Brandon Alexander spent many boyhood summers on his grandparents’ farm picking cotton, potatoes and peanuts under the hot Texas sun. It’s safe to say farming was not his calling. In fact, he dreaded it.
As soon as he could, Alexander traded his family’s farmland for the greener pastures of Silicon Valley, where he specialized in robotics for companies like Google, working on the tech giant’s drone delivery service.
But after some years in the Bay Area, an unease settled in. He joined tech to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems, and yet, a major issue stared him in the face: Agriculture was not working. It was slow, wasteful and inefficient. It was also killing the planet.
“Here I am at Google X, one of the most well-funded companies of our time, and I’ve seen the advances of robotics and AI and machine learning and all these technologies, and it just felt like we weren’t aiming big enough,” he said.
Instead of returning to the farm, Alexander brought it indoors. In 2015, he founded Iron Ox, a robotics farming company based in San Carlos that produces food with what he claims is greater efficiency and a lighter environmental footprint. The company combines a hydroponic growing system — a method of growing crops in nutrient-rich water instead of soil — and robots, which autonomously monitor and move plants throughout his greenhouses.
As farmers in the West face historic droughts and raging wildfires made more extreme by a changing climate, several Bay Area start-ups have begun to shift farms indoors, betting that the future of farming will happen in smaller, soil-free and sometimes sunless spaces.
Called “controlled environment agriculture,” the term refers to a variety of agricultural practices conducted indoors, whether that be in hoop houses, greenhouses, or full-scale vertical farms, where crops grow in stacked layers under closely monitored conditions.
While some are skeptical that the bulk of agricultural production — namely wheat, corn and soy — can be mass-produced this way, vertical farming and hydroponic systems that grow vegetables and leafy greens have exploded in popularity recently. They are showing up in tech-powered greenhouses, shipping containers and expansive warehouses — even in tiny apartments and backyards.
Proponents say farming this way can maximize yields by growing food year-round with less land-use requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, water and waste.
“I don’t think most people realize that food production is one of the leading contributors right now to climate change,” said Alexander. “We’re just stuck in a process that has inefficiencies every step of the way.”
Iron Ox is working to help the system get unstuck. Using robotics and AI to monitor each plant’s health, the company avoids waste by cutting down the number of inputs, like the need to spray pesticides indiscriminately. It also shrinks water use by 90% compared to a traditional field by recirculating water throughout the system, Alexander said.
“Our goal is zero waste farming,” said Alexander. “That means every liter of water, every gram of nitrogen, every joule of energy needs to create calories, needs to create nutritional value.”
Such farms often can be placed very close to urban centers, said Dr. Paul Zankowski, agricultural science advisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “So you can essentially have something grown one day and eaten the next day, or even that same day,” he said.
Iron Ox is just one of a growing number of players entering this space. This spring, Gotham Greens, a New York-based hydroponic greenhouse company, announced plans to expand into Northern California, partnering with UC Davis to collaborate on research and innovation of indoor agriculture.
Plenty, a vertical farming operation in South San Francisco, has also mixed up the salad market in the Bay Area, flooding local grocery stores and delivery services like Good Eggs and Instacart with their vertically grown baby kale, arugula and mizuna leaves.
Vertical farming systems like Plenty’s grow leafy greens and vegetables on soaring shelves in huge warehouses, monitoring plants for nutrients temperature, oxygen content and pH. Unlike Iron Ox, which uses greenhouses to harness the energy from the sun, Plenty deploys a series of LEDs that supercharge the plant’s ability to grow regardless of time or season.
Critics of vertical farming, like Stan Cox of the Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture, say this method is both costly and energy intensive. “The whole purpose of agriculture is to harvest sunlight,” said Cox. “So, if we take away the sunlight, then we’re basically using fossil sunlight because we’re burning fuels and power plants to feed electricity to the lamps.”
While Cox agrees it may make sense to grow leafy greens and other vegetables closer to cities to increase food access, vegetable crops only make up a small percentage of total agricultural production in the United States. Instead, the lion’s share of crops produced are wheat, corn and soy, which would require massive amounts of energy to grow in such a system, he said.
This argument hasn’t phased Plenty’s co-founder Nate Storey. “We’ve been eating too much of the wrong things for too long,” said Storey. “It’s not a calorie thing — it’s a nutrition thing. Do you want your kids eating Twinkies or salads?”
Storey did concede, however, that it’s more expensive to grow food this way, at least for now. “The quest that we’re on as a company is to basically just grind the cost out,” he said. “To put indoor farming on a technology-cost curve, and to run down the cost as close to as zero as possible.”
But, he asked, expensive compared to what? We often think of the field as a free place to farm, “but when you rewind through time, and you say, what did that field start off as? What was the carbon storage capacity? … How many tens of thousands or millions of years of solar energy were invested in that acre before we turned it over? You start to realize that the field is actually a very expensive place to grow food.”
In a moment where America’s farmland is being lost to erosion, nutrient imbalances and pollution from decades of agricultural practices that have depleted America’s topsoil, these tech-infused farms are creating new food systems in unlikely places, or as Storey puts it, manufacturing land.
“The ingredients of traditional ag — they’re all basically disappearing,” said Storey. “Labor is in short supply… Water is going away… Even energy itself, the energy inputs in the form of the sun, it’s becoming less and less efficient because we have more variable climates, we have less predictability and all of that conspires against yield production.”
In other words, traditional agriculture and global supply chains are locked in a race against a rapidly changing climate, and the outlook isn’t pretty.
“We’re trying to build a lifeboat for humanity,” said Storey. “That sounds really dramatic, but that is to say, we don’t know what the future holds, and we don’t know what it’s like to live in a world with an insecure food supply. It should be our job to build something that ensures that we have means of production.”