Opinion: The winter and summer promise of indoor farming

Staff
7 Min Read

This winter, arctic air sank much of the U.S. into a deep freeze, with record lows and temperatures plunging below zero. Thankfully, our fresh food supply chain has evolved tremendously to the point that most consumers don’t have to skip a beat or beet during the winter months to keep healthy food on the table.

However, technology is bringing a whole new opportunity to improve the resilience of produce supply chains. Great-tasting tomatoes are growing in Michigan and Virginia. Beautiful strawberries are thriving in Ohio and New York. And fresh salad greens are being harvested from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. That’s the new world of indoor farming, also known as Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA).

CEA facilities like indoor vertical farms and high-tech greenhouses employ a variety of agricultural practices and technologies to create optimal growing conditions by closely regulating factors like temperature, humidity, and light. In many ways, CEA is the ultimate in precision agriculture, enhancing overall efficiency and yields while reducing food waste and the use of precious resources.

Long recognized as a boost for sustainability, retailers and consumers are coming to realize that the year-round availability of fresh, high-quality produce may be one of the most important benefits of indoor farming.

“Our farms are capable of navigating temperature differentials of up to 100 degrees, seamlessly transitioning between extremes,” said Tom Thompson, Chief Revenue Officer, Revol Greens. “With farms in multiple parts of the country, Revol can harmonize our operations year-round across diverse climates.”

The growth of indoor farming is accelerating across the country and around the world. Dwindling natural resources such as land and water, volatile weather conditions, supply chain disruptions, and the need to reduce food waste are all driving this acceleration.

“Vertical farming removes the one impossible-to-control factor that has plagued agriculture for millennia: the weather,” said Matt Williams, Chief Sales Officer, Bowery. “Growing independent of extreme weather conditions is especially important in the frigid winter months when demand for fresh produce remains high, but the choice for locally grown options is very low.”

The next farm bill will be critical to supporting this important and growing sector of U.S. agriculture. Most current farm programs were designed before indoor farming was even imaginable, let alone at a commercial scale.

Congress has an opportunity to build on the bipartisan success of the 2018 Farm Bill by including elements of the Supporting Urban and Innovative Farming Act of 2023, which would improve technical assistance, expand R&D, improve data collection, and assist with workforce development and credentialing.

In addition, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees should look to the Food Supply Chain Capacity and Resiliency Act, which would provide critical alternative funding for CEA farms and other similar capital-intensive industries like dairy or poultry processing by enhancing and making permanent USDA’s previous Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program.

“Indoor farming can help create the ideal conditions for produce such as leafy greens and herbs to thrive, providing a year-round supply of fresh produce that is always in season,” said Viraj Puri, CEO and Co-Founder of Gotham Greens. “With multiple high-tech, climate-controlled facilities in nine States across the country, it’s always the perfect time to grow fresh, high-quality, and longer-lasting salad greens.”

Beyond the confines of the farm bill, high upfront capital costs remain a significant barrier to the expansion of CEA and the deployment of other innovative farming technologies in specialty crops. In 2022, the bipartisan members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture voted unanimously in support of investment tax credits as one way Congress could support CEA producers. This type of time-limited, market-based policy would be transformative for U.S. CEA producers as they look to compete on the global stage but could easily be expanded to support the deployment of innovative precision agriculture technologies for outdoor specialty crop producers, too.

Regardless of approach, technology will be critical to making supply chains more resilient.

“Controlled environment agriculture is uniquely positioned to address food security, as we don’t face many of the same challenges as field farms, including inclement weather, drought, flooding, freezing, or overspray from neighboring farms,” said John Ketler, President, Nature Fresh Farms

“Consumers value consistency and fall in love with brands that can deliver consistently exceptional product experiences,” said Leah Vanwoerkom, VP of Marketing and Brand at 80 Acres Farms. “Now, we’re bringing that kind of consistency to agriculture and to supermarket produce sections across America‚ÄĒdelivering the same fresh, nutritious, and tasty greens in January that we do in June, no matter what’s going on outside.”

As winter begins to thaw, we know that new supply chain disruptions are just around the corner. Congress must do everything it can to improve the resilience of our food system. Indoor farming will be an increasingly important piece of the puzzle, and the next farm bill must recognize that.

For more information:
Tom Stenzel, Executive Director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Alliance
CEA Alliance
thttps://ceaalliance.com/

The CEA Alliance is a not-for-profit trade association supporting and representing indoor farming. Tom Stenzel is the former President and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association, from 1993-2022. His consulting business, the CEA Alliance retains the Stenzel Group.

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