Planting the seeds for better vertical farm crops

Humans have been farming outside for around 12,000 years. Over those thousands of years, farmers have stumbled upon or bred specific varieties of plants and seeds that do well in outdoor field farming environments. And as farming has turned from a local business to a massive profit-making behemoth, the process of developing the best seeds for quality, quantity and resilience has become its own inner industry. According to a Food and Agriculture seed industry report, the worldwide commercial seed market in 2018 was over $41 billion. 

As more farming moves indoors, researchers, startups and governments are trying to replicate the process. But instead of tweaking seeds so they are optimized for different weather and soil in the field, they are trying to create the best seeds for controlled-environment agriculture. 

One organization helping fund that research is the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR). Its Precision Indoor Plants consortium, or PIP, was funded with $15 million by the 2014 Farm Bill to create private-public partnerships that encourage industry-specific research. 

"We’ve been adapting crops to grow in different environments for a long time," said John Reich, director of PIP. "And we didn't see people doing that for indoor agriculture. The arguments that I heard at the time were, it’s not going to be economically viable. And I would argue, well, you haven't tried to actually adapt crops to these systems."

So PIP pushed forward, working with vertical farming companies and researchers. Vertical farms have an advantage when it comes to creating the perfect conditions and seed varieties for plants to flourish.

"I call it Salinas Valley meets Silicon Valley," said John Purcell, CEO of Unfold, a seed breeding company focusing on indoor farming (not a part of PIP). "The digitization of agriculture, everybody’s moving that way. But for vertical, it’s really an ideal situation because you have such a data-intensive, highly digitized production system anyway."

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