The future of CEA and urban farming

Gearing up to the second Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit on June 19-20 in New York, the event organizers found out what the summit’s Research Partner Cornell University has been working on, with insights from Neil Mattson, CEA Director & Associate Professor, School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture.

What’s been your focus this year about CEA and Urban Farming?
A key project has been a collaboration between our FCEA group and Cornell economists Charles Nicholson and Miguel Gómez. Together we’ve produced a report focused on the economic and environmental footprint and viability to scale urban farming.

We looked at scenarios of producing leafy greens locally in New York and Chicago. For each city our three scenarios were:

  1. Field production in CA and shipping to the city
  2. Greenhouse production in a hypothetical facility with 1-acre crop canopy
  3. Vertical farm production in a hypothetical warehouse facility with 1-acre crop canopy

In the New York City scenarios, we considered CEA production in the middle of the city and in the Chicago peri-urban CEA production about 50 miles outside the city.

The comparison led to some interesting discussion points around bottlenecks and priorities for the sector to scale. I’ll share more on that below, and in my presentation at the summit.

Aside from that important study, from a plant-science standpoint, Cornell CALS has also continued its work to improve energy-efficient leafy greens, tomatoes and strawberries using LED lighting strategies and CO2 enrichment to photosynthesize through its Greenhouse Lighting and Systems Engineering (GLASE) research efforts.

We’re also collaborating with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to understand the nutritional content of CEA-grown kale vs field-grown kale.

How do the Greenhouse and Plant Factory compare economically with open field farming?
In terms of economics, our study found it was cheapest to produce in a field and ship thousands of miles with a landed cost of $3 per kilo of lettuce. The New York city greenhouse scenario cost $8 per kilo, including production and short shipping distance. Plant factory was slightly cheaper. In peri-urban Chicago, with cheaper land rates, greenhouse production gave a cost of $7 per kilo. Again, the plant factory cost came in slightly cheaper.

The lower plant factory cost in both scenarios unlocks potential opportunities in urban areas where a high land cost is a significant contributor to the overall cost. Plant factory is more efficient use of land due to its vertical stacking, with a smaller footprint overall.

Labor costs are a significant 50% of the high cost in our un-automated CEA scenarios. As a follow up to this study we’re looking at a scenario with automated production for seeding plants, moving channels through the greenhouse and harvest. We can reduce labor cost by two thirds to three quarters, bringing us much closer to field production costs overall.

Another option is to move to cheaper land rural production within a couple hundred miles outside the city. In this scenario, we can reduce cost of production by a further $1 per kilo. Taking automation and site selection into account CEA greenhouse production down to $4 per kilo may be possible which is very close field-grown and cuts 2,800 miles from transportation.

In all scenarios, CEA was much more water-efficient than any other field, of course really important in this time of climate change. Hydroponic systems are far more water-efficient by design, with water recapture and reuse.

Read more at Indoor AgTech NYC

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