Generally, plants in indoor-farming facilities are grown in cells stacked for space savings and efficiency. In lieu of the sun, LED lights are used to facilitate growth.
Watering techniques vary. In hydroponic farms, plant roots are placed in nutrient-rich solutions instead of soil. With aeroponics, exposed roots hang down from the plant and receive nutrients via a system that sprays nutrient-filled water.
Indoor farms take different forms in the United States and around the world. Some indoor farms are massive in size and almost industrial in their setup. Others are smaller and hyperlocal, using locations like repurposed shipping containers or greenhouses. Some farms are constructed vertically to minimize the physical footprint or to use existing buildings, while others are more spread out in their design. Farms are being built in urban areas, often in former manufacturing facilities, warehouses or multilevel stores, and in more rural areas, where they are run by longtime family farm owners who are looking for ways to reinvent their businesses in the wake of competition from big farms.
One thing is for sure: There are more of these types of growing operations. AeroFarms is one grower on the march, with a l36,000-square-foot aeroponics farm under construction in Virginia, set to be finished sometime in 2022.
In June, Vertical Roots, a Charleston, S.C.-based hydroponic container farm that’s part of Amplifed Ag, opened its third indoor farm in Atlanta at a facility run by two large produce suppliers in the Southeast. According to the company, the new farm will eliminate the need for transportation to the distributor and will enable produce to be delivered to local customers the same day that it’s harvested.
In mid-June, Morehead, Ky.-based grower AppHarvest revealed that it’s adding two large indoor farms in the Bluegrass State. With a completion date of the end of 2022, the farms will produce non-GMO leafy greens and fruits for shipment to grocers and restaurants.
Also in 2021, Irvington, N.Y.-based BrightFarms opened its newest indoor farm, in Hendersonville, N.C., a 6-acre greenhouse that will deliver to retailers in nearby areas in that state, as well as in South Carolina and Georgia.
Startup Bowery Farms is opening an R&D hub called “Farm X” that will help expand product development. The facility includes a new sensory lab and innovation center.
In another sign of the health of this sector, there’s major seed money – no pun intended – going toward indoor farming. Berlin-based Infarm, for example, is said to be going public following a reported merger with Kernel Group Holdings Inc., of San Francisco. In May, Bowery Farming revealed a new round of funding to the tune of $300 million that lifted the company’s estimated value to about $2.3 billion. Indoor-farming company Gotham Greens, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., revealed $87 million in new funding in December 2020.
While indoor farms are expanding, crops produced in such facilities are expected to grow, too. Most ag tech companies currently produce leafy greens and herbs in hundreds of different varieties. Tomatoes are also grown hydroponically in many places. Better technologies and a greater collective knowledge are spurring innovations in other types of crops grown indoors in an eco-friendlier way. AppHarvest, for its part, is growing strawberries in one of its new locations, and vine crops in another.
Implications for the Retail Produce Section
More and different types of indoor farms are transforming agriculture – and the retail produce department. Since many of these products are packaged on site, supermarket produce sections now feature a greater mix of packaged and bulk items. Offerings like packaged salads and tomatoes also help define and elevate a brand, whether it’s a store brand or a grower brand.
Coming off a year in which consumers prepared more foods and experimented with new products and varieties, several new products grown in indoor-farming facilities have hit the marketplace. Medford, Minn.-based Revol Greens recently rolled out new varieties of chopped romaine salads made with lettuces grown at its indoor farm in its home state. Revolution Farms, in Caledonia, Mich., is launching four new salad mixes. One of Bowery Farming’s latest products is a new Bowery Crispy Leaf Lettuce, deemed to be a “reinvigorated version” of iceberg lettuce. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce).
Grocers can merchandise indoor-farmed produce in a creative way to distinguish their offerings and connect with shoppers. “We’ve worked in a process of co-creating with retailers,” observes AeroFarms’ Rosenberg. “It is an opportunity to deliver innovation and excitement for an exciting category.”