Down to Business: The ‘dark, complex future’ of farming


DOWN TO BUSINESS – Henry Gordon-Smith and Eric Adamson admit to a dark view of farming’s future.

“Climate disaster is coming, unfortunately, and we have to adapt,” says Gordon-Smith.

“It’s about adaptation now and not about avoiding any problems,” offers Adamson.

Gordon-Smith is founder and CEO of Agritecture, an urban agriculture consulting firm providing what he calls “technology-agnostic” guidance. Adamson is co-founder and CEO of Tortuga AgTech, which supplies fleets of robots to harvest at commercial scale.

Both operate in what’s known as controlled environment agriculture, or CEA, defined as growing crops indoors in greenhouses and vertical farms. They talked about the latest developments in “ag tech” last week in a webinar hosted by The Food Institute.

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Neither man opposes the traditional farm – Adamson is the grandson of farmers – but both are concerned that its typically high consumption of land and water will not be sustainable in the face of population growth and climate change.

Gordon-Smith pointed to projections that 80% of food will be consumed in cities by 2050, yet farms have been pushed farther into the hinterlands by suburban sprawl. “Literally, most cities have no zoning or recognition” of farming, he said, and few have plans to protect their future food supplies.

He favors not only bringing farms closer to cities but also putting some right into cities. His company is under contract with the city of Dallas, Texas, for example, to develop an urban agriculture plan.

Agritecture also is listed among the partners in Glens Falls’ vertical farm pilot, launched earlier this year in a downtown building, which hopes to create a replicable business model for siting grow rooms in any structure with sufficient access to water and energy.

While vertical farms – growing food in trays stacked floor-to-ceiling – may be the darling now in ag tech, they’re very expensive to build and to operate, the men say. And crop potential also is limited primarily to leafy greens and herbs, as flowering plants (tomatoes, berries) require even more energy.

Adamson, whose robots work in greenhouses, not only harvesting but also providing ultraviolet light for pest control and reaping crop data, doesn’t foresee CEA overtaking traditional farms, since crops like wheat, corn and soy are not amenable to an indoor environment.

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But both he and Gordon-Smith see CEA as having a role in what the latter says may be the “dark, complex future” wrought by climate change.

“Who can say, really, when things get really bad, how much of our … food mix we’re going to have to grow indoors, or have to grow hydroponically, just to adapt to the scarcity that is likely to happen as a result of ecosystem collapse,” says Gordon-Smith.

Adamson said he agrees with the “dire” outlook, but adds, “I do think there is sort of silver linings in certain applications of technology … happening right now, and I hope it continues.”

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]. 

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