At This High-Tech Farm, the Boss Is an AI-Powered Algorithm
Each morning when she gets to work at Bowery Farming Inc., Katie Morich changes into a clean uniform, puts on a hairnet and cleans her hands with sanitizer. Then she consults a computer monitor displaying all the tasks she needs to accomplish that day. The to-do list’s author isn’t human; it’s a piece of proprietary software that uses reams of data collected at the indoor farm to make important decisions: how much to water each plant, the intensity of light required, when to harvest and so forth. In short, Morich and her fellow human farmers do what the computer tells them to do.
Bowery is part of an emerging industry promising to bring new efficiencies to the millennia-old science of agriculture, focusing for now on greens such as lettuce, arugula and kale. The startup, based in New York and backed by leading Silicon Valley investors, including Alphabet Inc.’s venture arm, says automation, space-saving, vertically stacked crops and a year-round growing season make its operations 100-plus times more productive per square foot than traditional farms.
Morich and Bowery declined to disclose her salary, but the company says she earns more than the median $23,380 annual salary pulled down by a traditional American farm worker. This is how economists hope technology will help the economy: by raising workers’ productivity and bolstering their wages over time. It’s also worth noting that Morich’s job is far safer and less strenuous than tending the acreage of a conventional farm.
Of course, artificial intelligence also has the potential to kill jobs, and Morich’s role, however new, is not immune. Bowery hasn’t yet figured out how to automate everything that needs to get done in the farm, but since she was hired less than two years ago, the company has made progress: Such processes as seeding, once done by hand, are now completed by machines. Morich says she doesn’t worry about job security, but economist Erik Brynjolfsson is more skeptical. “If a task doesn’t draw on human creativity or other human strengths like interpersonal skills, then it’s a candidate for automation,” says Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.” “This could be profitable in the short and medium term,” he says, but as robots become more mobile and dexterous, “I would not count on having a job like that in 10 or 15 years.”
Nor should the rest of us. Machines and automated software may displace 75 million workers by 2022, the World Economic Forum forecast in a report this week. “Technology has always been destroying jobs, and it has always been creating jobs,” says Brynjolfsson. “The answer is not to freeze in any particular set of jobs or skills. It’s to be flexible and be ready for the new jobs, many of which haven’t been invented yet.”
Morich, for one, isn’t standing still: In May, she was promoted to lead a team of farmers, which left her confronting a whole new set of challenges. She’s been working long hours ahead of the opening of Bowery’s second facility. Once things settle down, she plans to read “Managing For Dummies.”
Vertical Farming: Singapore’s Solution to Feed the Local Urban Population
The wealthy island city of Singapore with an area of 710 square km and a population of 5 million, is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. With most parts of the island’s land utilized for urban development, the remaining 250 acres of farmland is hardly sufficient to feed the growing population. As a consequence, more than 90 percent of Singapore’s food consumption is met by imports from over 30 countries. This dependency on the external world makes the country highly vulnerable to turbulence in food supply and prices.
The only way out of this problem is to maximize the use of land for food production. For the island of Singapore, where real estate is at a premium and the land rates are exceptionally high, the only viable option is to go vertical to make the island more self-sufficient in food.
Image Courtesy MNDSingapore
In making this goal of a food self-reliant Singapore a reality, Entrepreneur Jack Ng, with the help of Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), has come up with one of the world’s first commercial vertical farms. This soil based vertical farm produces one ton of vegetables every other day and is five to ten times more productive than a regular farm.
Jack Ng, Managing Director of DJ Engineering, has set up a company, Sky Greens, to produce the vegetables commercially and sell the technology to other countries. The father of two children, who dropped out of school after Secondary 4, came up with this idea during the financial crunch in 2009. Ng adds, ”Food prices were going up because of supply disruptions overseas, so I had the idea of growing more food here”. It took him two years to develop the idea.
It is the first low carbon hydraulic water-driven vertical system in the world to grow tropical-vegetables vertically in the tropics, which gives significant yield and uses less water, energy and natural resources, to achieve a sustainable green high-tech farm.
Image Courtesy MNDSingapore
This vertical farming system, called “A-Go-Gro” technology, grows vegetables in A-shaped towers, each of six meters tall. These modular A-frames are quick to install and easy to maintain. Each tower consists of 22 to 26 tiers of growing troughs, which are rotated around the aluminium tower frame at a rate of 1mm per second to ensure uniform distribution of sunlight, good air flow and irrigation for all the plants. As Ng points out, “The plants don’t get overstressed under the sun… at the same time they can get nutrients in the water equally “.
The rotation system does not need an electrical generator. It is powered by a unique gravity aided water-pulley system that uses only one litre of water, which is collected in a rainwater fed overhead reservoir. This method also boasts a very low carbon footprint as the energy needed to power one A-frame is the equivalent of illuminating just one 60-watt light bulb. The water powering the frames is recycled and filtered before returning to the plants. All organic waste on the farm is composted and reused.
Image courtesy MND Singapore
The vertical farming system is housed in a protected environment of PVC roofing and netted walls to enable cultivation of tropical leafy vegetables under natural sunlight, all year round. All these efficiencies ensure that production costs are kept low. Operational costs include raw materials like soil and seed and electricity to pump the water driving the structures. But electricity costs come to only $3.00 per month per structure.
Image Courtesy MND Singapore
This farming system generates significantly higher yields than traditional growing methods — they are safe, of high qualify, fresh and delicious. Large varieties of tropical vegetables are grown, such as, chinese cabbage, spinach, lettuce, xia bai cai, bayam, kang kong, cai xin, gai lan, nai bai, etc. As the farm expands, Sky Greens intends to grow more vegetables.
Image Courtesy MND Singapore
The whole system has a footprint of only about 60 square feet, or the size of an average bathroom. A total of 120 such towers have been erected in Kranji, 14 miles from Singapore’s central business district, with plans for 300 more, which would allow the farm to produce two tons of vegetables per day. Ng wants to build over 2,000 towers in the next few years. He also has plans to sell this technology to other countries with a price tag of $10,000 for each tower.
Image Courtesy MND Singapore
Sky Greens’ venture is supported by the Singaporean government and has another advantage over other urban farms around the world: abundant natural heating and light. Singapore has year-round temperatures of around 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) and the farm is set in an open area designated by the government as an agro-technology park, miles away from the shadow of city skyscrapers.
Sky Greens stringently adopts green technologies to achieve the 3R (reduce, reuse and recycle). This also helps to achieve sustainability for the good of the environment and to grow safe, high quality and fresh vegetables for consumers. The small amount of energy and water needed to grow vegetables, and the close proximity of the consumer potentially reduces transportation costs, carbon dioxide emissions and risk of spoilage.
Image Courtesy MND Singapore
The vegetables are harvested everyday and delivered almost immediately to retail outlets. Although Skygreens’ vegetables cost about ten percent more than the imported vegetables, they are literally flying of the selves with consumers happy to buy Singapore-grown produce. As one of the consumer mentions, ”The prices are still reasonable and the vegetables are very fresh and very crispy.”
Every day vegetables are shipped into Singapore from neighboring countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and from far off countries such as China, US and countries from Europe. The Singapore government, in order to cut down on this dependency, has an objective of reaching 10 percent local production of leafy vegetables. The current figure stands at 7 percent. This initiative of vertical farming along with the existing 37 vegetable farms, will definitely help to reach the 10 percent local production target. This will not only reduce the “food miles” but also mitigate supply shortages and hoarding. As one government official puts it, “We cannot depand totally on imports. We are a land scarce country and therefore need to be able to maximise use of our land in the area of food production. Local production acts as a buffer against severe disruptions in food supply “.
Vertical farming: The next big thing for food—and tech
“We’re growing in 16 days what otherwise takes 30 days in a field—using 95 percent less water, about 50 percent less fertilizers, zero pesticides, herbicides, fungicides,” says one CEO.
AeroFarms’ research lab is hard to find. The Newark, New Jersey, facility sits inside a storefront with paper-plastered windows and signs belonging to a part-urban-apparel-store-part-nightclub that used to inhabit the space.
Find your way in, however, and it’s like stepping out of a concrete desert and into a futuristic oasis.
AeroFarms specializes in vertical farming. It grows leafy greens in stacked rows that reach to the ceiling without natural sunlight or soil, in half the time it takes a traditional farm.
This year, the 10-year-old company announced plans to develop the world’s largest vertical farm, a 69,000-square-foot project in a former steel mill, down the street in the city’s Ironbound District. The state of New Jersey, Goldman Sachs, Prudential Financial and RBH Group are backers.
AeroFarms says the facility, which is expected to begin producing later this year, will grow up to 2 million pounds of kale, arugula and other salad greens annually. The company’s not disclosing the names of customers, but prices will be comparable to locally sourced greens currently on store shelves: $3.99 for a 5-ounce package.
It’s an emerging trend in agriculture: Vertical farming companies are sprouting up across the United States, trying to change the way vegetables are grown. Among them: FarmedHere in Bedford Park, Illinois; Vertical Harvest in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Green Spirit Farms in New Buffalo, Michigan, and Alegria Fresh in Irvine, California.
Vertical farms are high-tech grow houses that typically inhabit buildings in urban areas. Produce is grown in stacks—in many cases with no soil or sunlight—for local consumption. They utilize artificial lighting, climate control and in many cases hydroponics.
The approach works best for salad greens and herbs, which have higher margins than other produce and can be grown in larger quantities than other vegetables that require more space and longer grow cycles.
“On average, we’re growing in 16 days what otherwise takes 30 days in a field—using 95 percent less water, about 50 percent less fertilizers, zero pesticides, herbicides, fungicides,” said David Rosenberg, chief executive and co-founder of AeroFarms.
Seasonality isn’t a factor for the business, and there’s no risk of poor weather conditions or seed contamination—a worry that comes up when growing non-GMO seeds in an open field. Another benefit: lower transportation costs and less spoilage, since many of these farms supply local restaurants and supermarkets.
AeroFarms grows its greens “aeroponically,” using a nutrient mist on plants anchored in a reusable cloth made of recycled plastic bottles, for which the company holds a patent. Its trays sit under specialized LED lights that generate photosynthesis.
In Portage, Indiana, Green Sense Farms uses a “modified hydroponic ebb-and-flow process” that involves pumping nutrient-laden water into the bottom of tubs filled with ground coconut husk. The water flows into the root system before draining and then being repumped later.
Green Sense Farms occupies a 32,000-square foot warehouse and supplies products to Whole Foods and other retailers in the Chicago area.
“The big advantage of indoor vertical farming is that we have less impact on the environment. We conserve the water, the nutrients, we don’t pollute or generate emissions,” said Robert Colangelo, co-founder and chief executive of Green Sense Farms. “But more importantly, we can grow a large crop yield in a small footprint.”
Colangelo said the “lettuce room” in his farm reaps 1,500 cases of 12-pound lettuce per week.
As a concept, vertical farming has been around for decades, and thinkers like Columbia professor Dickson Despommier are credited with advancing the concept. Until recently, however, it was never economically viable.
Even now, the concept has major drawbacks. It’s capital-intensive to start a vertical farm, energy costs can run very high, and space constraints limit what can be grown. Due to the lack of soil, the produce also doesn’t get an organic label—even though it costs consumers about as much as organic products do.
“The challenge has been to make it commercially profitable,” said Colangelo. “We looked at a number of different methods and through trial and error we figured out how not to build a farm.”
Every project, he said, becomes more efficient as data is collected and the process improves. Colangelo said his team is beginning to develop better seeds through genetic sequencing.
And that’s why vertical farming is finally taking off now: New technology is driving down costs, just as consumers are increasingly seeking out locally sourced, all-natural foods.
Lighting is one of the biggest expenditures. AeroFarms’ Rosenberg said the LED lights it has specifically designed for its farm comprise 50 percent of capital expenditure.
Farmers have discovered that a mix of red and blue LED diodes works best, since the colors optimize photosynthesis and require less energy than standard yellow light.
Green Sense collaborates with Philips Lighting, which has been developing vertical farming light prototypes for the past seven years through its City Farming division.
“In addition to being able to be very targeted, very precisely steer the growth of the plant, it’s also very efficient for lighting, so the energy use is low,” says Gus van der Feltz, Philips’ global director of city farming. He added that the business is growing “exponentially” for the lighting giant.
Vertical farms are implementing technology in other ways, as well. Some like AeroFarms will use conveyor belts to harvest plants, and machines to package them, cutting down on labor costs.
Big data and the software to collect it is also crucial. AeroFarms said it gathers 10,000 data points per harvest cycle, information that enables the company to grow more efficiently as well as for visual and culinary appeal.
“This is really our playpen,” said Rosenberg, plucking a piece of ruby streak, a mustard green, from a tray. “We’re testing varieties, we’re testing to optimize yield, to optimize nutritional density, texture and taste.”
And it does taste good—spicy and almost overwhelmingly flavorful. Not bad for a former dance club in the middle of Newark.