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Farming in the Dark

I think the emergence of “vertical farms” is pretty exciting, and it sure would be nice to see some old buildings in the downtown areas of places like Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, Utica, etc. find a productive use again (more on that particular topic shortly). To date, these farms don’t produce much more than simple greens, it’s not like massive amounts of barley, cantaloupes, and the like are coming out of them, but nonetheless they show promise in that the require very little “land” to grow crops, very little soil, and can be pretty responsive to changing market conditions.

Of course, my fear is that some local politician is going to fall in love with them and start subsidizing them. And why might this happen? Because it turns out that keeping the lights on to run such urban farms is quite expensive, and thusfar is keeping this type of enterprise from becoming more successful. Here is a recent AP News story:

The biggest stumbling block for facilities like these remains power – the amount of electricity to run the lights that help the plants grow. Heating these massive spaces also can be costly.

Experts in the field say this will also be a big challenge for FarmedHere, because of its size.

A few other indoor farms in Wisconsin and Chicago have gone out of business, or are struggling to stay open.

“It’s hard to get there for sure,” says Sylvia Bernstein, an aquaponics supplier based in Boulder, Colo., who blogs about the trend. “There are a lot of people working on it.”

Some growers are experimenting with solar, wind and methane as ways to generate the power. Others are supplementing artificial light with natural greenhouse or window lighting.

Hardej says FarmedHere is looking at methane options. Though she declined to elaborate for competitive reasons, she said the eventual goal is for the facility to be self-sustaining.

Many believe indoor farms that rely on artificial light will become even more viable as energy-efficient LED lighting improves and becomes more affordable.

But Dickson Despommier, a retired Columbia University microbiologist who wrote the book “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century,” says powering farms is still the biggest hurdle for the industry – one that many farmers are often reluctant to talk about publicly.

I will posit a guess. Many of the folks who practice urban farming as such are big fans of “renewables” and “green” energy sources. So the major challenge to the success of their business, which presumably reduces pressures on the environment, is to ensure a reliable AND cheap supply of electricity, exactly the opposite of what the push for renewables delivers. So here we have yet another group of folks who ought to be huge supporters of natural gas production for economic AND environmental reasons. I do not expect them to be marching to Springfield or Albany or DC to demand quick action on smart regulations and to demand support for the expansion of NG infrastructure.

3 Responses to “Farming in the Dark”

  1. Harry says:

    I need some help, here, WC. The “buy local movement seeks to minimize transportation use of fossil fuels, no? So nothing comes in on truck or rail? And I assume if the reefer from California comes in on a reefer, that’s bad because it is unsustainable because in four or five hundred years fossil fuels will be unaffordable, so we had better get used to farming the hard way and mothball the trucks, planes, and locomotives.

    Is that being unfair to their argument? Even though it is difficult not to be a smartass about these matters, please know I am really trying to understand the logic of buying local, at least when it comes to food. (Clothing and shelter are different matters, where, I assume Italian shoes and Carrara marble are exceptions to the buy local rule.)

    Reading the AP story about raising “crops” in abandoned buildings around Chicago in the winter sounds like the hard way to do it, especially if doing “it” means producing a significant amount of food at an affordable price. It sounds like it would consume an enormous amount of energy, not to mention grow lights, and man hours (the story mentioned “workers” planting seedlings on multi-layered racks.

    Not long ago Greta did a piece on North Korea. One segment showed these folks with shovels out in the fields digging irrigation trenchettes along rows of vegetables at a pace reminiscent of a chain gang. Agribusiness this was not. No wonder the country is starving.

  2. Harry says:

    Now I do know somebody who owns a “lights out” factory in New Jersey.

    Happy Easter, WC

  3. Harry says:

    Sorry, WC — I cannot help expressing my frustration with zero comments on your great post, and the crickets be damned. What I worry about is that Sierra Club folks might make you disappear on your next hike to the top of what flatlanders call a mountain, but then I know you know real mountains.

    A former headmaster of my school , a good friend of my brother and me, used to say a man should get his hands dirty every day , good advice. Tomorrow is rototiller day, burn a gallon of gas and ethanol, kill the environment with CO2, bury and kill weeds. Damn, I miss the cows.

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