The number of indoor farming companies seems to grow almost daily, each claiming to be more innovative than the last. And yet, there is a lack of data pertaining to profitability, yields and sustainability of the indoor farming industry. The Center for Excellence for Indoor Agriculture (COE) was established for this very reason. The COE aims to accelerate the development of the indoor farming market by fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing, conducting third-party research and recognizing excellence in the indoor farming industry.
The Center of Excellence for Indoor Agriculture has identified ten strategic areas for accelerating the global transition to indoor farming: recognition of excellence, development of metrics, realistic investment expectations, job creation vs. automation, greenhouse vs. vertical farm models, crop diversity, sustainability, training, research into the business aspects of vertical farms, and the development of innovative economic ecosystems.
With respect to recognition, the COE has developed its “Best in Class” awards for growers and manufacturers to recognize excellence, encourage knowledge sharing and hold companies accountable.
Eric W. Stein, Ph.D.
“We really think that recognition of excellence is important to the industry, especially if it comes from an independent body. A lot of people make claims about being the best at everything and are promising things they can’t deliver. We really think that it’s important to separate those people from those who are really doing a good job in the industry. We also hope that it will motivate companies to continue to improve,” says Dr. Eric Stein, founder and executive director of the COE.
Eric also highlighted the ambiguities related to automation and job creation in indoor agriculture, which ultimately comes down to the company’s goals. With labor accounting for roughly 25-30% of an indoor farm’s total operating costs, automation can greatly increase profitability by reducing labor costs. However, social enterprises and triple-bottom-line companies may sooner focus on local job creation and use different targets for profitability in the context of their mission.
The cornerstone of the COE and its ten strategic areas is knowledge sharing, which many experts have cited as necessary for the industry’s continued growth.
“I think that one of the biggest needs in the industry is knowledge sharing. Everybody is approaching this from a proprietary perspective, which is typical of emerging industries. But if this industry is going to mature, we need to make sure that we have benchmarks. At the COE, we look at it from an industry level of analysis as opposed to an individual firm level of analysis.”
While research and development currently focus mostly on production, the COE considers the entire system from the supply chain to the point of sale. According to Eric, the focus on plant production has effectively over-shadowed equally important factors such as the logistics of the supply chain, packaging, distribution, channels and marketing.
“There has been a lot of focus on the growing process, which is very important, but in the end, to get products from a seed supplier to the company growing it to a supermarket, lots of things need to take place. It’s not just about having the best growing system. How you get it to consumers is equally important, if not more so.”
With the pandemic limiting face-to-face interactions within the industry, the COE has focused on building its member website, expanding social media channels and building relationships with growers, manufacturers, and partners such as Indoor Ag-Con. Most recently, the organization has forged a relationship with Sage Publications, a major publisher of academic books, journals and other scientific resources to feature research related to indoor farming and sustainability.