E Pluribus Unum Food Supply

Let’s consider disruptive innovations. Examples that justifiably get immediate attention are smartphones, streaming video, LED lighting, digital photography, and pretty much anything else digital or involving the internet. But a deep dive into the history of farming is often needed to appreciate the impact of disruptive innovations in agriculture. Here are a few historical examples that completely changed how we grow and get our food and are often taken for granted in the 21st century:

  • Jethro Tull’s seed drill was instrumental in launching the British Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century
  • combine harvesters eliminated multiple steps in processing grain after harvesting beginning in the late 19th century
  • industrial refrigeration revolutionized food storage in the early 20th century
  • tractors eliminated the use of horses, mules, and oxen to pull field working equipment by the mid-20th century
  • no-till farming has displaced traditional tilling for many types of crops over the past 40 years and has had a huge impact on soil preservation and other ecological improvements

And now, we can add controlled environment agriculture (CEA), which includes hydroponic and vertical farming.

Every once in a while, I come across an article emphasizing the disruptive significance of CEA, particularly indoor vertical farming, implying that it could someday replace traditional farming with even cereal crops being grown indoors. A few months ago, a Forbes article quoted an up and coming hydroponics CEA company on the west coast as saying “Research shows that hydroponic farming could well be the future of global agriculture, combining the benefits of local outdoor organic farming with the high yields of large-scale agricultural production.” The impression that this could apply to all farming gets reinforced by news of projects where crops such as rice are grown in modern multi-use buildings.

Is it theoretically possible that all of our food could be grown indoors? Yes. Is it optimal? Probably not (at least not for the foreseeable future on Earth – farming on Mars is another story). We can gage that opinion against the limits of farming technology over the years. Let’s take a closer look at that select list of historical disruptive agricultural innovations:

  • Seed drills & combines: only apply to annual (or semi-annual) plants grown from seed in rows. Granted, this includes staple crops such as corn, wheat, and barley that comprise the bulk of our farmland, but not to other essential food sources like fruit trees and vines. Although, several types of orchard harvesting machines are in use and continually being invented.
  • Refrigeration is only required for fresh produce and meat.
  • No-till farming does not work for root vegetables.
  • Tractors are not necessarily practical for greenhouses – a rapidly growing farming segment – or micro-farms.

Ah, yes. Micro-farms. At first glance, they seem to be mere gardens for which the word “farm” is a bit grandiose. Yet, what if micro-farms were utilized strategically such that their combined effect was to reliably provide specific types of crops, such as herbs and micro-volume specialty produce, to local customers at a lower price and higher quality than “real” farms? This is a concept that is taking shape in many cities where local markets for produce grown in local lots or on building rooftops and terraces is being created.  Organizations such as Urban Farming are working to transform what has been a type of business sustained largely by esthetics and community support into a serious form of distributed agriculture that will only enhance the social and esthetic attraction of produce from local soil. Included in a distributed agriculture system are most types of CEA, including greenhouses and hydroponic farms.

Distributed agriculture is analogous to distributed energy where localized energy generation is beginning to aggregate to the extent that some utilities are now seeing it as a very useful supplement during certain peak and valley power demand times. And how that distributed energy gets used is also part of the strategy. For example, electricity demand is often highest during the day when solar PV panels can collect the most energy. The power from PV panels is most efficiently used directly as DC electricity to do things like charge phones and power PC’s and apply unused electricity to battery banks for those same applications during the night.


Or consider that traditional windmills in the U.S. were built, and are still sold, to pump water for irrigation and watering livestock without any electricity being involved.

Utilities can plan for these types of independent, supplementary, distributed power sources when estimating how much electricity is needed from local and regional power plants.

Hydroponics, micro-farming, and greenhouse innovations are beginning to disrupt the agricultural industry in the same way and will continue to do so until an economic equilibrium is reached where costs are minimized and quality meets expectations for each farming method. What will that look like? At this point, a pretty good guess is that most grain and orchard crops will continue on their current path because of the high volume and low density of these crops; but vegetables and fruit that can be grown in high density or vertically year-round will become standard CEA crops, with many of them also being grown in micro-farms. Ponix MicroAg pPods™ will fill an integral niche and support a broad spectrum of these industries. Today, distributed farming is best suited to urban centers, but once it becomes an established business model, there is no reason it would not be adopted nearly everywhere, just as solar PV panels are becoming ubiquitous.

Each farming technique and technology has a place in food production – it’s just a matter of figuring out which is best for each product in each market. Vertical farming is destined to play a critical role for certain applications just as advanced greenhousing will continue to establish itself as a source for year-round produce, new equipment and techniques will improve efficiencies in farming field and orchard crops, and micro-farming will fill its niche of supplying low-volume and specialty produce for local markets. The next time you go to the grocery store, think about the increasing diversity of growing methods for all the produce you see.

And as you are checking out, remember:
from many farm sources, one cartful of food.

The Challenges of the Great Outdoors

The view from our 35th floor apartment balcony in Manhattan was magnificent. We loved watching the most amazing sunsets and dramatic storms approach from the west. Well, except that the storms would pretty much trash our tomatoes, dill, and whatever else grew taller than the balcony wall and would wash out sprouting plants if the rain was particularly heavy. Even when the weather was good, the fairly constant wind drew an impressive amount of water from all the plants.

Our next apartment was on a 4th floor with a spacious balcony that was quite sheltered, so we didn’t have to worry about storms damaging our plants. This time the assaults came from other directions in the forms of insects (and not enough of the good kind), airborne fungi, and limited sun exposure. Our pPod™ prototypes shifted from serving as plant shelters to rather effective plant hospitals when the damage began to take a toll.

Sounds like a lot of hassle just to have some herbs and a few vegetables growing outside. My cousin began to think the same thing when I set him up with a container garden and started giving him advice on how to deal with mildew and white flies. With his response of “You’re taking the fun out of gardening!” I knew that it was time to let nature take its course and, fortunately, it was reasonably kind to my cousin’s neighborhood this year.

So imagine your very livelihood being dependent on an entire field of crops surviving hailstorms, plagues, and pestilence. Seed and soil quality can be reasonably well established at the beginning of a growing season, but once sowing is done, nature’s potential onslaught and your ability to respond turn farming into a bit of a gamble. After many generations of farming in the U.S., the result is a federally subsidized $15 billion crop insurance industry and an entire section of our federal tax code being dedicated to the unique risk management of agribusinesses.

Everyone who tries to grow any type of food or flower outdoors has to deal with some aspect of the complexity of nature. Healthy plants can handle the challenges for which they are adapted, but only to a certain extent. Of course, as with humans, a qualitative stress such as the introduction of a new disease can be devastating. But quite often, the problem is quantitative, such as too much or too little rain. Even with insects and micro-organisms, the balance between the harmful and beneficial ones varies from year to year, sometimes past a tipping point. And that’s without human interference.

Interfering with nature is a tricky business. Unless we want to revert to being strictly hunters and gatherers of our food, modifying a patch of land for cultivation is our only path for survival. I use the word “path” because the transition from simply planting and harvesting a crop to managing a modern farm continues to evolve.

Bronze Age hedges, Cornwall (cornishhedges.co.uk)

Irrigation was one of the first manipulative innovations which eliminated the risk of drought, and walls were utilized early on to control animal and human traffic through fields, orchards, and gardens. High hedges and tree rows were also used as wind blocks. Later, chemicals were applied to additionally inhibit the flow of insects and effects of airborne seeds, fungi, bacteria, etc.

Of these advancements, the one that has led to the greatest control of a growth environment is that of the enclosure. From stone walls to greenhouses, concepts for putting a physical barrier between a plant and whatever might keep it from thriving have tracked engineering advancements throughout history. Some of the earliest accounts from the Roman Empire and Korean Joseon Dynasty describe what were essentially barns with translucent oil cloth stretched between joists in place of the roof and then closed up during particularly cold weather.

        Kew Gardens “Palm House” greenhouse

As plate glass windows were developed in Western Europe, greenhouses took a leap closer to modern CEA structures.

Full greenhouse enclosures not only allowed temperature control, the physical barrier minimized the need for chemical weapons in the battle against pests and invasive weeds. Focus could then be on maximizing plant health and product quality.

Today, we have the technology to completely control every aspect of a plant’s interaction with the rest of the world, resulting in higher yields with higher quality and less waste. But just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. Currently, the business case for clean-room-type hydroponics is difficult to justify for much more than leafy and micro greens. Even conventional greenhouses are not cost effective for orchards or grain crops in the vast majority of situations. Many people are also of the opinion that an overly sanitized farming process removes desirable flavor from vegetables. I have to confess that I prefer field peppers to greenhouse peppers if they’re not too beat up.

I believe that we are at the point where the real challenge is no longer in figuring out how to control agricultural environments, but rather in deciding the most intelligent way to approach each situation. Commercial farmers are already grasping how to assess the risks and rewards of adopting and investing in CEA methods. Urban farmers and other micro-farmers are learning this as well, though with a different set of constraints and unknowns.
More on the details of CEA business strategies coming up.