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CEA engineer & advisor Erika Summers.

Meet the Founder: CEA engineer & advisor Erika Summers on why (vertical) farming isn’t a ‘get-rich-quick’ industry

April 21, 2023

“In this industry we hear a lot about LED lights and AI controls, but you get fewer people talking about the mechanical equipment side of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) because it is simply more challenging,” says Erika Summers, a well-known CEA consultant and engineer.

Historically, mechanical concerns like building structure, HVAC systems and the like haven’t received much airtime in public chats about vertical farming. But with the industry currently in the midst of a massive correction, many are starting to realize the impact these systems can have on production, not to mention costs.

Summers (ES), who runs her own CEA advisory firm, is also a mechanical engineer who has worked with many indoor farming clients on HVAC systems and other building considerations. AFN recently sat down with her to discuss the mechanical side of vertical farming, what her dreams for CEA are, and why you can’t, in fact, build a vertical farm anywhere, despite what the Yes Men might say.

AFN: Why aren’t more people talking about the mechanical side of vertical farming?

ES: In this industry we hear a lot about LED lights and AI controls, but you get less people talking about the mechanical equipment side because it is simply more challenging.

When it comes to building retrofits, there just aren’t as many experts out there and this industry requires a lot more than just the expertise of plant scientists and the growers. You need architects, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, GCs, and commercial real estate people. You also need finance people that can take the inputs from all of these different groups and figure out if there is a financially viable business.

AFN: What are some of the concerns around buildings that companies need to think about?

ES: The first thing is to make sure you understand what a good building is. A good building has good structural bones, a flat, reinforced roof, high ceilings, ample power or the ability to upgrade its power easily, good water supply in and out of the facility, and it is located in an optimal location for distribution. Things like wooden trusses, pitched roofs, facilities in shopping centers that are not easily upgradable for power, or in locations where deliveries to and from the facility are challenging are things you want to avoid. 

 When you understand all of this then you have to articulate that to the commercial real-estate person. I’ve toured a bunch of different buildings where the commercial real estate person said, “This is a great deal.” But it had wooden trusses, 200 amps of power on a strip mall where you can’t increase the power, and really low ceilings. Or it was just really dirty — a facility that you would need to clean out pretty extensively to make food-safe. A great “deal” on a facility does not always translate into a great facility for this industry. Educating the real estate people on what we are looking for and why you are looking for it would save a lot of time and effort. 

Then I would caution people to understand that local jurisdiction. How long does the permitting process take? If the facility is zoned as industrial can you get special use permits for agriculture? Will that provide tax incentives? Does the power company for that area have really long lead times for upgrades? Does the building have an outdated sprinkler system that needs to be updated? Are there stipulations on what can go down the drain? Having someone who can help you ask all these questions up front makes it much easier then trying to fix something later down the road. 

AFN: Can we build vertical farms anywhere?

ES: Yes, you can technically build a vertical farm anywhere, but at what cost? At the end of the day the economics have to make sense for the operation to be financially viable.

The example I like to refer to is building vertical farms in extremely hot conditions like in the dessert. Can you do it? Yes you can, but as I said before, at what cost?

If you are retrofitting a building in a hot climate, you need to add significantly more insulation to the building to prevent heat infiltration into the building. You need purpose-built HVAC systems that can handle the humidity and heat load in the building but can also stand up to the exterior conditions.

In places like Las Vegas, air-cooled equipment just simply struggles, meaning you need purpose-built, water-cooled equipment that has longer lead times and is more expensive. If you are in a location with higher energy costs, operating this equipment takes a lot, especially if it has to be sized to handle tough conditions. 

If the financial model can handle these extra costs, then that is amazing! If not then you have to ask, is this a science experiment that will always run off of investor funding or is it a viable business? 

I was listening to a panel last year where someone was saying “You can drop a container farm anywhere!” I couldn’t contain myself, I started questioning him “You’re saying anywhere? Like Las Vegas? Your equipment won’t work four months out of the year.” Container farms are great, but they have smaller air cooled HVAC units. In desert conditions like Las Vegas a five-ton unit de-rates to much less in the exterior heat, or in the worst conditions just does not work. You can’t stick a container farm “anywhere” like that. What you can do is stick it in a warehouse that has its own cooling system and make it work, but again is that financially viable? 

That’s why I like the companies that are honest about the limitations of their equipment. They’re not trying to be “Yes Men,” they’re working with integrity and trying to do the right thing for the customer and the industry. 

AFN: What would you love to see change in vertical farming?

ES: I would love to see more collaboration efforts. Anytime you talk to anybody, there is an NDA every single time, and lately we have been seeing so many failures happen but none of these companies are coming out talking honestly about the lessons they learned. Even simple things like sharing information on building material that worked and didn’t work could prevent others from making the same mistakes. 

I would also love to see the industry get together from a mechanical standpoint and develop more standards for things like HVAC equipment. I would like to see us get away from one-off, specialized, custom-built units and instead come together and ask the big manufacturers to invest in purpose-built equipment. To do that though we would have to show that we have the volume to support that amortized cost. 

Most importantly I would love to see more honesty in setting expectations. Farming isn’t a get rich quick thing. It requires hard work and takes time to pay off. All of these companies that announce crazy amounts of money raised and claim to be opening their doors in six months break my heart. You can’t build an efficient farm that fast. When I see claims like that you just know the build out is going to be rushed, the equipment selected is going to be off the shelf because that is what’s available, and I question if enough thought has gone into making a viable long standing business. We can’t keep celebrating raising money, we have to start celebrating people that are actually succeeding. 

I would also personally say, please stop applauding “the biggest vertical farm in the world.” That claim lost its luster a long time ago. I will happily give a standing ovation to the most financially successful vertical farm regardless of the size.

AFN: Would getting purpose-built equipment get rid of the energy efficiency problem?

ES: It would help but it’s not going to solve the energy problem. Everything we’re doing is energy intensive. 

Some people talk about equipping farms with solar. I would love to see solar applied in this industry, but to make solar effective you need storage batteries to provide a consistent supply. Without that you still need to have the infrastructure in place to power the facility if it is a cloudy day. That technology is definitely getting there, but it’s not applied in this industry yet because it’s expensive.

Taking measures to use energy efficient equipment like chillers and LED does help, but it is still a lot. 

We should be looking to do things like co-locating vertical farms in locations that have cheaper power like hydro electrics. Another option is to really work with the power companies as a team to bring down operation costs. That might mean running equipment at off peak times, which helps.

AFN: What’s your CEA dream?

ES: My long-term dream is to see vertical farms deployed in schools where teachers can develop basic agriculture and nutrient classes around the produce grown, and then that food gets put back into the schools food system. As a society I think we have lost touch with what real food is and understanding that it is sustenance but it is also medicine. I know that dream is a ways off. 

For now I would say my dream would be to see more strategic co-locating of vertical farms with greenhouses or other operations to make them financially viable. Can we set up basil facilities next to pesto manufacturing facilities, or vertical farms next to greenhouse operations to help grow starts, or co-locating them in food distribution centers to grow specialty crops? 

What can we do to be creative versus trying to build the biggest farm possible?

AFN: Speaking of which, can vertical farming ‘feed the world’?

Whenever someone says that I just want to laugh and tell them to go take a nutrition class. 

What we are doing is important absolutely, but we all know we are not going to “feed the world” with leafy greens. What we are doing is our part in trying to reshape the entire food system that is struggling right now. Vertical farming, greenhouse growing, and traditional farming all need to work together to feed the world. One is not more important that the other and we will always need all three. 

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