Can vertical farms be profitable?

When you think about a vertical farm what picture comes to mind? Ricardo Hernandez, horticulture professor at North Carolina State University, said most people think of vertical farms as indoor growing operations that produce leafy greens, primarily lettuce.

“There are both small and large leafy greens vertical farms,” Hernandez said. “Some of them are going out of business and some new ones are opening up. All of them have similar challenges.

“The main challenge is that even though they can produce a lot of leafy greens because they are able to stack the plants, there is a bottleneck in terms of how fast they can produce the crops. The bottleneck is tied to the plant genetics. With the current plant genetics and cultivars that most vertical farm entrepreneurs are using, it is very hard to outperform the lettuce crops coming out of the field. This is especially the case if the field conditions are suitable to grow lettuce such as in California and the southern part of Arizona during the winter.”

For many of the cultivars being grown in the field, including butterhead, red leaf lettuce and baby greens, the same seed is being used in vertical farms.

“In order for the leafy greens produced in vertical farms to actually gain significant market share, the genetics have to be changed in those plants,” Hernandez said. “This can come through conventional breeding or gene editing or through targeted breeding using molecular tools. A new set of cultivars is needed, a new set of genetics that are specific for indoor farms. Right now we are using the genetics that are good for field production. These field cultivars have high plant uniformity in terms of growth under a large variability of environmental conditions. The field genetics enable plants to look the same even if there is a lot of variability in the environment.”

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