Indoor Food Growing Operations Face Uncertain Future

    28 September 2023

    Indoor food growing operations are seeing both successes and failures in the United States. Some companies in the food industry are investing even as competitors fail.

    California-based Plenty Unlimited this summer began work on a $300 million indoor plant, while Kroger announced that it will be increasing its availability of vertically farmed produce.

    Meanwhile, two indoor farming companies that got strong backing — New Jersey's AeroFarms and Kentucky's AppHarvest — filed for bankruptcy reorganization. And a five-year-old company in Detroit, Planted Detroit, shut its doors this summer.

    Aaron Fields looks at produce growing in vertical farm green house he manages at Eden Green Technology in Cleburne, Texas, Aug. 29, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
    Aaron Fields looks at produce growing in vertical farm green house he manages at Eden Green Technology in Cleburne, Texas, Aug. 29, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

    The industry changes do not worry Jacob Portillo, a grower with Eden Green Technology, an indoor farming company.

    "The fact that other people are failing and other people are succeeding, that's going to happen in any industry you go to, but specifically for us, I think that ... the sustainable competitors ... are going to start winning," he said.

    Support and criticism of indoor farming

    Indoor farming brings growing inside in what experts sometimes call "controlled environment agriculture." There are different methods. One method called vertical farming involves stacking produce from floor to ceiling, often under artificial lights and with the plants growing in nutrient-enriched water. Other growers are trying very large greenhouses, indoor beds of soil in big buildings and using special robots for parts of the farming process.

    Supporters say growing indoors uses less water and land and permits food to be grown closer to consumers, saving on transport. Indoor growing is also a way to protect crops from increasingly extreme weather caused by climate change. The companies often say their products are free of pesticides, although the foods are usually not marketed as organic.

    But critics question the sustainability of operations that can require a lot of energy for artificial light. And they say paying for that light can make profitability impossible.

    Tom Kimmerer is a plant expert who taught at the University of Kentucky. Kimmerer has followed indoor farming alongside his research into the growth of plants both outdoors and inside. He said his first thought on vertical farm companies — especially those that used a lot of artificial light — was, "Boy, this is a dumb idea," mainly due to high energy costs.

    The industry has admitted those high costs. Some companies are seeking to push costs down by using solar power. But even the companies that use a lot of artificial light that does not come from renewables say they can be profitable by eventually producing a high volume of produce year-round.

    But Kimmerer thinks there are better ways to provide food locally and extend the growing season — outdoors. He pointed to Elmwood Stock Farm outside Lexington, Kentucky. The farm can grow tomatoes and greens the whole year using tools like high tunnels, also known as hoop houses. These are greenhouse-like structures that protect crops while still being partially open to the outdoors.

    He thinks investment flowing toward new versions of indoor farming would be better spent on solutions for outdoor farmers like special robots, or money support for regenerative practices.

    Curt Covington of AgAmerica Lending, a private investment company centered on agriculture, is not convinced that indoor farming operations can work - except in special cases.

    Given the high cost of indoor operations, Covington said, "It's just hard... to be very profitable."

    I'm John Russell.

    Melina Walling and Kendria LaFleur reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    vertically -- adv. positioned up and down rather than from side to side

    bankruptcy -- n. a condition of financial failure

    sustainable – adj. involving methods that do not completely use up natural resources

    stack – v. to put things one on top of the other

    pesticide – n. a chemical that is used to kill insects that damage crops

    organic – adj. grown without the use of artificial chemicals

    dumb -- adj. stupid or foolish

    regenerative practices – n. a food production method that supports and nurtures soil health