Farming has always been considered a rural activity, but investors backing urban farming companies are hoping to bring farms into our cities.
Supporters say urban farms eliminate many of the problems with contemporary agriculture, creating a stable alternative to already strained supply lines. The truth is, our current farming methods are inefficient and unsustainable. Traditional farms use staggering amounts of water to produce crops, which remain susceptible to pests, diseases, and harsh temperatures. After being harvested, this food is stored in refrigerated trucks and transported hundreds of miles to cities, where it is finally purchased after significant nutrient depletion. Eliminating some of those problems has investors betting on this new field.
Coronavirus has opened up the perfect opportunity for urban farms by both exposing weaknesses in the supply chain and by providing cheap buildings for new farms. The pandemic disrupted the food supply chain in the spring of 2020, and a period of frenzied buying resulted in shortages. The exposure of this weakness resulted in a surge of investment in agricultural technologies such as urban farms, which are seen as more resilient due to their locality and protection from natural disasters. Meanwhile, commercial buildings have been abandoned as businesses moved to telework and retail stores have closed down due to coronavirus restrictions. These vacant buildings have given urban farmers the cheap, centrally located buildings needed to start their businesses.
The continued growth of urban farms could result in new and creative city arrangements. Grocery stores could begin growing some of their food directly above their businesses. Wastewater sewage companies could make deals with urban farms to supply them with nutrient-dense treated sewage water to grow their crops. A few schools have even begun their own indoor gardens to teach students about gardening and supply their cafeteria with fresh produce.
Urban farming methods eliminate the problems posed by pesticides, water overuse, weather changes, and long-distance shipment. But urban farming faces unique challenges such as intense energy consumption and a limited number of viable crops. For example, due to the energy required to power the LED lights, the plants must be small and have a short life cycle to justify the energy cost. This means that only compact, low-light, short life cycle plants such as lettuces, kales, and herbs can be farmed profitably in an urban environment. Select fruits and vegetables can also be farmed profitably, but advances in LED efficiency and genetic modification will be needed if urban farmers are to seriously replace these portions of the supply chains.
Elon Musk’s lesser-known brother, Kimbal Musk, may have the strangest, most sci-fi idea for urban farming yet. Musk is the executive chairman and cofounder of Square Roots. Through his business, he has worked to convert industrial storage containers into fully functional farms. Similar to most indoor farms, Square Roots reports that it uses 90 percent less water than traditional farms, while using zero pesticides. Urban farms such as these have learned to optimize the climate of their facilities, giving them the ability to harvest their crops in a fraction of the time. Seemingly small climate changes such as a little more light here or a stronger fan over there can change the taste, texture, and size of plants, perfecting them for sale. This scalable method of indoor farming gives entrepreneurs the ability to move into any city and provide urban communities with fresh, locally farmed vegetables.
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They’re Trying to Shut Us Down
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