Many companies are trying to revolutionize agriculture by looking toward the sky, with tall warehouses full of growing equipment extending upward, but Philippe Labrie is looking down. Labrie is the CEO and founder of the pre-seed startup GreenForges, an underground farming company founded in 2019 looking to take vertical farming technology underneath buildings. Earlier in his career, Labrie thought he, too, would be looking to the sky for farming potential with rooftop greenhouses, but he found that the sky does, in fact, have a limit.
“I stumbled upon a paper that was analyzing how much food production capacity we can do in cities using rooftop greenhouses,” he said. “No one was asking the question, ‘Can we grow underground?’”
GreenForges is trying to take advantage of space that would otherwise go unused, under our feet. After two years of research and development, the company is planning its first pilot underground farm system north of Montreal in spring 2022 with Zone Agtech, an incubator for agricultural technologies. The company’s farming system will use existing controlled indoor agriculture technology, including controlled LED lighting, hydroponic growing, and climate controls for humidity and temperature, but with a novel approach.
Instead of taking over large warehouses, GreenForges will drill 40-inch-diameter holes into the ground underneath new buildings and lower the equipment into the hole. Maintenance and harvesting will be done by mechanically pulling the crops up to the surface where a human can fix or pick them. The pilot program will place the farms 15 meters deep, but GreenForges has plans and models for farms up to 30 meters deep.
According to Labrie, moving the vertical farms from above ground to below comes with a host of other benefits, some directly solving the largest obstacle controlled environment agriculture farming faces - energy costs.
“For surface vertical farms, one of their biggest energy loads is constantly having to work that HVAC system because the exterior temperature is changing - hot, cold, wet, dry. They have to work it really hard just to keep the environment stable,” Labrie said.
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