations has become an urgent imperative.

With confirmed coronavirus cases globally now exceeding 370,000 and the number of deaths surpassing 16,000, many world cities have become throbbing epicenters of the surging pandemic.

Accordingly, various countries, states and cities have enforced lockdown or stay-at-home orders with drastic measures, including banning public gatherings, restricting restaurants to take-out and delivery only, and closing schools, bars, theaters, casinos and indoor shopping malls, among others.

Such orders, or their looming possibilities, have consequently intensified the panic-buying urges of consumers for food and household essentials, particularly in North America and Western Europe, giving occasions for daily photos of empty grocery-store shelves splashed ubiquitously from across news networks to social media platforms.

The availability of food in North America and Western Europe during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, remains generally secure, at least in the near term of the pandemic.

Food Sourcing

New York City, for instance, normally has food supply amounting to approximately 8.6 million tonnes (19 billion pounds) annually as purveyed by a network of regional and national food distributors, which then is sold at about 42,000 outlets across the city’s five boroughs, according to a 2016 study sponsored by the city.

Over half of the outlets are made up of approximately 24,000 restaurants, bars and cafes through which consumers access almost 40 percent of the city’s food by volume annually. The rest of the outlets are chain supermarkets, bodegas and online grocery stores.

The study reported that the city’s annual food supply feeds over 8.6 million city residents, over 60 million tourists, plus daily commuters in the hundreds of thousands from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

With millions of tourists and commuters now staying away from the city, however, and with the city’s hotels at just 49 percent occupancy for the week ending March 14, an excess of food supply is readily available for diversion into the city’s grocery stores and other retailers to meet the surge in demand by local residents.

In the case of Germany, the country imports food that accounts for nearly 8 percent of its US$1.3 Trillion imported goods in 2018. Germany procures from abroad about 3 million tonnes of fresh vegetables annually — with cucumbers and tomatoes accounting for 40 percent of the import volume — at a value of around 3.5 billion Euros, mainly from the Netherlands and Spain. Indeed, approximately 30 percent of the 2.6 million tonnes of exported Dutch-grown fresh vegetables goes to Germany.

Meanwhile, approximately 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s food and food ingredients are imported. The U.K. imports approximately 2.4 million tonnes of fresh vegetables each year from Spain (33 percent), the Netherlands (28 percent), France (10 percent) and from various parts the world (29 percent).

Access to Food

Although the sources and sourcing of food in North America and Western Europe are currently generally secure, what might soon become a prodigious concern is that their workers in the production, distribution and retail segments of the food supply chain may eventually succumb to coronavirus infection.

In such event, coupled with the potential for lockdown bureaucracies to slow down the flow of cargo between countries and between cities, severe delays in delivery — or real delivery shortages — could well become an actual possibility.

Local Vertical Farms

The coronavirus pandemic lockdowns have laid bare, if fortuitously, the crucial importance of partial local food production in or around world cities in the context of urban resilience.

The following salient features of vertical farms have become especially significant toward buttressing a city’s resilience in the event of a pandemic lockdown:

(1) Local — Production of safe and fresh produce can take place within the lockdown zone, obviating the hurdles and perils of going in and out of the red zone;

(2) Automation-Amenability — Impact of severe labor shortage which can be expected as the pandemic surges as well as direct physical contact between workers and fresh produce can be significantly minimized or eliminated;

(3) Controlled-Environment — Infection risks to both workers and crops are significantly reduced through clean and controlled operations;

(4) Modular Option — Crops may be grown in modular production units, such as shipping containers, which may be conveniently transported to neighborhoods located either farther away or in areas of stricter isolation; and,

(5) Reliability — Dependability and consistency of high-yield and high-quality harvests throughout the year is virtually guaranteed independently of season and external climate conditions.

Fortunately for New York City, even as it sources most of its fresh vegetables from California and Arizona, the New York greater area now serves as host to the highest concentration in the United States of commercial urban vertical farms — including Aerofarms,Bowery Farming, Bright Farms, Farm.One, Square Roots and Gotham Greens, among others — that operate as controlled-environment farms year-round and independently of the variable effects of climate and geography. While conventional outdoor farming can produce three vegetable harvests per year, some of these vertical farms can achieve up to 30 harvests annually.

New York City and other world cities could certainly use more vertical farms.

Indeed, the urban planning and design of every world city should incorporate vertical farms, in and/or around it, not only for promoting food security — but for fostering disaster resilience as well.

During a pandemic, when a temporary period of social distancing between cities and nations becomes critically necessary, vertical farms can serve as helping outposts of resilience for cities and regions on lockdown as they brave the onslaught of the pandemic until it runs its course and duly dissipates — at which time the enfeebled ties of cooperation between cities, states and nations across the globe can once again be mended and made even stronger than before.

Thus, not only locally, but in fact also globally, vertical farms can serve as helping vanguards of protection for all of our communities.

Dr Joel Cuello of University of Arizona to Speak at INdoor Ag-Con 2020Dr. Joel L. Cuello is Vice Chair of the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) and Professor of Biosystems Engineering at The University of Arizona. In addition to conducting research and designs on vertical farming and cell-based bioreactors, he also teaches “Integrated Engineered Solutions in the Food-Water-Energy Nexus” and “Globalization, Sustainability & Innovation.” Email

10 Ways Square Roots’ Farm-Tech Platform Empowers the Next Generation of Farmers

10 Ways Square Roots’ Farm-Tech Platform Empowers  the Next Generation of Farmers

By Kimbal Musk, Cofounder & Exec Chairman of Square Roots

— Square Roots  is building a distributed network of indoor, modular farms, farmed by a new generation of farmers, to grow local food for people in cities all over the world. Here’s why it’s working.

Square Roots Super Farms are scalable, resilient and smart, and can be built fast. (Image: Via Chicago Architects + Diseñadores)

Square Roots’ scalable “farmer-first” platform brings fresh, healthy food to urban areas year-round, while simultaneously training future generations of farmers. With production farms in Brooklyn, New York, and Grand Rapids, Michigan (with more to come in 2020!), Square Roots has a mission to bring local, real food to people in cities across the world while empowering the next generation of leaders in urban farming.

Whether we’re in the farms tweaking CO2 levels, or in a board meeting plotting a pathway for what the company looks like in 2050, every decision we make is guided to help us achieve our mission faster, smarter, and with as much impact as possible.

Choices we’ve made around our technology platform are a good illustration of that. Our platform needs to bring fresh, healthy food to urban areas year-round, consistently, sustainability, and on any continent in the world. At the same time, it must also be a welcoming environment, conducive to training future generations of farmers to be productive, fast.

Central to our platform is the decision we made very early in the company’s life to build a distributed network of modular Climate Containers, as opposed to following the plant factory template.

Inside Square Roots Climate Container- Indoor Ag-Con Blog
Inside a Square Roots Climate Container, data-empowered farmers work with optimum growing conditions, all year round.

There are a lot of smart people in this industry, many with different visions for the optimum architecture and model for indoor farming (e.g. plant factories). But all working hard to bring better food to market — which, given our wider vision to bring real food to everyone, is wonderful to see. The more of us working on the real food revolution the better — and we want all of these systems to flourish. But here are 10 reasons why we think container farming rocks:

1. Speed to Market

Today we can enter a new market and open a Square Roots “Super Farm” — with 25 Climate Containers, cold storage, biosecurity infrastructure, and everything else you need to run a food-safe farm at scale — in less than three months, like we did in partnership with Gordon Food Service last Fall. That time period is only coming down. In comparison, building a plant factory can cost tens of millions of dollars, as well as take years to construct. We want to get real food to more people, and fast!

2. Easy to Scale

To meet increasing market demand, we simply add Climate Containers to any existing deployment. This means just-in-time capital deployment, and also just-in-time technology deployment. This is really important in an industry where the technology is improving fast. You don’t want to spend years and millions to open a big farm full of old tech that immediately needs a refresh.

3. Climate Control

I was an early investor in Chicago’s Farmed Here, one of the first and largest plant factories in the US. There, I saw first-hand how much the team struggled to control the climate in a building that size. Plants don’t like it when you get it wrong. And neither do landlords — the humidity can wreak havoc with the underlying infrastructure. In our programmable Climate Containers, each one built inside a 320 square foot shipping container, optimum conditions for a variety of crops can easily be maintained. The perfect climate for each variety can be seamlessly replicated — in any market — to ensure consistent quality every time, at every harvest.

Square Roots Next-Gen Farmer - Indoor Ag-Con Blog Post
Alyssa Patton, Square Roots Next-Gen Farmer, harvesting fresh, local basil inside a Climate Container in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
4. Diversity of Products

Multiple containers on our Super Farms allow for multiple climates, which lets us grow multiple crops at the same time to satisfy local market demands. For example, basil requires a completely different climate than chives to grow well, so it’s practically impossible to grow these two products together in a way that tastes good if you have a giant farm with one mono climate. The ability to grow multiple quality SKUs is particularly important in the retail market, where product variety is key to getting shelf real estate. Having multiple climates also means we can tackle many niches in any local market (e.g. using one container on a Super Farm to grow something exotic like Shiso or Mustard Greens), giving us a lot of business flexibility while keeping things interesting for our teams of farmers.

5. Sustainable Systems

As with most hydroponic growers, Square Roots uses zero pesticides, and 90% less water than outdoor farms. We can also be clever about energy usage. For example, we make it “daytime” in the farm by turning on our grow lights overnight when there is excess energy in the grid, and the cost per kilowatt hour is lower. However, if for some reason we need to be in the farms during “daytime,” we can put a Climate Container into “harvest mode” — which dims the lights, and configures the climate to be optimum conditions for people at work — before seamlessly switching back to plant growing mode once we’re done.

6. Location

Our modular architecture means we can be very creative in re-purposing existing city infrastructure when we look for locations to build a farm. We can pop up on an empty parking lot like we did in Brooklyn, New York, or build a campus on the headquarters of a major distribution company like we did with Gordon Food Service, or even build into a new development. This flexibility means we can build our Super Farms literally in the same zip code as the end consumer. This means fresher and tastier products for the customer, fewer food miles (most industrial food is shipped in from the other side of the world!), and less food waste. It also helps to get consumers more connected to their food and the people who grow it — they can simply jump on a subway or in their car, and come visit one of our farms!

7. Food Safety and System Resilience

All indoor farms need to be prepared for bad things to happen. While there is way less risk in a controlled environment versus an outdoor farm, it’s inevitable that you will get some sort of pest outbreak, powdery mildew, or some other issue at some point while you’re managing a complex ecosystem full of living, breathing plants. If that ever should happen in one of our Climate Containers, we can quickly shut it down and reboot that single node while the rest of the network keeps going strong. I’ve seen this happen in a plant factory, with one big mono climate, and you lose all your crops.

8. Faster Learning

Our farms are cloud connected, and we collect millions of data points that we analyze to determine how changes in certain environmental parameters can impact factors like yield, taste and texture of the final produce. More climates in more containers means more feedback loops, which means faster learning. To systematize this learning, we’ve built The Square Roots Farmer Toolbelt — a software which is now the OS for the whole company as we all learn faster together. 

Square Roots Farmer Toolbelt - Indoor Ag-Con Blog Post

9. The Network Gets Smarter as it Scales

Square Roots’ cloud-connected farms and data-empowered farmers learn from each other, enabling us to replicate success from one location to another, seamlessly. Working with Gordon Food Service to build farms across their network of distribution centers and retail stores brings us closer to the vision of a distributed network of indoor farms, bringing local, real food to people in cities across the world—while empowering thousands of next-gen leaders in urban farming through our unique training program.

10. Sense of Responsibility

Perhaps this is unique to Square Roots and our Next-Gen Farmer Training Program, but because we grow in modular Climate Containers, we’re able to give all our young farmers a personalized understanding of their individual impact on the overall business. The Square Roots Farmer Toolbelt provides day-to-day instructions on a per-farmer and per-crop basis, as well as a means for data capture, and real time analysis of both plant health and business metrics. All this information is accessible from the tablets that everyone on our farm team carries everyday. This system also ensures that we track every aspect of production — who does what, when, and how, from seed to sales. This is a goldmine of data, that not only helps us improve operations, but also implicitly provides traceability. In December 2018, we started exposing this data to consumers in the form of our Transparency Timeline. On every package of Square Roots produce, you can simply scan a QR code and get a complete story of where your food comes from — seed to shelf.

Square Roots Transparency Timeline - Indoor Ag-Con Blog Post
Simply scan the QR code on every Square Roots package to see where your food comes from.

Our Super Farm platform is exciting in terms of scalability, resilience, and efficiency, and it’s a really wonderful environment for our farmers to farm in. For urban consumers it means local farmers growing your food with love — which is why it tastes absolutely delicious. And technology enables us to grow a ton of food in a very small area, in ways that make a lot of business sense too. It’s a classic example of “doing well by doing good”.

It has been an exciting journey to our Super Farm platform. When we launched Square Roots back in 2016, we were very focused on figuring out the Farmer Training Program model — as we knew that farmers bring love to the food, the program would create enormous impact over time, and it would also be a long term engine of growth. So we partnered with a number of 3rd parties who could provide parts of the growing system for us, while we got the training program right. (In many ways, that was like Tesla sourcing our chassis from Lotus for the first Roadster). After that initial phase, and finding out what the urban farming world needs — i.e. higher quality yields with much lower costs to drive scalable unit economics, and ultra-high standards of biosecurity to support operations that are first class in food safety—we have developed our own technology specifically tailored to our model. This enables us to grow local food at incredible scale in ways that make sense for people, planet and profits.

Our partnership with Gordon Food Service was announced at the end of March 2019, and our first co-located farm opened just six months later in Grand Rapids, Michigan — marking our next step of bringing local food to people in cities all across North America while training thousands of future farmers. Which, in a neat and circular way, brings us right back to the mission statement we started this post with.

Of course, we still have lots of work to do and we have a lot of exciting announcements coming this year as we grow! And, we’re always looking to talk with great people — from hardware and software engineers to farmers and plant scientists. So feel free to check our website and get in touch.