The Case for Standardizing Reporting and Benchmarking Yield in CEA Facilities – Urban Ag News
By Jenn Frymark and Charu Sharma
The Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) industry is growing rapidly, driven by the increasing demand for fresh, sustainable and locally grown produce globally. As the industry continues to evolve and adopt new technologies, it is essential to standardize reporting metrics. This not only will improve the overall industry output by setting benchmarks for best practices and operating procedures but also will drive the adoption of efficient technologies and techniques that can improve performance.
Yield is a key determinant of business revenue and a powerful metric for evaluating the performance of a facility. It can be measured in various ways making it difficult to compare and benchmark aspects such as varieties, technologies, and operational procedures across the industry. Internally, organizations likely have a variety of metrics to measure yield that range from total biomass production to units or cases produced and sold per week. However, to compare yield across various types of technology within the leafy greens CEA industry, it is important to have a standard reporting unit.
Yield expressed as kilograms per square meter per year or pounds per square feet per year is a measurement that allow for an objective view of overall performance that is indifferent to the growing method, technology selection, plant weight, plant density, plant age at the time of harvest, and crop turns throughout the year. This type of measurement also is useful when comparing CEA to outdoor field production, which is typically reported in terms of tons per acre per year.
The greenhouse tomato industry provides a good model to follow when it comes to yield reporting. Growers in this industry often report yield as kilograms per square meter per year for all areas under glass. This includes the entire growing compartment, including walkways, and does not include non-growing areas of the facility such as packing and storage. The yield is annualized to account for downtime during cleaning, seasonal changes in production, interplanting influences on harvest, and other factors that can influence total annual production. When comparing yields, it is important to consider all the time and area needed to grow the plant. While most large greenhouse tomato growers do not produce their own transplants, if we were to compare this yield to a grower that does produce transplants, the time and area required for transplant production should be taken into consideration for a fair comparison.
Similarly, for the leafy greens CEA industry, it is important to measure the total annual biomass harvested, excluding roots, over the entire area required during each stage of growth – from germination to harvesting mature plants. This provides a more accurate picture of the operation’s overall productivity and can be a valuable data point for evaluating performance.
The leafy greens CEA industry is full of innovation and this method of yield benchmarking is valuable across many forms of production – from single layer greenhouses to multi-layer vertical farms. To compare the performance across different growing systems, it is important to estimate the annualized yield over the 2D ground floor area of the growing compartment for the greenhouse or vertical farm. This floor area should include everything in the climate-controlled compartment, including walkways and all areas needed from seed to mature plant. When multiple layers are used in production, there will be a larger total canopy area compared to the floor area. In these cases, it is still recommended to use the 2D ground floor area. There will be variation between some growers as to where certain equipment, such as seeding equipment, is placed and whether it is captured in the climate-controlled area or support/technical buildings. What’s key is to be aware of those nuances when making comparisons.
The lack of standardization is not intentional. As discussed in this article, standardization in CEA reporting is a complex topic with multiple factors and approaches. In most industries, regulatory requirements and certifications create incentives to standardize reporting. This has gradually started in the CEA industry with the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board explicitly requiring applicants to disclose the area under active production and the total facility area; however, more consistent reporting is required for the standards to become effective.
As CEA production becomes more mainstream, building a standardized measurement system will be vital to understand best practices and to evaluate the economic viability of new production methods. This also impacts how we measure the sustainability of different CEA facilities in terms of energy consumption, water consumption, and carbon footprint. With the federal government tightening the climate risk assessment process and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission introducing a proposal to standardize climate-related disclosures, cleaning up reporting and benchmarking practices has never been more important.
Jenn Frymark is the Chief Greenhouse Officer for Gotham Greens.
Charu Sharma is the Chief of Staff to the Chief Greenhouse Officer and Environmental Sustainability Lead for Gotham Greens.
About Gotham Greens
Gotham Greens is an indoor farming company and fresh food brand on a mission to transform the way we approach our food system, putting people and the planet at the forefront. Gotham Greens produces and delivers long-lasting and delicious leafy greens, herbs, salad dressings, dips and cooking sauces all year round to retail, restaurant and foodservice customers. A Certified B Corporation™, Gotham Greens sustainably grows high-quality produce using up to 95% less water and 97% less land than conventional farming