Whoever coined the bumper-sticker slogan "No Farms, No Food" was probably not thinking of Ed Horton's farm.
It's housed inside an office building in Irvine, California, population 243,000. It uses LEDs for light, ground-up coconut husks in place of soil and city water purified by reverse osmosis. At this point the farm occupies just 5,800 square feet -- an eighth of an acre.
But it's producing -- and selling -- food. White-tablecloth restaurant chefs and grocery-store produce departments buy herbs and micro greens (the stem and first two leaves of a plant) from Urban Produce, Horton's company. "We shipped 600 cases of wheatgrass today," Horton said as he led me on a quick tour of the farm.
The secret to this productivity is altitude. Horton's plants are stacked in 25 rows on each of 354 metal carriers soaring 23 feet high. By using the space above it, an eighth of an acre can produce 16 acres worth of food.
Vertical farms are sprouting up across the country. The day I visited Urban Produce the New York Times carried an article about a 46,000-square-foot vertical farm going up in Newark, New Jersey http://tiny.cc/…). The day before, the Wall Street Journal reported that venture capitalists are investing big money in high-tech farming, including the vertical variety (http://tiny.cc/…).
Challenges abound, to be sure, and there have already been vertical-farm bankruptcies. Among the biggest challenges are ramping production up to commercial scale and finding markets for the product. "A lot of urban farming is going on," Horton said, "but very few have figured out how to make money at it."
Horton plans to be among those few. He is aiming for a 58% profit margin once the farm is producing at scale. He's looking for financing for six more Urban Produce operations.
As an Urban, I am naturally interested in any business that bears my name. Indeed, the day after I toured Urban Produce, I drove to Las Vegas and had dinner at an Indian restaurant named Urban Turban.
But you don't have to be an Urban to find vertical farming fascinating. It may or may not realize its tantalizing potential, but it's certain to expand our understanding of what's possible in agriculture.
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