Urban farming, or more precisely, vertical farming is increasingly appealing to venture capitalists embracing agriculture-tech.
Global population growth and the need to feed a hungry world is one of the major reasons behind the development of vertical farming, a totally controlled form of agriculture using technology.
One vertical farming startup backed by VC funding is Square Roots. Founded by Kimbal Musk and Tobias Peggs, the company sprouted up in a parking lot outside a former pharmaceutical factory in the Brooklyn, New York last August. Today, the company has raised $5.4 million in a seed round, led by New York City-based Collaborative Fund.
Musk, the younger brother of Elon Musk, says he wants to get fresher food to more Americans, building trust between consumers and the farmers who supply their produce, as well as identifying problems and developing solutions to the modern challenges of this new industry.
In an interview with VentureBeat, Musk said, “We want to bring the farm to a new generation of farmers.” He says he has been meeting with farmers across the country over the past several years as he grew restaurant chain, which includes The Kitchen, an upscale bistro, and Next Door, a more casual eatery with a lower price point.
He is hoping his “business in a box” idea will get more young people involved in farming. He agrees it is the younger generation that will come up with the innovations and high-tech solutions needed to overcome the problems modern farmers face.
“You have these 180-acre family farms, where you might only make $23,000 a year, and it’s so unattractive to the younger generation,” Musk says. “It’s about how do we get farmers to have a higher crop yield, to get more profitable? I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with farmers, but I don’t have all the answers.”
Investments in vertical farming start-ups growing
Square Roots isn’t the only recipient of funding this year. Plenty, founded in 2014, is a Silicon Valley-based urban farming startup that raised $200 million in July, led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund.
Plenty CEO Matt Barnard told Business Insider their goal is to revolutionize the way the world grows food and sell that food for lower prices than typical produce is sold in grocery stores.
This vision is all well and good, but there are problems with energy costs. This new method requires a large amount of LED lighting to grow the produce, and this ends up making the cost of vertically farmed produce the same price as organic produce (sometimes even more).
Rob Leclerc, the co-founder, and CEO of Agfunder, an online investment platform for ag-tech start-ups says that while vertical farming does have plenty of advantages over traditional agriculture methods, they are still costly ventures until they can become fully automated.
“Vertical farms layer on an energy cost which makes it hard to compete with traditional greenhouses and outdoor growers, which get free energy from the sun,” Leclerc tells VentureBeat in an email.
The cost of LED lighting is coming down
In June 2016, Quartz ran a story on AeroFarms, a New Jersey-based vertical farming company. At that time, it was shipping arugula, kale, and spinach from a farm inside a former Newark nightclub to grocery shelves around New York City. At that time, a five-ounce bag of their greens was selling for $3.99, the same price as EarthBound, an organic grower in California.
Square Roots’ green produce isn’t cheap, not by a long-shot. A single serving bag of greens costs $7.00, although Peggs says customers have the added advantage of knowing who grows their produce.
The advancements in light-emitting diodes (LEDs) since 2010 has also led to dramatic decreases in their cost, falling 90 percent in the last seven years, according to the Department of Energy. The DOE also says LED efficiency and lifetimes have doubled.
Big data analytics provides first world vegetation maps
Artificial intelligence and big data analytics have been applied to produce the first global map of the world’s regions where vegetation can and cannot be grown.
The Valencia University study assesses the global abundance of the phosphorus and nitrogen content in vegetation. Also assessed is the efficiency in water use. The scientists’ aim is to show where the best places are for agriculture and where environmental conditions are changing in response to climate change. The application of artificial intelligence and big data methodologies also enables an assessment to be made of our planet’s biodiversity.
Together with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur, nitrogen and phosphorus are the principal chemical elements incorporated into living systems. They are strong signals of the suitability of different parts of the Earth for agriculture. Both nitrogen and phosphorus are needed by plants in large amounts (although excessive quantities can also cause environmental damage). In soil, nitrogen and phosphorus are typically found in the form of nitrates and phosphates.
The new global maps produced by the researchers gathered information from Google mass satellite observation data and then used a specially developed artificial intelligence program to assess the data and produce the color-coded maps. The satellites gathered temporal and spatial observations, and this produced a series of maps characterizing different biophysical parameters. To develop the maps required numerous observation-measurement pairings to be number crunched.
Speaking with Phys.org, lead researcher Álvaro Moreno explained why the maps were significant: “Until now, it was impossible to produce these maps because the required conditions weren’t available. We didn’t have powerful and accurate machine learning statistical tools, nor did we have access to great bodies of data or cloud computing.”
The new maps and the process behind them are published in the journal Remote Sensing, in a paper titled “Regional Crop Gross Primary Productivity and Yield Estimation Using Fused Landsat-MODIS Data” and an companion article in Remote Sensing of Environment titled “A methodology to derive global maps of leaf traits using remote sensing and climate data.”
The next steps are to use the technology to further assess the impact of climate change and to assess other important societal and ecological questions like the pressure on food production to meet population growth and the development of new technologies, like biofuel production.
Growing more with less – Using AI and robotics to grow crops
Startup Iron Ox has created a fully autonomous farm in San Carlos, California. The hydroponic indoor farm relies on two robots to plant, care for and harvest produce, and by doing so, they grow 30 times more produce than traditional farms.
San Carlos, California-based Iron Ox is a startup company founded in 2015 by Brandon Alexander and Jon Binney. The two founders decided to get into robotic farms after working at a number of other robotics companies. But as Alexander notes, in his stint at Google X, it was more about building cool technologies, rather than how robots could be used. As he told Tech Crunch, “We’d seen lots of novelty robotics stuff and wanted to avoid that.”
The two would-be urban farmers also realized that farming is very hard work. The U.S. alone has more than two million farms with 925,000 people to perform tasks like planting, seeding and inspection, contributing to total production expenses of $350 billion in 2017.
Then, there is the knowledge that agricultural productivity will need to increase by 60 percent in order to feed the world population by 2050. These factors inspired the young company to tap into a database of agricultural and horticultural knowledge, along with robotics, to design an indoor farm of the future.
Today, most of the leafy greens grown in the U.S. are produced in California and Colorado, particularly in the winter months when it’s colder in the rest of the country. So fresh leafy greens are actually two or three days old by the time they reach the supermarket. “That’s why we switched to indoors,” Alexander said. “We can decentralize the farm.”
The ‘robotics-first’ approach
“At Iron Ox, we’ve designed our entire grow process with a robotics-first approach,” Alexander said. “That means not just adding a robot to an existing process, but engineering everything … around our robots.”
In the company’s first 1,000-square-foot farm, which is already in full production, there is a 1,000-pound robot named Angus that can lift and move the large hydroponic boxes in which the produce is growing, and Iron Ox ’s robotic arm for all the fine manipulation tasks, like seeding and transplanting.
With this current setup, Alexander says they can produce about 26,000 plants per year — equivalent to the output of a one-acre outdoor farm. With this system, the farm grows leafy greens such as romaine, butterhead and kale, and herbs like basil, cilantro and chives — using sensors and collision avoidance systems “similar to that of a self-driving car.”
Alexander claimed that Iron Ox is able to do the equivalent of 30 acres of outdoor farming in just a single acre on its robotic farm. The company wants to build more small farms near urban centers so produce is fresher upon arrival. “Right now fresh produce really isn’t all that fresh. It’s traveling on average 2,000 miles from farm to grocery store, which means a lot of people are eating week-old lettuce or strawberries,” Alexander explained
5 Cargill digital initiatives making food production more sustainable
How the agriculture giant is using the cloud, AI and facial recognition tech to transform the agriculture industry
Agricultural production needs to increase by 70 percent globally by 2050 in order to keep pace with population growth and shifting diets, according to the UN.
Agriculture giant Cargill is turning to digital technology to tackle this challenge.
Whether through creating predictive software to give shrimp farmers real-time insights into their operations, or applying smart weather sensor technology to row crop irrigation to help farmers cut back on water usage, Cargill is creating IoT technologies to help farmers make their processes more sustainable.
“We are trying to bring digital transformation to the industry,” Neil Wendover, an executive from the Cargill Digital Insights department, told Bloomberg.
1. Mobile Shrimp Monitoring:
Cargill’s iQuatic software is a cloud-based digital platform specifically for aquaculture that syncs with a farm operations dashboard so farmers can monitor what’s going on in their farms using data collected in real-time.
iQuatic powers Cargill’s iQShrimp app, which receives data about shrimp size, water quality, feeding patterns, and health and weather conditions from shrimp ponds by way of sensors and automatic feeders.
This data is then sent to the app that uses predictive technology to give farmers insights and recommendations on feed management strategies for the shrimp, and the best dates for harvest.
2. Connected Crop Irrigation:
Cargill is also looking to help farmers on land by using smart weather sensors and IoT technology on sprinklers connected to smartphone apps to help Nebraska beef farmers cut back on water usage in crop irrigation.
“By using smart weather sensor technology in row crop irrigation, this program could help save 2.4 billion gallons of irrigation water over three years, which is equivalent to roughly 7,200 households over that time period,” said Hannah Birge, water and agriculture program manager at The Nature Conservancy about the partnership. “The reduction of pumping also means less energy used and less labor expense for farmers.”
3.Animal Facial Recognition:
Facial recognition is big these days — even on farms.
Earlier this year, Cargill invested in Cainthus, an Irish startup that has developed facial recognition for cows. Cainthus uses artificial intelligence and imaging software to identify and monitor individual animals on a farm. The cows are monitored for what they eat and how much milk they produce in an effort to help farmers manage their herd.
The images are collected from drones, satellites, CCTV, and smart devices.
Cargill also entered a partnership with Cainthus to bring its technology to dairy farms globally.
4. Cocoa in the Cloud:
Tracking and tracing cocoa shipments has largely gone untouched by technology. To change that, big companies like Cargill started utilizing mobile applications to get a better picture of where their cocoa comes from.
Traders from the companies, local traders and partner organizations started to collect GPS coordinates of each farm and details about the farmer themselves, like if the farm is within a protected forest area.
The system keeps a record of cocoa transactions, acting as a digital ledger. All this information is stored on a cloud-based database.
Cargill also has a target to commit to sourcing “fully traceable farm-to-factory cocoa” by 2030.
5. Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator:
Last year Cargill partnered with tech startups Techstars and Ecolab to create the Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator, a “mentorship-driven” program with a goal of safer, more secure and sustainable food supply.
Participants in the accelerator are expected to be tackling problems like supply chain management, food safety, waste reduction, and traceability.
“This Accelerator allows us to invest our time and resources in technology shaping the future of agriculture, and to address some of the greatest challenges facing the food system,” said Cargill’s CIO Justin Kershaw in a Cargill press release.
The accelerator is expected to continued for three years and it recently announced the inaugural class of startups who will spend 13 weeks building their businesses.
DX Journal covers the impact of digital transformation (DX) initiatives worldwide across multiple industries.
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