Scaling scissor lifts are a daily duty for a vertical farmer overseeing the growth of about 10 million heads of lettuce annually from Kalera’s 4.5-acre indoor farm located in the Parc-59 industrial park in North Houston. Kalera, an Orlando-based vertical farming company, opened the 85,000 square-foot vertical farm a year ago to supply Texas and Louisiana markets with freshly grown leafy greens – betting that consumer demand for fresher, sustainably grown produce will buoy its growth.
Its lettuces are available in Trader Joe’s and H-E-B grocery stores in Houston, with more locations expected as it expands its national retail footprint by more than 40 percent this year. After going public through a $375 million merger in June, Kalera is gobbling up industrial real estate across the country.
It recently opened a farm in Denver, adding to its existing locations in Atlanta, Orlando and Houston. Next are new farms in Seattle, Honolulu, St. Paul, Minnesota and Columbus, Ohio.
Kalera is part of a nascent but blossoming vertical farm movement. Consumers’ appetite for locally grown produce, technological advances in agriculture and efforts to shorten supply chains are fomenting the growth of the vertical farming in Texas and around the world.
Investments in the sector could help cities like Houston access better, more sustainable produce, advocates argue. Like much of Houston’s produce, most of the region’s lettuce is imported from out of state, typically traveling hundreds of miles from California before winding up on a Texas dinner plate. Not only does this create more greenhouse gases, it also means Houstonians are munching on older greens.
Companies like Kalera want to upend this model by opening vertical farms near large cities. The vertical farms can transform industrial warehouses into fields of greens growing under energy-efficient LED lights.
Stacking the greens means Kalera can compress more crops into a smaller footprint. Within its 64,000 square feet of growing space at its Houston farm, Kalera estimates it’s using about 97 percent less space than a standard farm. And they’re more productive, too, because crops grow year-round without exposure to floods, droughts and the vagaries of nature.
One acre on a vertical farm can produce the equivalent of four to six acres on a standard farm, according to estimates from Columbia University.
Unlike greenhouses, the indoor farms rely on lights, not the sun, along with an elaborate system of sensors and artificial intelligence to cultivate the perfect environment. The crops thrive in a steady supply of nutrient-rich water.
“There are no seasons here,” said Fenn, who is the assistant general manager of horticulture at Kalera in Houston.
There are also no pests, no weeds and no exposure to animal pathogens such as salmonella, E.coli and listeria. At night from his home in Conroe, Fenn opens his smartphone to check on the progress of the crop before he goes to sleep, using Kalera’s proprietary software to monitor the farm’s sensors. He can change the lighting, humidity and temperature with the flick of a finger.
“I like to call myself a farmer,” he said, “but this is the easiest form of farmer.”
Another one from the Old Unpublished Posts Home, this time from later in October. I’ll be honest, I forgot what point I was going to make when I flagged this, other than the fact that it sounded cool and provided a potential new entry point for urban farming. This is a time of year in which we think about food a lot, so that’s as good a reason as any to put it out there.