Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Fascinating New Developments in Urban Farming

Getting farm fresh food into dense cities has always been a serious of trade offs between things that help food quality and things that help food durability.  This is really the essence of getting foods produced and shipped anywhere and I suppose has always been the essence, but a couple of articles I've stumbled upon lately really have a couple of eye-opening facts.

To begin with, in The Attack of the Tomato Engineers, talks about a team of process engineers from Analog Devices and some of the tremendous economic advantages they can take advantage of,
For years, farmers and restaurateurs in New England knew that their tomatoes didn’t stand up to those grown in other states, such as Florida and California. “It’s a known fact that a lot of the local farmers sell zero percent of their tomatoes to local restaurants and supermarkets,” O’Reilly said. “The majority of it becomes ketchup.”

Indeed, it becomes ketchup, which means that New England farmers make about $0.40 a pound for their tomatoes, as opposed to the $4 per pound they’d get by selling them into restaurants and supermarkets.
With a 10x increase in sales price if they can produce a better tomato, it's a really a tremendous opportunity.  So Analog engineers attacked like any other process optimization. How do we optimize what he spend to earn 10x as much on a batch of tomatoes? 
“When the ADI guys came into the kitchen, it was like the Rolling Stones had arrived,” recalled Francis Gouillart, author of the blog, The Co-Creation Effect and founder of the Experience Co-Creation Partnership. “The tattooed chefs, looking at the engineers in their ADI outfits, were saying, ‘Who are these guys with their instruments?’”

The “guys with the instruments,” however, left their mark. In part thanks to their work, a growing number of chefs and farmers in Massachusetts now talk about the “scientification of taste” as if it were an established branch of engineering. And as a result of ADI’s destructive analysis and its subsequent role in Massachusetts’ 31st Annual Tomato Contest in 2015, a select group of chefs and farmers now have a better understanding of the role chemistry plays in producing a tasty tomato. Moreover, ADI’s engineering team has since topped off its analysis with the creation of an electronic reference design aimed at helping farmers grow the kinds of tomatoes that end up on dinner tables.
But farming isn't all about producing trendy tomatoes for urban hipster restaurants filled with austere young men in beards and flannel.  It's also about using a very valuable resource (real estate) to produce locally-grown vegetables and fruits, too.  In the last couple of months I've seen articles like this one on new indoor farming techniques that use "spare" building space inside big cities.  It doesn't seem feasible right of top of my head that they could pay to run indoor lights that grow the food and still sell for a profit. 
If you're going to grow food indoors—especially in a windowless warehouse like the 30,000-square foot Green Sense Farms, one of Philips' customers—you'll need light. The LEDs provide a substitute for the sun, but they also go further; Philips designs "light recipes" that can make particular crops grow faster or produce more nutrients.

"We can tailor these recipes to the photosynthesis response of the plant," says van der Feltz. "By being able to tweak the spectrum—the color the plants see—and put the lights exactly where they need it, we can dramatically increase yields and improve fruit density and quality."
Quartz reports this month the cost of quality LED lighting has fallen low enough to make it profitable to farm in a New Jersey night club
LED Lighting doesn't have to be white or red anything else.  Let's say their study on ideal taste shows the leaves get their best texture on one color while the tasters love the "nutty overtones" they get with another color.  Not having production workers to worry about it makes it that much easier.  Just setup the colors to provide the hours at each color.


  1. Glad you are feeling well enough to,post.
    And I consider the taste of tomatoes a humanitarian issue. I remember when they went to tomatoes capable of being mechanically harvested in the Redlands (S. Dade County). They tasted like cardboard. Yuk.
    And I can only imagine the "other" indoor "farming" applications.

  2. I love the concept of growing indoors and finding new and better ways to feed people. But I take issue with the claim that the cost of quality LED's has gotten low enough. Here is an example of what they use:
    $800 is not something I would ever place next to the words "low enough" in a sentence.

    I bought exactly two LED bulbs for home use. The first one, probably 10 years ago, lasted less than a month. After a couple of years they looked a little better so I tried again and it lasted a little more than a week. I have 12V LEDs in my travel trailer and they work fine. But as expensive as they are I'm not likely to buy anymore for the house.

  3. I wonder what the total weight of tomatoes for the four dollar a pound slice of the market is compared to the weight of tomatoes for the ketchup market.

    And I wonder what the market saturation point of the four dollar tomato is.

    I followed the link about growing in a night club, and found the article lacking in hard numbers and information.

    And maybe these indoor farms are really test projects for when more localities legalize marijuana!

    And no mention of labor costs in harvesting and processing.

    1. John, these lights are a direct out-growth FROM marijuana growing. In Californica, it is legal to grow a small number of plants (19? 20? I can't remember), so a number of companies (including some in China) developed - some years back - various LED lights at certain frequencies and combination of frequencies (reds and blues and violets, mostly) to encourage growth, force budding, etc.

      I ordered one off of the Web for one of my step-sons who lives - and grows - in Northern CA. It was a specialize3d light, and did, in fact, cost a bit over $800. Part of the cost is the knowledge that growers will be making some good money, which allows the sellers/manufacturers to push the prices much higher than they would be fir standard LEDs.

      That being said, my whole house is using very low wattage LED bulbs now, and most were bought on sale for $4-$6 each, although I just purchased a couple of packs of Philips LED E27 (standard American 120v light bulb size) for around $12 for a pack of four.

    2. I meant to add that bulbs made by Philips and Feit, etc., are reliable and durable.

      I've bought some very cheap ($1-$2 per bulb) directly from China and they were crap that was poorly constructed. A number of them didn't even work the first time, but some of those have actually continued to work for the six months I've had them so far.

      LED bulbs have long been an interest of mine (mostly flashlights) but I am glad to be buying the E27 regular scrw-base bulbs because I have a solar system, and when our grid power is down, my industrial batteries will last a bit longer thanks to the LEDs.

  4. I gotta agree, "low enough" cost wise, in this case, is only "low enough" if you're growing in bulk. For the average consumer who wants to grow a tomato plant in the winter its still extremely cost prohibitive. Though I too would be interested in the actual hard numbers of the night club farm.....

    I will say, we've got several LED bulbs around the house, and I like them quite a bit. So far they've all lasted several years with no deterioration of the light quality. Unlike the compact fluorescents which degrade fairly quickly over a matter of a few years.

    1. Ruth.

      Silicon Graybeard spoke about LED lighting during two epiosodes of this podcast series.

      SiG spoke about LED lighting on episodes 89 and 90.

      Episode 89 has LEDs part one, and 90 has LEDs part two.

      I have links below.

      If you listen to the whole podcast great, but make sure you listen to the Tech Tips part to hear Silicon Graybeard talk about LED lighting.

      And this podcast for LED lights part two.

      A lot of good knowledge and information.

      As our elderly fluorescent work lights fail, we are spending more money to replace them with LED worklights, brighter and longer lasting, (fingers crossed)

    2. I will have to find the time to listen to them. I'm not a big podcast listener, but I'll book-mark them.

      Don't get me wrong, I love the concept of LED grow lights for home gardeners. But every set I've looked at just isn't cost effective in the shorter term. On the other hand costs ARE continuing to drop, so maybe at some point in the near future I can replace my regular grow lights or LEDs without feeling like I've broken the bank.

  5. Currently, besides E27 standard lamp bulbs, there are companies selling strips of SMDs (Surface Mounted Diodes) with various size diodes that put out various levels of lights. These strips come in 15-16 foot rolls, which can be cut to length and used under kitchen cabinets to light the counters, mounted on shop light bodies (saving wattage and not needing to be replaced like fluorescent bulbs), inside cabinets and book cases, etc.

    These are really neat, use a lot less power than any of the halogens or fluorescents, and are really flexible in how they can be used. Here is an example of some I purchased through Amazon: