A major criticism of indoor agriculture is poor economics, which many experts attribute to the variable value of its common crops and the high cost of growing equipment. "But with technology costs dropping and vegetable prices affecting both traditional and indoor farming, we could argue that something greater is holding back vertical farming’s profitability," says Isa Herman, author at Contain Inc.
The bigger picture is that indoor agriculture cannot expand, advance, and have an optimal impact without paving the way for additional indoor-friendly crops. With more high-value crops, indoor agriculture can transcend the threat of external drivers and achieve more efficient and stable economics.
Crop expansion has long been a dream within the industry for this reason. This dream is now coming to fruition with the introduction and growth of vertically grown strawberries.
Plenty has a new strawberry deal with Driscoll’s, and OnePointOne with Cal Giant. These are just two developments in a wide array of strawberry-related business deals. But are strawberries the saving grace the industry needs?
With research and development, strawberries can create a new frontier for vertical farming.
Source: Photo by Duyet Le on Unsplash
Historically, vertical farms have specialized in leafy greens and herbs, says Isa, often the easiest and cheapest path into the industry. Vertical farming has been constrained to similar crop production and growing methods since its birth, and venturing beyond the path of least resistance requires large amounts of capital--a considerable barrier for over half of industry players. "In order to increase crop capabilities and help the industry flourish, discovering newer and more complicated growing methods must be prioritized. Strawberries offer the perfect challenge and opportunity to set forth into unknown territory," she affirms.
With fickle and complex physiology, strawberries are one the most difficult crops to grow with quality and consistency. Indoor farms allow for temperature, humidity, and oxygen control that can optimize specific varieties and desired attributes, making CEA containers a more consistent alternative to traditional farming
Isa adds, In addition to quality control, indoor farms tackle the environmental issues surrounding strawberry farming. Traditional strawberry agriculture typically uses toxic chemicals that lead to pesticide drift, fertilizer drift, and poor air quality. By bringing strawberries into an indoor and controlled environment, farmers can mostly avoid pests and offer the cleanest and most sustainable strawberry options possible.
“To get to the point where the industry can produce the necessary quantity and quality of strawberries, many barriers must be addressed and overcome,” said Matt Kaercher, Sales Specialist at Contain Inc and owner of Kaercher Family Farms. “You need extreme cold, almost a freeze, to generate the sugars within the plant that creates flavor. Another issue to tackle is pollination. In a controlled room, it could be tougher as bees may be tricked into thinking it's winter and begin to cluster.”
Isa continues, If the industry can tackle the strawberry predicament, other advancements will come with much more ease. Companies like Japan’s Oishii are investing in harder, longer processes to “crack the code” on vertically grown strawberries, in an effort to expand crop capabilities in indoor ag. “We’re offering a new way to grow, experience, and access food,” said Hioki Koga, CEO of Oishii. “ We hope to bring a really big paradigm shift to the agriculture industry.”
Many industry players are investing time and money into the campaign for diverse crop offerings. Bowery Farms has opened Farm X, one of the largest and most advanced vertical farming and R&D facilities in the world, to study the cultivation of strawberries, root vegetables, tomatoes, peppers and beyond. Aerofarms has begun a multi-year partnership with Hortifrut berries to research and develop the production of blueberries and other berry varieties under CEA conditions.
"These are just a few of indoor agriculture’s exciting crop advancements. For the sake of shoppers, farmers, and the planet, we are excited to see how continuous research and development can bring indoor agriculture to the next level," Isa noted.