OptimIA program analyzes fruitfulness of US vertical farms (UPDATED)

May 21, 2021
In a research fact sheet, a USDA Specialty Crop Initiative team outlines results with a model for calculating profitability potential against various factors that impact the return on investment of CEA operations.

As we have heard from many industry speakers and reported in horticultural lighting coverage, global urbanization and population growth will continue to put a strain on food supply. Such wide-scale concerns also breed opportunities for innovative research which will ultimately support technology development that helps improve food supply.

I recently learned of Optimizing Indoor Agriculture (OptimIA), a Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) supported by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The larger objective is to extend the knowledge base regarding controlled environment agriculture (CEA) often referred to as indoor farming, vertical farming, and indoor agriculture to support long-term goals of:

  • Increasing uptake of CEA practices
  • Addressing food supply quality, quantity, and availability, particularly in areas where food inequities are prevalent
  • Bringing sustainable, profitable operations and techniques to CEA growers

The initiative draws from team members across education and commercial horticultural/agricultural organizations: Dr. Greenhouse, Inc.; Michigan State University; Ohio State University; Purdue University; University of Arizona; and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). Some of the participants are familiar names from speaking at past LEDs Magazine events, such as Purdue’s Cary Mitchell, MSU’s Erik Runkle, and Dr. Greenhouse president Nadia Sabeh.

Digging in to the OptimIA website, I saw the project team had posted a fact sheet of research highlights titled “Potential Profitability and Economic Success of Indoor Agriculture in the United States.” These highlights were collected in preparation for contributing a chapter to the upcoming book Plant Factory Basics, Applications and Advances. The fact sheet offers a balanced summary regarding challenges to quantification of profitability, benchmarking data, and other factors. Researchers used a Japanese Plant Factory with Artificial Lighting (PFAL) base-case model to perform their analysis of the profitability of US-based vertical farming.

The most interesting points I have included in the infographic above. But this general conclusion from the highlights comes as no surprise, really: “The changes with the most potential to increase profitability are those that focus on enhancing market price for the quality of product delivered, decreasing capital costs, and improving elements of biomass (plant size, density, and type of crop).” You can download the fact sheet from the OptimIA website.

That’s where the hands-on research will come in and why we continue to refine the program for HortiCann each year. We continue to pursue experts with scientific findings, case studies, and system developments that can decrease the capital costs of horticultural solid-state lighting (SSL) and AgTech systems and enhance grower operations with solid data and monitoring for buildable results. For example, look to last year’s HortiCann presentations on updated research findings on light spectra for various plant characteristics, data-driven automation, and our blog on the grower panel, which centered around end-user experiences in applying LED lighting to greenhouse operations lessons learned and how they plan to evolve operations with future updates.

Watch the HortiCann Light + Tech website for updates to the program and register to join us for the virtual event Sept. 28–29, 2021.*

Visit the OptimIA website for more information on the project and other published research.

*Update: The free registration option for HortiCann Light + Tech ends on July 8, 2021. Registration will be $25 until Sept. 1. Late registration after Sept. 1 is $50.

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About the Author

Carrie Meadows | Editor-in-Chief, LEDs Magazine

Carrie Meadows has more than 20 years of experience in the publishing and media industry. She worked with the PennWell Technology Group for more than 17 years, having been part of the editorial staff at Solid State Technology, Microlithography World, Lightwave, Portable Design, CleanRooms, Laser Focus World, and Vision Systems Design before the group was acquired by current parent company Endeavor Business Media.

Meadows has received finalist recognition for LEDs Magazine in the FOLIO Eddie Awards, and has volunteered as a judge on several B2B editorial awards committees. She received a BA in English literature from Saint Anselm College, and earned thesis honors in the college's Geisel Library. Without the patience to sit down and write a book of her own, she has gladly undertaken the role of editor for the writings of friends and family.

Meadows enjoys living in the beautiful but sometimes unpredictable four seasons of the New England region, volunteering with an animal shelter, reading (of course), and walking with friends and extended "dog family" in her spare time.