With the 2017 Indoor Ag Con, Las Vegas fast approaching on May 3rd and 4th, we would like to look back on our experiences from the 2016 Indoor Ag Con (IAC). Like many small farmers, we don’t have a huge budget to hit every conference, but it has been well worth it to attend when we are able. In 2016 we attended the IAC conferences in Singapore and Las Vegas, where we were able to meet interesting industry professionals and researchers. It was inspiring to learn about the newest and coolest tech coming out in this rapidly changing field.
Indoor Ag Con Asia, Singapore 2016
Although we have no plans to participate in the Asian vegetable market (that’s quite the antithesis of local foods!) we saw the IAC in Singapore as a very valuable educational experience. Indoor agriculture has had a bit of a headstart in Asia, and we hoped that attending the IAC in Singapore would give us some insight into the future trajectory of the indoor agriculture market in the US.
The reason Asian markets are ahead of the curve is partially due to popular interest in sourcing food that has not been affected by pollution. This is especially true in Japan, where apprehension regarding the effects of Fukushima fallout in soils has engendered a higher value for crops grown using a type of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) referred to as plant factories with artificial lighting (PFALs). Because these consumers are willing to pay a premium for PFAL grown crops, the market is more developed in Asia than it is in the US.
1) Dr. Toyoki Kozai – Limiting Factors in PFALs
Kozai’s take home message was quite surprising, if not slightly off-putting to investors. Currently, only 30% of PFALs are making a profit; 20% are losing money and 50% are just breaking even. After dropping this somewhat discouraging information, Kozai went on to discuss many of the often overlooked variables that impact the delicate profit margin in PFALs. Of particular importance is the photosynthetic rate which is set by the availability of carbon dioxide. Many of the PFAL operators who were failing to turn a profit were not aware of this aspect of plant biology and had not been implementing carbon dioxide supplementation.
Another important factor that is a bit more obvious is resource use efficiency (RUE), i.e. the weight of marketable crop produced compared to the energy resources that go into growing it. One thing that I thought was kind of interesting about RUE is that a lot of energy goes into cooling PFALs because so much waste heat is generated by lights and pumps. I had thought that it would take more energy to run a PFAL in a cold climate because there would be a cost to heating the indoor environment, but this is actually not the case. Instead, RUE is arguably higher in a cold climates because incidental heat from lights and pumps passively heat the indoor environment. In cold climates, excess heat can easily be released to the outside environment, therefore eliminating the need to expend energy on cooling the inside environment.
Another important metric to consider for RUE is the root to leaf ratio of the crop. This is because energy resources go into growing the entire plant, including the often unsellable root biomass. That can be considered wasted profit. Kozai advocated for focusing on crops where all parts are eaten, including the roots. There are a lot of high value medicinal chinese herbs that fit into this category.
Kozai also spoke on the need for open access to information, because PFAL operations are very competitive right now but they could be much more successful if they were collaborating. This is why the OpenAg Initiative at MIT is so important.
Dr. Kozai speaks about the importance of projects like the MIT OpenAg Initiative
After his talk, Jeff was very excited to meet Dr. Toyoki Kozai and we immediately went on Amazon and ordered his book, Plant Factory. It is very well put together, although a bit on the academic side. I prefer that style of writing sometimes. It may be more difficult to get through, but the information is more specific and therefore more easily applied.
2) Dr. Eiji Coto – Optimizing Nutraceuticals Using Environmental Controls
Dr. Eiji Coto from Chiba Horticulture discussed using environmental controls to maximize crop quality. The problem with PFAL conditions is that they are too perfect for plant growth. As a result, the lack of stress prevents the formation of nutritional compounds like antioxidants. Coto reminded us that although blue light induces antioxidant production in crops, it also requires more energy to run this type of grow light. However, Coto was experimentally able to show that finishing crops with a short blue light period towards the end of their growth cycle induced production of antioxidants.
Indoor Ag Con Las Vegas 2016
IAC Las Vegas was very different from IAC Singapore. It seems like the CEA industry in the U.S. is a much more diverse beast than the predominantly PFAL juggernaut taking over in Asia. At IAC Las Vegas, we heard from a lot of companies providing mini-PFAL container farms for the small farmer, a paradigm which was not really as relevant at IAC Asia. Another huge difference was the effects of the U.S. cannabis market on CEA. This cash crop seems to be the main driver of the CEA industry in our country.
3) Owner Operated Container Farms
Eric Amyot from Modular Farms spoke about the fact that most of his customers do not have much experience farming. Because of this observation, his business model has directed energy towards empowerment and education of container farm owner-operators. This is aso a huge part of the philosophy behind Bright Agrotech, a well established company that produces vertical grow towers that are used in many container farm companies. Kyle Seaman from Freight Farms reiterated that container farm crop failure is very often the result of user error and inexperience. For example, top two very popular crops are lettuce and basil, however they require very different environmental conditions. Often inexperienced growers will try to split the difference which reduces quality and productivity overall. A better solution would be to invest in a second container farm and dedicate each container to the specific conditions for the crop within.
We asked Dan Kuenzi from Local Roots about the future of automation in container farms. He very wisely responded that moving parts inherent to automation are really just a liability because they will always require maintenance. Container farm owner-operators are different from large scale PFAL operators because being small scale means they often don’t have the resources to be both farmers and automated robot mechanics. He argued that the less automation a container farm possesses, the less vulnerable it is to breaking. We thought this was a very interesting point to consider for space farming as well. Being so far from new parts, space farmers will probably be better off if their CEA systems are designed to be easily fixable. The more DIY an operation is, the more likely a problem can be easily remedied and high tech often translates to complicated problems.
5) Insect Farming
We are pretty interested in the idea of insect farming, especially for space travel. The conversion ratio from inputs to consumable products is very efficient in insects and their biomass is very high in fat and protein. We were fascinated by the talk from Andrew Brentano of Tiny Farms. He told us that there are currently about 40 insect protein based products on the market and this demand has been doubling every year, especially in products for human consumption. Another really great point he made about insect protein is that it is less likely to contain environmental toxins that often accumulate in larger, longer living animals.
6) Plant Biology
Dr. Neil Mattson from U.C. Davis gave a mike drop presentation on data compiled by researchers at Cornell University regarding the carbon usage of CEA systems compared to traditional field crops. I agree with Mattson’s sentiment that energy is the last frontier in CEA because although we have made many efficiency improvements recently, the carbon footprint for CEA is still too high. To offset this difference, he argued that we need to increase productivity by 4 fold. He suggested several biotech mechanisms for accomplishing this increase in productivity.
Mattson reminded us that food waste in the U.S. is currently up to 40% and suggested a few solutions. He mentioned that storing lettuce with bit of water and their roots in tact increases the shelf life 17-26 days. Of course, there is a tradeoff to consider that includes not only production of the package, but disposal as well.
Furthermore, he suggested genetic modification of foods as a way to increase their shelf life. I’m not sure what part of the genome could be affected to create a slow decay crop, but I feel like there might be an intrinsic correlation between nutrient availability and the ephemeral nature of food. If this feeling has any merit, it leads me to wonder if foods that resist breaking down in the presence of microbial contamination are also less likely to give up nutrients in our bodies as well.
7) Data Management
Everyone was eagerly anticipating the final speaker, Alison Kopf, CEO of Agrilyst. Agrilyst is a big data farm management platform that tracks conditions on your farm and provides relevant alerts that allow you to adjust environmental controls for optimizing crop productivity. This made me realize that it one thing to have fancy sensors, but it is quite another thing to understand what to do with the data they collect. We enjoyed her talk very much and look forward to seeing their business grow.
The lineup for Indoor Ag Con, Las Vegas 2017 looks very interesting. We are particularly looking forward to hearing from food safety auditor Sarah Taber who will be talking about health and safety considerations for start-up farmers. This is a topic that I have wondered about, but have not found the most direct information through the USDA website. We are also looking forward to learning about new developments in technology for CEA systems. Representatives from Autogrow and Bright Agrotech will be participating in a technology panel on the first day of the conference, and Dr. Shao Hua Li will give an in depth talk on the latest developments in CEA on the second day of the conference. Also on the second day, there is a discussion session dedicated to indoor mushroom grow operations. We love growing mushrooms in our small system and look forward to hearing from industry professionals on this topic. It will be a great conference and we hope to seeing you there!