Indoor Ag to Broaden, Add Extra Tech in 2021

Growers expect to add more technology to various forms of indoor farming for the rest of this year and into the next, according to indoor farm analytics company Artemis’ 2020 State of Indoor Farming report released yesterday.

The report, done in partnership with Startle, is based on a survey of 205 enterprise horticulture facilities, including those with high- and mid-tech greenhouses, indoor vertical farms, and container farms. Respondents answered a number of questions related to crop yields, labor, suppliers, and input. Underlying all of these things is the continued march of technology into the indoor farming space.

A commonly known point the report notes is that indoor ag typically requires more technology than traditional agriculture. For example, while glass greenhouses still use natural sunlight, the addition of LEDs can speed up the grow process for plants or provide more light in parts of the world where sunlight isn’t abundant. Meanwhile, more indoor ag companies these days are turning to tech that can help workers manage operations — an especially important point as farms get bigger and bigger.

To that end, survey respondents’ number one reason for implementing tech is “managing operations more efficiently” (39 percent of respondents). Lowering the cost of production (20 percent) and increasing yield (19 percent) were next. Getting better-quality crops, interacting with customers more effectively, and meeting food safety and compliance standards were also on the list.

In the next year, 19 percent of respondents said they plan to implement data and analytics, while 18 percent will add climate control systems and 17 percent will add labor tracking and cultivation management software. Following those items, growers plan to add more LEDs as well as post-harvest automation equipment and organic nutrients. Remote monitoring and automated scales for weight measurements were also mentioned.

The majority of growers, 73 percent, also plan to expand significantly over the next five years, with a combined expansion of 544 acres total. Mid-tech greenhouse companies — glass or polycarbonate greenhouses that use some tech but not “to the full extent possible” — will expand the most, at 206 acres, followed by container farms at 156 acres and indoor vertical farms at 84 acres.

Echoing this, numerous companies in the space have announced expansion plans in the last few months, from vertical farm company Kalera’s ongoing trek west across the U.S. to Square Roots’ expansion of its container farm network and a second 60-acre greenhouse from AppHarvest. In terms of acreage, greenhouses are likely to grow the most, since they typically don’t use vertical farming technology and often grow crops that require more space than the compact leafy greens that are so popular.  

And speaking of leafy greens, those along with herbs still account for almost half of all crops grown via indoor ag right now (26 percent and 20 percent, respectively). Microgreens (16 percent) are next, followed by tomatoes (10 percent). Other crops, such as strawberries, may become more prevalent as companies leverage new technologies and methods for growing indoors.

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