Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) has seen a renewed bout of interest recently, but there are plenty of pain points still plaguing the growing industry. A new non-profit initiative called The Farmbook Project is hoping to resolve some of those issues by providing indoor growers with more opportunities to connect while aggregating data to establish benchmarks.
“You don’t see a forum where people can get together who have small and medium-sized operations or who are thinking about investing in it. I get lots of calls from people asking for an hour of my time because they want to talk about the industry,” Farmbook’s Boston-based co-creator Peter Tasgal told AFN. His fellow co-creator is Albuquerque-based Xander Yang, who has been working in the vertical farming industry for the last five years.
What Tasgal noticed was, when he got these requests, people were always asking him the same questions. He realized that growers in the space were mostly isolated and likely hungering for a chance to connect with their CEA colleagues. Growers in the space have a long history of keeping information to themselves, according to Farmbook. And while there may be a few good reasons for holding this info close to the chest, a bit more sharing could help move the industry forward as a whole.
Aggregating data confidentially through the Farmbook platform can also help with tackling another problem many CEA operators face: a lack of business planning and coaching. Having a cohesive business plan can help attract more investors, according to the Farmbook team. Investors cannot predict whether they will meet their ROI needs if an operation doesn’t have a business plan addressing how it plans to succeed.
In the CEA space, startups have chosen a wide variety of routes to market, including direct sales through grocers, selling to restaurants, and wholesaling. Others sell equipment in the form of turnkey container farms.
Considering that 75% of all retail tomato sales in the US come from greenhouse production, by Farmbook’s estimate, there should be plenty of data to sift through.
“We’ll certainly have to look at the data because […] we don’t want all the data to come from successful operators. That won’t be helpful,” Tasgal said. “We are looking to get information from a wide range of operators.”
Perhaps Farmbook’s biggest objective is to standardize some of the metrics used in CEA production, such as pounds of production per plant hole per annum. The initiative thinks the use of such standards would be valuable not only for existing producers, but also for prospective farmers trying to determine how to start their own operations. Investors assessing revenue forecasts and retail purchasing managers who need to know a potential supplier’s capacity could also benefit from standardized metrics.
“In the retail industry or in the car industry there is always lots of information available that people use to benchmark themselves or to figure out how to set up. Performance indicators,” Tasgal said. “I think people know that information in this space [but aren’t sharing it] and I think that’s hindering growth.”
Farmbook is still testing its platform, but the website is live and project members are working to grow the team to capture a wide range of industry views.
As indoor ag continues to grow and evolve, it’s finding ways to fit in with, or compete against, the existing food chain. There is a variety of opinions regarding the ultimate role that CEA will have to play in our future food system.
“I think it will never be a pure commodity. Just the cost structure of indoor farms necessarily requires that it has to be somewhat of a specialized product,” Tasgal said. “That’s not to mean small – just that you won’t ever be growing wheat, cotton, or large commodity grains indoors. But when 75% of eating tomatoes are grown indoors that is pretty amazing. It tells me that the tomato business is becoming a purely indoor market.”
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