Over the years, I’ve read articles about controlled environment agricultural, indoor farming, protected agricultural production and vertical farming. My interest was recently piqued in an article about vertical farming, and I wanted to see what was going on in this field.

According to Cornell University, controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is “an advanced and intensive form of hydroponically-based agriculture where plants grow within a controlled environment to optimize horticultural practices.” During my career, I had colleagues that worked at CEA centers at Rutgers University and the University of Arizona. They were working primarily with large greenhouse ranges that produced tomatoes and cucumbers.

Recently, I came across an article on the CEA Innovation Center, a joint project between Virginia Tech and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR). This is a strategic partnership between industry and academia with the goal of conducting research and educational programming to develop, promote and advance the CEA sector in the U.S. and internationally.

At Ohio State, I had colleagues that conducted research in CEA related to greenhouse production focusing on ornamental crops. More recently, they have expanded to include food crops in protected and/or controlled environments. The primary goal of the Ohio State CEA Center is for the faculty to collaborate more effectively, better serve their stakeholders and to advance CEA expertise. The range of faculty research is broad and includes controlled environment horticulture, greenhouse engineering, food safety, plant pathology and entomology for various crops of vegetables, flowers and other crops grown for plant-based products.

Before I retired in 2017, I became interested in the efforts to move ag production into warehouses. This was being promoted and conducted by large commercial concerns such as Harvest Moon Farms, Bowery Farming, Freight Farms and many others. In many cases, these operations were in urban environments and required large capital outlay, with the primary crop grown being leafy greens. This is where the term vertical farming was born.

I learned about OptimIA, a research and outreach project whose focus is to be able to provide production and economic information that is useful and can be applied to the indoor farm industry. The concept of OptimIA originated when Drs. Erik Runkle at Michigan State, Chieri Kubota at Ohio State and Cary Mitchell at Purdue University were collaborating on a LED lighting project. Since I knew them, I thought I’d reach out to learn about OptimIA and their research in the field of vertical farming. Chieri was in Tokyo at the time, but I had a very productive call with Erik and Cary in which they shared their thoughts.

Erik said the term he liked to describe this farming system was “indoor vertical farming.” The “vertical” comes from the fact the growing beds are stacked on top of each other at determined intervals. Then they explained how OptimIA came to be. As they neared the end of a previous project on indoor lighting, they asked what the next frontier of research on lighting and growing would be. Erik and Cary came to realize that the greatest opportunity and need was for information about managing the environment for vertical farming production. They saw tremendous opportunities for indoor vertical farming and the need for solid research-based information to underpin this emerging farming system. The name OptimIA came from their focus on optimizing indoor agriculture – “Optim” for optimizing and “IA” for indoor agriculture.

After several attempts to secure funding, USDA awarded $2.4 million to the OptimIA project in September 2019 to study the aerial environment as well as the economics to produce indoor leafy greens. Cary said the aerial environment refers to air circulation, humidity, carbon dioxide concentration, light and temperature. Some of the team members are also studying root zone management of hydroponic crops using additional funding.

In addition to Runkle, Kubota and Mitchell, the OptimIA team consists of Roberto Lopez, horticulture professor at Michigan State, Simone Valle de Souza, ag economist at Michigan State, and Murat Kacira, director of the CEA Center at the University of Arizona. Other collaborators on the project include Chris Peterson, ag economist emeritus at Michigan State, Jennifer Boldt, a research horticulturist at USDA-ARS, and Nadia Sabeh, president and founder of Dr. Greenhouse Inc., which specializes in the design of HVAC systems for indoor plant environments.

The OptimIA team sought out from stakeholders (companies engaged in indoor vertical farming) what they thought they should be concentrating their efforts on. Based on input from commercial indoor growers, three areas of research were identified. These were to develop economic information, including the costs, potential profits and conduct an economic analysis to determine the strategies to improve profitability based on that information. They said that vertical farms have the capacity to optimize multiple environmental factors at the same time.

The research information for co-optimizing more than two of these factors together didn’t exist. Thus, the team at OptimIA is looking at co-optimization of multiple factors to optimize production performance of plants to increase yields.

The OptimIA team is also looking to provide Extension outreach to educate the professionals involved in vertical farming. Cary and Erik said they’ve seen people trying to develop commercial indoor farms educated in the business sector (or other sectors like agronomy) and may not have training in CEA.

Erik stressed that economics is a major part of their project. He said there is no doubt that high quality leafy greens can be grown in indoor farms, but the challenge is how to do this profitably and sustainably. The economists on their team are working to quantify the costs of production and then determine the greatest opportunities to reduce input costs.

In addition, Cary said the farther north that indoor vertical farming operations are located, the better. Although leafy greens are the primary crop being grown, dwarf cherry tomatoes and strawberries are being investigated as crops for the future. Whatever is being grown, it needs to be profitable.

Both Erik and Cary noted the large capital costs to build from scratch or repurpose an existing warehouse for indoor vertical farming. Behind these companies there are venture capitalists looking to get returns on their investments. In some cases, the profitability is questionable. It’s hard to get good figures on capital and operating costs from companies in indoor vertical farming since they are hesitant to provide such figures that might give an edge to their competitors. Much of the lighting is proprietary and developed by the companies themselves and timing and scheduling of production is closely held information.

This is a relatively a new industry and I understand the need to protect their information, but they also need to understand that by working together with university researchers, Extension personnel and industry personnel engaged in supplying lighting, air handling systems, fertilizer and seed companies, sensors, robotics, packaging, transportation, marketing, etc., they will move the entire industry closer to its goal of providing fresh and nutritious products closer to consumers in a profitable and sustainable manner.

You can contact me with feedback on my columns or ideas for future columns at wlamont@psu.edu.