By ANN HINCH
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The future of farming may not be entirely in technology, but technology has been guiding dinner for humans since the first farmers decided about 10,000 years ago to be more purposeful in creating food production besides just hunting and gathering.
Perhaps those early people could have foreseen something like vertical indoor farming, the practice of growing all kinds of plants in layers in a controlled environment. But the idea of blockchain traceability and distribution may have been difficult to explain easily just decades ago.
Vertical farmers and investors were among experts speaking at the Forbes AgTech Summit in Indianapolis in late September, talking about their specific companies’ plans for creating more “local food” options for people who don’t live near a farm.
Robert Colangelo, founder and CEO of Green Sense Farms based in Portage, Ind., built his first vertical operation 20 minutes from the Midwest distribution center of Whole Foods near Chicago. Green Sense grows micro and baby greens, culinary herbs and lettuces year-round in the United States, as well as doing research and development (R&D) and licensing its tech for vertical farms overseas.
He explained how he is working with seed breeders to adjust plants for growing indoors with lights, and how operations like his need R&D investor funding to perfect growing systems, automation and conveyance because there’s a “paucity” of government assistance for this kind of work.
Mark White, managing partner for Prairie Crest Capital of Des Moines, added there’s still not enough capital investment into agriculture. His firm is focused on early-stage investments in “transformational” ag and technology. With the right funding, he said those who work in agriculture can solve a lot of supply and production problems – such as through indoor farming, which is evolving quickly.
Sam Schatz, AeroFarms managing director of corporate development, is looking to expand operations of his company to be closer to more customers. AeroFarms, based in New Jersey, boasts minimal environmental impact and pesticide-free produce from its aeroponic vertical farm technology.
He said the company’s R&D is geared toward using collected data to branch into other crops besides the “leafy greens” people usually associate with such farms. But, vertical production is intended as an aid to traditional farming, not an instead-of. “This isn’t replacing row crops … anytime soon,” Schatz added.
Colangelo agreed, explaining vertical production is making incremental alterations within agriculture, not the “cataclysmic” change some futurists predict.
Co-founder and CEO Chaz Shelton of Merchant’s Garden AgroTech, in Tucson, Ariz., is growing lettuce, greens, squash and fish in an aquaponics system. He said the company sells to 88 schools and 50 restaurants among its customers, and praised aquaponics as a transparent system for customers desiring a local foods option in an urban setting.
Because he serves such an agriculturally arid area, he said local people are excited about the kind of fresh food Merchant’s Garden can provide nearby. Colangelo said part of what his firm is doing is looking to areas – including overseas – that would similarly benefit from more fresh local greens. He said he wants to begin with these as “low-hanging fruit” areas where the company can thrive before moving into more food-competitive areas.
Shortly before the Summit, it was reported that Walmart is working with IBM to implement blockchain technology as part of new food safety requirements for its suppliers of leafy greens. Ramesh Gopinath, vice president of supply chain solutions for IBM Food Trust, said the firm is actually working with several retailers like this.
Walmart has worked with IBM for a couple years to apply better traceability in its food supply chain. The retailer said the plan is to extend blockchain tech to help reduce the spread of foodborne illnesses by better pinpointing problems in the food chain and reducing losses to suppliers and sellers.
Gopinath said there are three flows blockchain handles: there’s the physical movement of the food; the flow of payment in both directions; and the flow of data about the food. These create numerous “handoff” points among growers, drivers, sellers, distributors and retailers. Blockchain collects and keeps data from each handoff to travel with the food.
Say there’s a problem with food spoilage or contamination. He said by examining the blockchain data, it can be determined where safety might have been compromised by bad storage conditions or something else. It could cut down on how much food has to be culled or recalled and aid in legal disputes.
Another advantage of blockchain is it enables computers to take data from other computers monitoring food conditions, where possible, and bypass human biases or faulty observations.
Ron Zink, chief technology officer of Growers Holdings, Inc. and an attorney, said blockchain could also be used to help farmers demand better prices for goods like grains. Blockchain data on these would contain information like protein and moisture content, for instance.
And farmers who want to sell to specialty religious or cultural markets may benefit by being able to prove their food was grown in accordance with – for instance – kosher or halal guidelines, said Solinftec Strategy and Corporate Development Director Renato Hersz.
“If your product is already special, all blockchain will do is allow you to run it through so you can market it better,” Zink said.
There are data privacy issues farmers will worry about relative to their own operations. He explained the farmer can control to some extent what information ends up in blockchain data – they don’t have to divulge proprietary information about their farm or costs, for example.