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Farms Are Coming to Cities

Investment is growing in urban farming technology, but is this a realistic solution to food supply problems or a futuristic pipe dream?

Farming has always been considered a rural activity, but investors backing urban farming companies are hoping to bring farms into our cities.

Supporters say urban farms eliminate many of the problems with contemporary agriculture, creating a stable alternative to already strained supply lines. The truth is, our current farming methods are inefficient and unsustainable. Traditional farms use staggering amounts of water to produce crops, which remain susceptible to pests, diseases, and harsh temperatures. After being harvested, this food is stored in refrigerated trucks and transported hundreds of miles to cities, where it is finally purchased after significant nutrient depletion. Eliminating some of those problems has investors betting on this new field.

Coronavirus has opened up the perfect opportunity for urban farms by both exposing weaknesses in the supply chain and by providing cheap buildings for new farms. The pandemic disrupted the food supply chain in the spring of 2020, and a period of frenzied buying resulted in shortages. The exposure of this weakness resulted in a surge of investment in agricultural technologies such as urban farms, which are seen as more resilient due to their locality and protection from natural disasters. Meanwhile, commercial buildings have been abandoned as businesses moved to telework and retail stores have closed down due to coronavirus restrictions. These vacant buildings have given urban farmers the cheap, centrally located buildings needed to start their businesses.

The continued growth of urban farms could result in new and creative city arrangements. Grocery stores could begin growing some of their food directly above their businesses. Wastewater sewage companies could make deals with urban farms to supply them with nutrient-dense treated sewage water to grow their crops. A few schools have even begun their own indoor gardens to teach students about gardening and supply their cafeteria with fresh produce.

Urban farming methods eliminate the problems posed by pesticides, water overuse, weather changes, and long-distance shipment. But urban farming faces unique challenges such as intense energy consumption and a limited number of viable crops. For example, due to the energy required to power the LED lights, the plants must be small and have a short life cycle to justify the energy cost. This means that only compact, low-light, short life cycle plants such as lettuces, kales, and herbs can be farmed profitably in an urban environment. Select fruits and vegetables can also be farmed profitably, but advances in LED efficiency and genetic modification will be needed if urban farmers are to seriously replace these portions of the supply chains.

Elon Musk’s lesser-known brother, Kimbal Musk, may have the strangest, most sci-fi idea for urban farming yet. Musk is the executive chairman and cofounder of Square Roots. Through his business, he has worked to convert industrial storage containers into fully functional farms. Similar to most indoor farms, Square Roots reports that it uses 90 percent less water than traditional farms, while using zero pesticides. Urban farms such as these have learned to optimize the climate of their facilities, giving them the ability to harvest their crops in a fraction of the time. Seemingly small climate changes such as a little more light here or a stronger fan over there can change the taste, texture, and size of plants, perfecting them for sale. This scalable method of indoor farming gives entrepreneurs the ability to move into any city and provide urban communities with fresh, locally farmed vegetables.

AeroFarms, another industry pioneer, has become a symbol for urban farming success. Claiming the capability to produce 390 times more food per square foot than outdoor farms, AeroFarms boasts a 30,000 square foot facility located in Newark, New Jersey. Taking a different approach from Square Roots, AeroFarms uses abandoned warehouses to shelter multistory shelving units which contain their crops. The company has raised a total of $215 million dollars to date, recently entering into a $100 million dollar deal with the UAE to build a brand new 90,000 square foot indoor farm. The UAE’s highly concentrated population, inhospitable weather, and lack of fresh water make it the perfect country to experiment with the unique benefits of indoor farming.

While we have created better machines to plant our seeds and reap our crops and have changed the genetic makeup of the crops themselves, farming has not essentially changed for thousands of years. But farms are becoming less like the pastoral fields of grain we all imagine, instead becoming something closer to a plastic factory: cold, dead, and efficient. Indoor farming companies such as Square Roots, AeroFarms, and Bowery Farms no longer grow their plants using sunlight, rain, or even dirt. Instead, plants are grown with artificial light on sterile metal shelves, many of which rotate through enormous, multistory machines.

While urban farming is an impressive innovation, there is significant concern that it will destroy rural jobs. Trucking, an occupation already threatened by technological developments, would also be affected by the decreased need to ship food long distances. Additionally, traditional farmers may be unable to compete with new urban farms, who can cut costs on water and transportation, while producing superior crops. These farmers may find themselves outmatched by new factory-style farms, where the sun is replaced by light bulbs, the wind by fans, and the rain by metal pipes.

Urban farming isn’t just confined to commercial use. Individuals can start their own modern-day victory gardens with a $20 grow light and a few store-bought starter plants. You may not be able to supply all of your food needs, but an indoor garden is a great opportunity to teach kids about nature and how to care for a living thing. Additionally, there is significant evidence that gardening and exposure to nature can reduce stress and improve overall mental health.

The United Nations estimates that there will be nine billion humans by 2050. That’s a lot of hungry mouths to feed. Whether or not urban farming is the best solution, we need to take a serious look at how we intend to feed our growing cities, while confronting the increasing scarcity of fresh water and arable land. Could we grow most food indoors? What are the social impacts of indoor farming? What would happen to traditional farmlands if they became obsolete? As the number of urban farms increases, so may our answers to these questions.

Jonathan Snyder is a freelance journalist, a Heritage Foundation Academy Participant, and an avid horticulturist. His work has appeared in the Daily Caller, the Conservative Review, and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanMSnyder.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.