by Callie

Vertical Farming Hits the Big Box

Not on the roof, inside the store. Target is testing vertical farming of fresh produce and herbs at select stores, followed by  across the U.S. plans. To some, this may sound great. It’s about time really fresh food went mainstream. However, Target’s little project seeks to ‘reinvent food’ as they put it, which is most unfortunate for the alternative food system. As in all those small growers and farmers markets, the big box chain has eyes on the grown local shopper’s dollars. This could put a big dent in emerging local economies that neighborhood urban farmers have created because they have sprouted beyond depressed inner city communities.

Unlike other situations where a retailer and an independent hydroponic farmer form a partnership, this is quite the opposite. Target’s entry into the urban farming scene puts food production on the sales floor in a glass enclosed climate room. Instead of involving the community or local agricultural entrepreneurs, they’ve fashioned their own corporate “entrepreneur” team. It doesn’t involve a local grassroots connection, besides the massive growth of the movement. Determining ‘select’ store guidance relies greatly on how densely populated the local foodie demographic ‘market’ is for certain locations.  They seek to erase the need for that stop at the farmer’s market, or local farm stand for your heirloom tomato fix. Target has visions of self-service harvesting inside their store. And offering exclusive varieties, conveniently situated a few hundred feet past the diapers, bedding, and envelopes.

Food Transparency + Vertical Farming = Target?

Your go-to source for locally-grown transparent food rich in farm-fresh flavor, and high nutritional benefits?

Their Food + Future coLAB project explores the future of food. This corporate collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, and global design company, Ideo, is under direction of serial entrepreneur, Greg Shewmaker, one of the chain’s new Entrepreneurs-In-Residence. His current goal is to have vertical farming in stores by Spring 2017. Shewmaker sees this project as being totally “transparent about transparency.” A glass separating the shopper from their food under production is about as transparent as you can get beyond the edge of their own backyard garden, right? You can’t find this kind of experience in any other chain store, not even at Whole Foods.

Testing the idea will begin in a few stores, most likely concentrated close to the knowledge source – in the Northeast, beginning around Boston.  They want to see just how involved Target shoppers want to be with their food. Will they want to pick it themselves, or is it fine to just watch staff do the harvest they can purchase off the shelf? Anyone knowledgeable about closed system growing will be shaking their head, telling the screen, “No! You can’t just let everyone and their brother waltz through the garden!” Firstly, it’s a fast track to ruining unripened harvests thanks to society’s long departure from growing their own food. Secondly, and most crucial, it opens the doors to allowing pests and diseases into the growing environment. You can’t do this and expect to grow pesticide-free produce.

Target dreams of pesticide-free fruits, vegetables, salad fixings, and herbs growing inside big box stores from coast to coast. Vertical farming is trendy. High tech is cool. Their target customer is demanding to know where food comes from. And they are excited about offering customers locally grown, organic food. At least that’s what they told Business Insider, which Forbes echoed. Apparently, the retailer, their entrepreneurs-in-residence, and the journalist know nothing about the battle going on inside the USDA’s organic program. If soil-based farmers get their way, no food grown via hydroponics, aquaponics, or bioponics can be called organic. We’ll know the verdict in just a few days time. However, the statement, and media quoting it, without further discourse, proves the point that most people see organic as pesticide-free… whether it grew in the ground, or a container.

Most vertical farming operations grow lettuces, fast-maturing greens, and herbs. There’s a very good reason for that – the cost involved in bringing it from seed to harvest, but the coLAB is “working on figuring out how to cultivate” other crops. Guess what… We, the indoor farming industry, already know how to do it. A great portion of tomatoes and peppers sold in produce departments everywhere are hydroponically or container grown. The problem is being able to sell them at a profitable price when grown without any sunlight at all, which is why vertical farming businesses grow leafy greens!

But Target’s big-box marketing vision is fascinated by the possibilities of exclusive organic products that will appeal to GMO-hating local food lovers. Through the MIT partnership, Target also gains access to heirloom seeds that quietly disappeared from the market. There are those who suspect many of these long lost seeds aren’t inferior as claimed, but squirreled away by the seed kings to drive sales to their hybrids. So, if Target suddenly will be growing them as brand exclusive foods, that would prove this pooh-poohed theory correct, wouldn’t it?

“Because it’s MIT, they have access to some of these seed banks around the world,” Shewmaker tells Business Insider, “so we’re playing with ancient varietals of different things, like tomatoes that haven’t been grown in over a century, different kinds of peppers, things like that, just to see if it’s possible.”

However, this dream of growing long lost from the market popular food crops may not pan out, despite the involvement of MIT. We are talking about a big box, a behemoth retailer, whose very success is firmly chained to selling low at high profits. Tomatoes aren’t a fast turnover crop, which means they spend at least 3 months creating the plant that can produce ready to harvest fruits. An enticing heirloom tomato is not some little cherry variety sized for patio pots, it’s a slicer, requiring the longest times to mature. And they’re going to grow these under a solid roof, totally dependent on lights. Yes, this is farming under LEDs, but even they use electricity, and the fixtures won’t be cheap. See this image? It’s the kind of climate controlled indoor farm that will be erected inside a Target. This shot comes from the MIT Media Lab’s own in-house farm.

Vertical Farming: MIT and Target Stores

One top of the line Heliospectra grow light for 2 tomatoes WITH sunlight. (MITOpenAg)

So, we have two tomato plants with lots of natural sunlight under one highly adjustable Heliospectra LED grow light. First of all, this is auxiliary crop lighting. In the anti-sunshine interior of a Target store, they’re going to need a lot more plant energy than this. But the ‘recipes’ that MIT’s OpenAg Food Computer uses to produce awesome flavor relies on total spectrum control. Secondly, tomatoes are not vertical farming candidates. And thirdly, the caliber of grow lighting required to pull this off under a big box roof are expensive… Bringing us back to why vertical farming as a business sticks to fast growing leafy greens. One Heliospectra RX30 costs a minimum of $2200 – if you’re purchasing them in quantity. Now apply that to the buy low, sell high mentality that makes a big box retailer profitable. And that’s before we even consider the cost of running all the equipment required for of a wide variety of crops.

Then comes the question… Can breaking technology reduce energy costs to a level that makes growing any crop strictly under lights possible at a profit? MIT does have the technology at their fingertips to be able to grow many great tasting, hydroponically grown harvests. But it’s a university research project, never before tried in a business application, especially not a box store! And it’s not something top secret. Nor is it exclusive to Target stores. They call it the Food Computer, and anyone can build one from their plans that will fit on top of a table. It’s OpenSource, and in this case, known as OpenAg. You can learn how to build a small Personal Food Computer using Raspberry Pi and Arduino on the OpenAg Wiki. There’s a community forum attached for discussion and getting answers to questions. Following member links leads you to Food Computer users blogs where you’ll find more info available. Definitely not plug-n-play, but an easy thing for the tech-savvy.

That’s exciting. Many a home gardener and market grower would love to get their hands on some of those seeds! Go to Target, buy a few fruits of everything from their vertical farming adventure, and we’ll have access too. They’re open pollinated, non-patented, and when  thoroughly ripened on the plant, will produce lots of viable seeds per piece. Don’t delay on that action though, because slapping patent protection on these heirloom varietals is possible in today’s world. Just one more reason why they only exist in seed banks – they’re no longer Open Source.

It will be interesting to see what comes of vertical farming in Target’s big box once the growing trials begin. Although growing tomatoes, broccoli, and peppers won’t be happening inside the store, they’ll have to install greenhouses on the roof or sacrifice parking space to pull that off with any hope of profit. And in order to produce a profit after accomplishing all of that, they have to convince the local foodie demographic that their vertical farming harvest is better than their favorite local farmer’s produce.

This is the reinvention of food. Sound like a pipe dream? Time will tell, though I’ll wager that like everyone else, Target will discover that they can only make money on greens. So much for exclusive heirloom varietals. No matter how awesome they are, you can only command so much as price per pound.

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Only strangers knock on the door at Callie's house. People who know her don't bother if the sun is shining - they know to look in the garden.