By 2050, the world will need to feed 9.7 billion people — 2.4 billion more than today.
A growing movement of people believes that indoor farming could be a solution to the increasing demand for food. Instead of natural sunlight, crops grow under LED lights and in a nutrient-rich water-based solution that mimics soil.
Using this technique, farmers can grow produce year-round in urban areas, monitor progress with embedded sensors, and deliver produce within hours of harvest.
A startup called Local Roots makes indoor farms, called TerraFarms, from shipping containers. The team operates the farms near its customers, which include large corporate offices (SpaceX is one of them) as well as giant distribution centers for restaurants and grocery stores.
Local Roots will deploy more than 100 new TerraFarms in 2018. The company is also moving into a new, 165,000-square-foot manufacturing and headquarters in Vernon, California.
We toured a farm in New York City in early December. Take a look inside below.
Each container can produce about 4,000 heads of lettuce every 10 days, Local Roots cofounder Eric Ellestad told Business Insider. The farms can technically grow any fruit or vegetable, but greens are the most economically viable crop.
Existing customers include healthy fast-casual chain Tender Greens, farm-to-table restaurant chain Mendocino Farms, and SpaceX, the aerospace company run by Elon Musk.
Elon Musk’s brother, Kimbal Musk, cofounded a shipping container farm compound called Square Roots in Brooklyn, New York in 2016.
On seven rows of growing trays on two opposite walls, leafy greens sprout from soil-free growing beds with nutrient-rich water.
Instead of sunlight, they rely on a sheet of blue and pink LED lights overhead, which uses proprietary technology. Ellestad said Local Roots’ LEDs use less energy than “off-the-rack” ones.
The seeds grow in proprietary pods that mimic soil. The primary material depends on the crop. Baby kale, for example, grows best in pods made from peat moss.
Compared to traditional outdoor farms, TerraFarms can run on 99% less water since it’s recycled through various systems, according to Ellestad.
Farmers hired by Local Roots control the container’s levels of pH, oxygen, and temperature, and set preferences automatically via an app. Sensors embedded in the growing trays track all of this data.
The team can adjust everything manually using panels on the walls.
The company has also installed cameras above the growing trays. They use an artificial intelligence technology similar to facial-recognition and relay growing data to Local Roots headquarters.
Local Roots is one of several companies in the burgeoning indoor farming space.
AeroFarms, one of the world’s largest hydroponic farming companies, launched in 2007 and operates out of a 69,000-square-foot warehouse in Newark, New Jersey. Another called Bowery Farms started delivering hydroponically grown produce to tri-state-area retailers this year.
Several other vertical farming companies have failed, however. In 2015, Google’s Alphabet X abandoned its automated vertical farm project, because it couldn’t figure out how to grow staple crops (like grains) hydroponically. VertiCrop, North America’s first vertical farm, was founded in 2011 and declared bankruptcy after only three years.
But unlike others that work regionally, Local Roots is focusing efforts on distribution centers that send produce to supermarkets and food retailers across the US. Ellestad said this strategy will allow the company to sell its products for the same price as regular produce to as many people as possible.
The company would not disclose what the exact retail price will be for its produce.
“In the short-term, we’re going to be the first vertical farming company to truly hit commercial scale,” he said. “In the long-term, our mission is to improve global health through increasing access to and the affordability of healthy, responsibly grown food.”