The indoor farm revolution
Coronavirus chaos has spurred a grow-your-own food movement — and space-age hydroponic tecnology is rising to meet it.
NOTE FOR 2020 READERS: This is the eleventh in a series of open letters to the next century, now just 80 years away. The series asks: What will the world look like at the other end of our kids’ lives?
Dear 22nd Century,
For all the pain, grief and economic hardship the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has sown, a handful of green shoots seem to have taken root in its blighted soil.
Green being the operative word, because many of these developments could be a net positive for the planet. In lockdown, many of us are seeing what our cities look like without smog. Office workers are experiencing office life without the office; just last week, Twitter announced that most of its employees could work from home forever, while much of Manhattan is reportedly freaking out about what could happen to commercial real estate. Thousands of companies just discovered they can still function, and maybe even function better, when they don’t chain employees to desks or force them to make a soul-crushing, carbon-spewing commute 10 times a week.
And what do more people do when they’re spending more time at home? Well, if you’re like my wife, you start literally planting green shoots. Our house is filling up with them as I write this: lettuce, chard, tomatoes, basil, strawberries, to name the first five shoots poking out of dozens of mason jars now taking up residence on every windowsill. She’s hardly alone; garden centers and seed delivery services are reporting as much as 10 times more sales since the pandemic began. Even the mighty Wal-Mart has sold out of seeds. If viral Facebook posts and Instagram hashtags are any guide, pandemic hipsters have moved on from once-fashionable sourdough starters to growing fresh fruit and veg.
Another one of our cyclical “back to the land” movements seems to be underway, just like during the 1960s and the Great Depression before that. Only this time, we don’t need land. We don’t need soil. We don’t need pesticide of any kind. We don’t even need natural light. Thanks to giant leaps forward in the science of hydroponics and LED lighting, even people in windowless, gardenless apartments can participate in the revolution. With a number of high-tech consumer products on the way, the process can be automated for those of us without green thumbs.
In previous letters I’ve discussed the inevitable rise of alternative meat, a process that has been accelerated by the pandemic. I talked about the smaller, more nutritious plant-based meals we’re going to need for life extension; I assumed such meals would be delivered by drone. But now I see a future with no food deserts, in which every home is filled with rotating space-station-like hydroponics run by artificial intelligence — a cornucopia of push-button farming providing the side salad to your plant-based meat.
Even if you don’t grow your own, robot-run vertical farms and community “agrihoods,” now springing up everywhere, will make amazing-tasting produce abundant and cheap. The “locavores” of our era like to boast about their 100-mile diet. Yours will look more like a 100-yard diet.
Green, not soylent
It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The 2020s, in fact, is when we were slated for starvation, food riots, and big business quietly processing our corpses into food.
That’s the plot of the 1973 movie Soylent Green, set in the year 2022. Fruit and veg have all but vanished. In one scene, Charlton Heston’s detective hero smuggles home a single tomato and a wilted stick of celery, enough to reduce his roommate Sol (Edward G. Robinson) to tears. On the other end of the future, in a lighter but equally depressing vein, the 2006 comedy Idiocracy showed the Americans of 2500 running out of crops because they couldn’t figure out that water, not “Brawndo” (a spoof on colorful sports drinks), is “what plants crave.”
But these dismal future visions are receding thanks to the science of hydroponics — which dates back to the 19th century, no matter its present-day association with growing marijuana. By the 1930s, we’d figured out that what plants crave is surprisingly minimal: nitrogen, a handful of minerals, something to anchor the roots like rock wool or coconut husks, and H2O. Early hydroponic farms helped feed U.S. soldiers as they hopped through the Pacific during World War II.
Minimalist methods multiplied, and are still multiplying. We’re tweaking the spectrum of LED lights for maximum growth, and figuring out ways to use progressively less water and nutrients. My wife’s mason jar seedlings use something called the Kratky method, where you don’t even need to change the water. It turns out this method was invented by a Hawaiian scientist as recently as 2009. And it’s the closest science has yet given us to a free lunch.
Reinventing the wheel
I’m nowhere near as excited by hydroponics as my wife is. But during our quarantine time, even my head has been turned — by the Rotofarm, which I’ve come to think of as the iPhone of gardening. It’s a beautiful device inspired by NASA research on growing plants in space. It uses anti-gravity — literally, when the wheel rotates around its LED light source and the plants are hanging upside down — to grow plants faster. A magnetic cover reduces the glare and increases the internal humidity. You manage it via an app.
Humankind’s oldest technology turns out to be the most efficient use of space for growing plants; even in this 15-inch-wide wheel, you can really pack them in. At the bottom of the wheel, plants dip their roots into the water and nutrient tanks. An owner’s only job is to refill the tanks every week or so, and to snip off their dinner with scissors a few weeks after germination. Some leafy greens, like my favorite salad base arugula, can be regrown without replanting.
Still, to be fully self-sufficient, a future apartment is going to need to have multiple Rotofarm-style devices on the go at once — but they’re designed to live anywhere you can plug in, on coffee tables, on desks, on walls, as eye-catching as artwork.
The main problem with the Rotofarm: It isn’t actually on sale yet. “It feels like we’ve done everything in reverse,” Rotofarm creator Toby Farmer said when I reached him via video chat from his home in Melbourne. “We’ve got the patents, we’ve got the design awards, we’ve got the customers. Now we need to finish the prototypes.” (One key tweak: reducing Rotofarm’s energy requirements, which as it stands could double many users’ household electricity bills.)
Still, orders have come from as far afield as Japan and the Netherlands, from retailers and regular users alike. Farmer’s biggest regret: When Ron Howard’s production company called, hoping to use eight Rotofarms in an upcoming Nickelodeon show set in space, Farmer didn’t have enough to spare.
Rotofarm has been in the works for a few years, but a crowdfunded Indiegogo campaign that closed last month exceeded its $15,000 goal by a third of a million dollars. Farmer, despite his name, had no experience in this area; just 23 years old, he had been a web designer since the age of 12. But he’s scaling up fast, hiring teams in LA and Singapore, soaking up their knowledge (he was keen to assure me he’d hired a lot of 40-somethings for this very reason).
After a projected 2021 release date, Rotofarm’s business model involves making money on proprietary seed pods — though Farmer admits that “there’s a DIY aspect” where customers can make their own. His hope is that official Rotofarm pods will be competitive because they’ll have fewer germination failures, but he’d rather see a world where more people own the device itself. In that spirit, he’s making it modular — the LED light bar can be upgraded separately, for example, rather than making customers buy a whole new device. (As for cost, Farmer says he can’t comment yet — though Indiegogo backers were able to secure one for $900 a pop.)
Might the Rotofarm fail? Of course, just like any other crowdfunded project. Much depends on its price point, as yet unannounced. But it’s far from the only next-level, set-it-and-forget-it hydroponic station taking aim at your kitchen. There’s a Canadian Kickstarter called OGarden that also grows food on a wheel, albeit a much larger wheel. The OGarden was funded in its first six minutes online and is set to cost around $1,000 per unit. There’s Farmshelf, a $4,900 pre-order hydroponic device that looks like a see-through refrigerator, backed by celebrity chef Jose Andres. Users will pay a $35 monthly subscription to get all the seeds they need.
One of these models is the future; maybe all of them are. Right now, these are high-end devices aimed at early adopters (and restaurants, which get a lot of benefit out of showing off how fresh their produce is as customers walk in). But with scale, with time, and with the growing desire for grow-your-own food that Rotofarm and its brethren have revealed, they will get cheaper and more widespread.
After all, the first Motorola cellphone, in 1983, cost $4,000. It looked like a brick and had 30 minutes of talk time. Now sleek, supercomputer-driven smartphones are accessible to pretty much everyone. The same process will happen in home hydroponics.
Give it 80 years, and I can see apartments with built in hydroponic farms provided as a standard utility, much as a fridge is seen as a standard feature today. As more humans move to urban environments — two out of every three people will be in cities by 2050, according to the latest UN estimate — the need for such devices will only grow.
“We strongly believe the future of gardening is indoor gardening and more individual gardens,” OGarden CEO Pierre Nibart told us last year. “Stopping mass agriculture and starting to produce their own little stuff at home.” He said this while demonstrating his family’s daily OGarden routine: His kids harvest most of what they need for dinner from the spinning wheel.
Rise of the vertical farm
Mass agriculture hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory where produce is concerned. And in the post-coronavirus age, we are surely going to become less tolerant of the disease its intensive farming methods have caused.
Food poisoning caused by romaine lettuce, which makes up a quarter of all leafy greens sold in the U.S., has become depressingly familiar. The 2018 E coli outbreak was the worst — it sickened 240 people in 37 states, hospitalized almost half of them, and killed five. But the CDC has logged 46 E coli outbreaks since 2006, and says that every reported case of infection is likely matched by 26 unreported ones. And they’re only just starting to figure out the most likely cause: groundwater contaminated by nearby cattle manure. There could also be infection from passing birds, another major vector of bacteria.
Never mind the wet markets of Wuhan that likely caused the coronavirus pandemic. We’re already sickening ourselves on the regular with a problem that is baked directly into our food system — and it’s affecting vegans as much as meat eaters.
I have no doubt you’ll look at our barbaric farming methods and shake your heads. Why did they use so much water? Why did they transport produce an average of 1,500 miles? Why did they grow it outdoors, where it’s vulnerable to pests, and then use pesticides that had to be washed off? Why did they think “triple washing” did anything to remove bacteria (it doesn’t)? Why did they bother using soil, for goodness’ sake? Didn’t they know what plants crave?
The force of legacy agriculture is strong, but an increasing number of companies are figuring out a better way: the vertical farm, so named because they can stack hydroponic produce in shelves or towers. As I write this, there are more than 20 vertical farm operations being constructed and tested around the country. They use around 90 percent less water than regular soil farms, can grow roughly 10 times more food per acre than regular soil farms, and using precision software they can harvest their produce 30 percent faster than regular soil farms.
Sure, they’re spending more on electricity, but they’re also spending nothing on pesticide. The economics seem irresistible.
Last year, less than 20 miles from where I write this, in highly urbanized South San Francisco, a company called Plenty unveiled its flagship operation, a vast vertical farm named Tigris. Its sheer scale invites the correct usage of California’s favorite word, “awesome.” Tigris can grow a million plants at once, harvesting 200 of them every minute. With $226 million in funding, Plenty says it has already farmed 700 varieties of produce. Right now, the cost to consumers is comparable to non-hydroponic products (I can get their baby arugula at my nearest Safeway for a dollar an ounce); in the long run, it should be cheaper.
And they are far from the only success story. A Chinese startup, Alesca Life, is turning disused parking lots into vertical farms as well as selling plug-and-play shipping container farms. Back in Silicon Valley, a company called Iron Ox is developing robot arms for indoor farmwork. The future looks green, and bountiful, and mostly automated (which is yet another reason you’re going to need Universal Basic Income).
Fresh future: Inside Plenty’s vast vertical farm in South San Francisco.
Which is not to say that outdoor agriculture is going away completely; it’s just going to shrink to the size of a community garden. That’s the basis of new urban developments called “agrihoods,” or multihome communities centered around a professionally managed farm; a just-published book called Welcome to the Agrihood represents their first directory.
Rooftop organic farms, urban allotments: These are places where city dwellers can connect to the land and feel the satisfaction of nurturing their seeds from scratch. Soil may not be necessary to feed us, but sometimes it’s good to feel the dirt in your fingers. Similarly, farmer’s markets are unlikely to go away. In a world where grocery stores are increasingly becoming delivery centers for services like Instacart, there will still be value in meeting and buying direct from the growers of high-end produce.
With big agribusiness heading indoors, with our apartments growing much of what we need and vertical farms providing backup in every city, we’ll also be able to let most of our present-day farmland go fallow. That in itself should take care of a chunk of climate change, considering the amount of carbon-soaking vegetation that springs up on fallow land. Lab-grown and plant-made meat will remove the need for those disease-ridden feedlots. Aquaponics, another discipline where the science is expanding by leaps and bounds, may even let us grow our own fish for food, reducing the strain on our overfished oceans.
No doubt it won’t be all smooth sailing. No doubt we, as humans, will stumble upon fresh ways to mess up the planet and make life worse. But from where I’m sitting, surrounded by soilless germinating jars, the future looks very green and nutritious indeed.
Yours in leafy goodness,
- Written by
- Illustration by
- Edited by
Brittany Levine Beckman