A photo tour of energy efficient vertical farms

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Teake Zuidema is a writer and photographer based in Savannah, Georgia. This story was originally on Nexus media news, a nonprofit climate change intelligence service.

On one On a sunny day last August, Daniel Malechuk opened the door to a 77,000 square foot warehouse outside of Atlanta.

Inside, under the soft magenta glow of the LED lights, five different types of hydroponic lettuce grew stacked nine levels high. A handful of employees were busy harvesting the greens. Their pace corresponded to Malechuk’s ambition: to grow 10 million heads of lettuce by next spring.

If this succeeds, Kalera, the vertical farming company that started operations here in April 2021, will not only have the most profitable vertical farm in the southeast, but also Georgia’s largest lettuce producer.

“This plant will produce 12 times as much lettuce in one year as the entire state can produce in the same time,” enthused Malechuk. (According to the Georgian Ministry of Agriculture, the state imports more than 99 percent of its lettuce).

The world population is expected to grow to almost 10 billion by the middle of the century; Global food production will have to double by then to keep pace with demand. Photo: Teake Zuidema

Not dependent on specific weather conditions or terrain, these farms can thrive almost anywhere, reducing transportation costs and associated emissions. And most importantly, they work cleaner without producing any runoff from fertilizers or pesticides.

According to PitchBook, investors spent nearly $ 1 billion invested in indoor farms in 2020, more than twice as much as in the previous year.

Masked vertical farm worker checking shelves of green plants under a purple ultraviolet light
As the planet becomes hotter and drier, and farmland becomes scarcer, food producers are looking for new ways to farm that use fewer resources. Vertical agriculture, which requires less land and water than traditional agriculture, has some potential. Photo: Teake Zuidema

But there is a catch: indoor farms rely on artificial light from tens of thousands of LED lights. Add to this the energy required for air conditioning, water circulation, and other operations, and a farm like Malechuk’s can use enormous amounts of energy.

“The biggest hurdle for the industry is that it consumes a lot of electricity,” said Julia Kurnik, director of innovation startups at the World Wildlife Fund. She said vertical farming involves a number of economic and environmental tradeoffs. “It might not make sense everywhere, but if you’re in the Middle East, for example, and don’t have a lot of land, you can use renewable energy [solar] Energy to power your farm this can be a great blessing. ”She said the source of the energy is critical in determining the net environmental impact.

Plant scientist with a beard and blond hair in a gray sweatshirt standing in front of strawberry plants under flower light
Stephan David, plant scientist at Wageningen University & Research, researches which light recipes are best for growing strawberries indoors. Behind him are two batches of strawberries that were planted at the same time but grew in different lighting conditions. Photo: Teake Zuidema

Lowering the energy costs of vertical farms is one of the main goals of Signify, a Dutch LED lighting company, said Udo van Slooten, a business leader in horticulture. “Our goal is to find the most effective way to convert watts into biomass,” he said.

LED systems have become much more efficient since he worked in the field 15 years ago, but additional profits need to be made by improving the overall growing system: optimizing light recipes, spacing and nutrients, and determining which plant varieties will give the best results.

A vertical farm worker in a black t-shirt and gray jeans and sneakers walks through shelves of flowering strawberry plants
As these farms become more energy efficient, it will make more economic sense to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, and many other products indoors. Photo: Teake Zuidema

As renewable energy prices continue to fall, proponents of vertical farming say it can become a more accessible and environmentally friendly way to get food to the table.

Maluchuk, of the Kalera Farms, has said that getting its greens affordable is a top priority and that a Kalera Salad Chef sells for less than $ 3 in most stores. On the farm, Malechuk picked a sample of romaine lettuce, red oak leaf and typical kalera krunch salad, fresh from the tower. All were light and crispy; the Kalera Krunch was slightly sweet.

“Welcome to the future of agriculture,” he said.

Vertical Farm employee checks strawberry plants in a tray by hand
Vertical farmers inspect strawberries at Signify in the Netherlands. Photo: Teake Zuidema


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