Inside Phoenix’s high-tech plan to grow its own veggies
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As the number of farms in the US declines but the population continues to grow, cities are experimenting with indoor farming as a way to produce locally grown food for their residents.
And some cities, like Phoenix, Arizona—the country’s fifth-largest by population—are doing it with the help of federal funding.
Nestled within the 2021 American Rescue Plan were hundreds of billions of dollars for state, local, and tribal governments, $396 million of which went to Phoenix. The city allocated $16.7 million of that money to the Phoenix Resilient Food System, a set of programs designed to make its food supply more resilient, including everything from community food banks to higher-tech projects like indoor farming.
“We see this kind of farming as a way to, one, address our water issues; we know vertical farming takes much less water, and that’s probably highest on our agenda right now. We are certainly in a drought situation and looking for ways to be more water-efficient,” Rosanne Albright, environmental programs coordinator in the city of Phoenix’s office of environmental programs, told Emerging Tech Brew.
Phoenix is also one of 17 cities with a USDA county office committee dedicated to urban agriculture, including vertical and indoor techniques. These committees are part of the USDA’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production that was established by the 2018 Farm Bill.
The great indoors
This year, Albright said, Phoenix has awarded a total of $500,000 to agri-food tech innovation projects in the city, including to the vertical farming startup Homer Farms and to Arizona State University’s Indoor Farming Lab.
Homer Farms, founded in 2019, plans to build a 10,000-square-foot facility in Phoenix, which would be one of the first indoor-growing operations in the city. The city claims Homer Farms’ future facility, which it intends to find a location for within three months, “will produce a minimum of 500,000 pounds of produce per year while utilizing 95% less water than traditional agriculture.”
California ranks as the country’s largest lettuce producer, harvesting 195,500 acres in 2021; but Arizona is in second place, harvesting 63,600 acres in 2021.
Moving even a small portion of production indoors could save a significant amount of water from being used in growing lettuce, as it usually takes anywhere between 38 and 50 inches of water per acre to grow lettuce, and vertical farms often claim to use 95% less water in operations compared to traditional farms.
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“Secondly, there can be a lot of production in a small space,” Albright said. “Within the cities, there certainly are larger expanses of land, but a lot of what we have can be anywhere from one acre to five acres, and with that kind of space, you can grow a lot of food in an indoor setting.”
But not everyone sees vertical farming as a scalable technology. Climate and environmental scientist Jonathan Foley told Emerging Tech Brew that vertical farms are currently more well-suited to growing specific types of crops than becoming core food sources.
“These are garnishes, essentially, to people’s diets,” Foley said. “They’re not the mainstay of what people need every day, which are more grains, more vegetables, more fruits, nuts, proteins, pulses, things like this. Those are not really grown in vertical farms. they’re good at growing pot, or they’re good at growing salads. That’s kind of what they were always designed for.”
There are also questions about the energy usage of vertical farms. Albright said in an email that Homer Farms intends to pilot solar energy at its forthcoming facility.
For its part, Arizona State University’s Indoor Farming Lab will provide workshops for existing farmers and new entrepreneurs alike to learn about vertical farming, “researching more cost-effective ways to do small-scale vertical farming” and lighting; “and exploring a way to use food waste as a fertilizer in indoor vertical farms,” Albright said.
The city also awarded grants to improve water use in existing city farms and upgrade energy efficiency through the use of solar panels, Albright said. It’s also looking to identify opportunities in unused spaces as potential sites for future farms through the EPA’s Brownfields program, she said, which is centered around cleaning up and revitalizing contaminated properties.
And although Phoenix could have plenty to gain, cities on the East Coast could stand to benefit the most from indoor farming projects, according to Jeffrey Landau, director of business development and partnerships at urban agriculture consulting firm Agritecture.
That’s because the cities are further away from the West Coast, where most US veggies are grown, per the most recent national agricultural census, and also have high population density, he said.
“Most of the major vertical farming operators are looking at the East Coast,” he said. “There’s just such a big market opportunity to replace traditionally West Coast, soil-based grown product.”