Strictly speaking, vertical farming has been with us since the dawn of agriculture; it would be interesting to see wheat growing any way other than vertically. But the term, despite its ambiguity, is now recognized shorthand for vertically stacked farming, where layers of crops are grown on top of each other, and where conditions like light, temperature, water or nutrients are artificially controlled indoors to allow for year-round growing.
There are two predominant visions of vertical farming: centralized and distributed. Proponents of centralized systems argue that large-scale production—and financial viability—depends on ever-bigger and higher farms. These farms, or plant factories as they are sometimes called, are proliferating, aided by huge sums of capital. Plenty scooped up a whopping $200 million in Series B funding back in 2017. US-based AeroFarms raised $100 million in late-stage funding in 2019, for example, while Fifth Season secured $50 million last year.
While centralized facilities have generally dominated the vertical farming venture capital domain, distributed and decentralized business models are gaining pace, according to AgFunder’s 2019 industry report. One in particular—Germany’s Infarm—nabbed $100 million last year to deploy its connected growing cabinets in supermarkets.
AFN has been keeping tabs on Infarm as a high-profile case study of the distributed vertical farming model. The company’s footprint already includes more than 600 cabinets in many European and US cities. During the first quarter of 2020, Infarm has been busy making progress on its global expansion strategy as well. In February, for instance, East Japan Railway Company (JR East) partnered with Infarm to deliver fresh produce grown and harvested in retail stores starting in the summer 2020 (pending circumstances around the the Covid-19 pandemic, of course). The partnership is Infarm’s first in Asia.
Infarm has also inked an agreement with national food distributor Muroo, which will support a phased roll-out of the Berlin-based company’s farms across Japan in 2021. Infarm has launched a new affiliate, Infarm Japan, to support its expansion in the country.
Similar plans are also afoot in Canada, where Infarm will soon launch its first fresh produce harvests at Safeway stores in Vancouver, with eventual expansion to Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Toronto, Victoria and Winnipeg.
Roll-out timelines in both countries could yet be disrupted, as both Canada and Japan grapple with the Covid-19 outbreak. City lockdowns, movement restriction, and global logistics disruption may bolster the case for distributed urban growing models like Infarm’s, however.
“Urban farming by Infarm has the potential to drastically change the common practice of logistics,” Shunichiro Yamashita, the CEO of Muroo, wrote to AFN. “For produce to be consumed in large cities, such as Tokyo, we must rely on supplies from the suburbs and distant locations. By eliminating the distance between the customer and the place of origin, customers will be able to acquire fresher produce with peace of mind and safety.”
AFN caught up with Emmanuel Evita, global communications director at Infarm, (virtually, of course) to learn more about the company’s expansion strategy and the impact from Covid-19.
AFN: So how is Infarm progressing in light of the Covid-19 outbreak? How has that affected expansion, sales, and day to day operations?
Emmanuel Evita: We’re finding that the demand from many of our partners and consumers for fresh produce is increasing. In the past few weeks for example, we were able to increase deliveries to stores with higher demand across our markets. With our hubs located in cities, as close as possible to many of the supermarkets and restaurants we serve, we’re able to keep growing and stay responsive to the needs of our partners throughout this period, whether we are growing fresh in store or from our hub.
What did you have to adjust in your expansion strategy when thinking about Japan?
Overall, we are showing our capacity to build an operation quite quickly—from a single farming unit to hundreds of farms in supermarkets and distribution centers in cities around the world.
Japan is a nation of advanced robotics. Which synergies have you identified here with your own vertical farming offering?
There are a lot of synergies. IoT technology and Machine Learning are core to our farms, and it’s exciting to strengthen the relationship between technology and sustainable food in Japan.
In the popular imagination, Canada is a land of sweeping prairies, a place of vast outdoor agricultural production. Where would vertical farming be needed in this context?
We believe vertical farming is needed in diverse countries and cities all around the world. Modern agricultural production places an incredible burden on our environment. Not only are these processes responsible for 17% of total global CO2 emissions, but they sap plants of 45% of vital nutrients by the time they arrive in the supermarket. As climate change, soil degradation and the loss of natural ecosystems threaten to worsen these effects, we want to find another way.
Our mission is to help cities become self-sufficient in their food production while significantly improving the safety, quality, and environmental footprint of our food. We want to practice a form of agriculture that is resilient, sustainable and beneficial to our planet. And, we want to make fresh, pure, tasty and nutritious produce available to everyone.
By choosing Canada and Japan, you’re expanding simultaneously into two very different time zones, let alone cultures. How do you plan to handle and react to your growing data in real time?
Japan and Canada mark our eighth and ninth countries, respectively, and we have more than 600 farms in stores and distribution centers around the world. Our machine learning and IoT technologies make it possible to collect huge amounts of data from our farms around the world in real-time.
With a decentralized strategy, keeping up unified growing conditions becomes difficult. How do you prevent infections at your vertical farms?
Infarm controls the farms remotely using sensors and a centralized, cloud-based platform that adjusts and improves itself continuously, so each plant grows better than the one before – providing plant seedlings with an ideal combination of light spectrums, temperature, pH, and nutrients for optimal growth. From the cloud at our Berlin headquarters, we’re able to gather up-to-the-minute information about how our plants are growing and how they respond to different growth environments on a minute scale. We can make many of the needed adjustments remotely. Our growers also offer support for the farms on site as needed.
Infarm is the first hydroponic farming company to receive the Global G.A.P certification for the standard of quality and agricultural best practices and follow these best practices to maintain healthy plants for sale and consumption.
Is 2020 the year of hydroponics or aeroponics?
We specialize in hydroponic farms and that’s what we’re passionate about. But the Infarm approach is only one way to tackle the urgent agricultural and ecological challenges of our time.
What has been the biggest hurdle to driving down the price of indoor grown fresh produce
Retailers set the price for the produce we provide in store. The price does not tend to be significantly higher than their other produce offerings.
What is the ideal size of a vertical farm?
It depends on the environment. Our modular farms are easily scalable and rapidly deployable and can transform any space and fulfill any market demand, whether it’s a single unit in a restaurant or thousands of farming units chained together in a distribution center.
What can you grow? What’s been the hardest thing to grow? What’s been the craziest?
We have more than 65 herbs, micro-greens and leafy greens as part of our catalog—from Italian Basil, to Crystal Lettuce, to more special varieties like Peruvian Mint or Wasabi Rucola.
Are you collaborating with crop breeders to improve traits for indoor growing, boosting yields, taste and nutritional profiles? Can you mention any joint projects and what you have learned?
Yes, we are working with a range of responsible partners. However, we are more focused on optimized growing conditions and growing recipes than genetics at the moment as we see a huge untapped potential in improving yield, quality and consistency with that alone.
Where do you think AI will prove most useful in vertical farms by 2021?
AI can help collect and analyze data at a granularity that is remarkable for the agricultural industry. This data can be used to better plan and anticipate the growth patterns, yields and response of produce to different environmental circumstances in a way that allows farming to be implemented in a more strategic, efficient and ultimately sustainable way than ever before. Over the next several years, the marriage of real time data capture and farming will truly revolutionize the agricultural industry.
Where will you expand to next?
We will continue to expand our operations in markets that will host the megacities of the future.