There are a lot of new ideas being trialed within the indoor farming space. “One of the hurdles I see is that it’s expected that there are standardized products available that will fit the new vertical farming systems being developed. Many farmers request that manufacturers develop custom components and equipment to meet the specifications of their system and their requirements, assuming that their systems will be the ones adopted by the industry and standardized,” says Chris Higgins, CEO of Hort Americas.”
According to Chris vertical farmers mostly don’t always take into account the required size and scale needed for custom made products. As an example, many of the new farming systems don’t fit the current substrate industry models. And that in itself is ok. Unfortunately, many of these farms aren’t large enough to afford the customizations needed to keep their produce profitable. That then creates additional work for these new farming businesses. Instead of being able to focus on growing, they’re trying to figure out the best way to manage a non-existent supply channel. “Growers keep designing new irrigation models and growing systems without thought of how they are going to source a substrate, consistently and cost-effectively.”
Chris says that there is a lot to learn from the Dutch greenhouse industry. Over the years they have built a great model that supports the commercial greenhouse industry really well. Namely, building a commercial vegetable greenhouse around a single crop, with the scale required to manage cost, labor, and the supply channel. “They are focused on reducing labor by using automation and getting as much efficiency out of the system and supply channel as possible. Dutch and other northern European farms grow several vegetable crops in greenhouses that are quite similar to each other. Here in the USA, the vertical farming industry is new. We are still finding ourselves. Defining our plan, and building learning to build out an industry that will support potential growth.”
“Are we thinking about standardization so we can build a vertical farming industry or are we going to build a bunch of customized farms that keep costs unnecessarily high? Factories are all about processes and standardization. Plant factories should be no different.” Chris wonders whether it’s really a problem to treat an indoor farm as a factory when building it. He states that substrates requirements are a simple yet good example of how there has not been much thought to standardization. But, how planning and simple changes could help farmers be more successful sooner.
A second hurdle Chris sees is a desire to become organic. “Building a new farm is challenging enough! Building a successful indoor hydroponic organic farm with new growers is even more challenging.” Indoor and vertical farmers are rightfully focused on food safety issues. Much of a successful food safety program is based on the ability to have tracking, tracing, consistencies and guarantees. This requires growers to need input products that can fit that model. Unfortunately truly organic products do not always fit that mold. Organics inputs can be hard to standardize as they are often not manufactured in a traditional way causing them to be influenced by outside variables in which only mother nature controls.
This can be seen within the peat moss substrate industry. “The vertical farming industry needs organic substrates to be delivered in a customized fashion, timely and in the highest of qualities. However, the peat moss industry has not necessarily evolved over time with this focus in mind. The industry has evolved to provide a very cost-competitive product to ‘large’ greenhouse growers. A smaller footprint farm that needs the highest of quality in a custom package may simply not have the volume needed to interest a supplier. However, many small farms using a similar product can work together to create the volume that will encourage the suppliers to change their strategies and put the energy and effort needed into new product development.”
So how can an industry be formed in such a competitive time where entrepreneurs are fighting for investor dollars? “Simple, focus on the business practices that truly make your new farming business unique. Then leverage the supporting horticulture industries and use what's available to you in a standardized package. This will allow you to grow quickly and focus on what makes you successful.”