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Could vertical farming be a solution for vacant office or retail space?

GUEST SUBMISSION: Through the process of adaptation to macro and microeconomic disruptions, comme...

GUEST SUBMISSION: Through the process of adaptation to macro and microeconomic disruptions, commercial real estate has begun transitioning to meet the future needs of the populace.

Developments and buildings that once served a specific purpose are being tested as society shifts around new work, live and play models.

Through analysis and feasibility studies, many are beginning to take risks and think outside the box to determine alternate uses for their assets, through adaptive reuse and redevelopment.

One such use that is catching the eyes and ears of analysts and decision-makers is the concept of vertical, indoor farming.

This concept has been discussed for many years, but only now is getting to a point where it is economically viable and able to compete with traditional farming methods.

Vertical farms most efficient use of space to grow agricultural goods

Vertical farms allow producers to circulate air and light easier, have massive growing plains on a relatively small footprint and ultimately increase the productivity of each workable square foot.

For perspective, a vertical farm can condense the equivalent of about 700 acres of farmland into the size of a big box retail store.

They can harvest 365 days per year, shortening the growth cycle to about 10 days for many products, which is a nearly 700 per cent increase in yield.

They do this all while saving about one million gallons of water per week and using about one per cent of the land of traditional farming.

Furthermore, when plants are watered indoors, the water is transpired through the roots, then sucked into air handling units where it is condensed and put right back into the irrigation system.

Ninety-nine per cent of the water normally lost in open, outdoor farms is recaptured and recirculated in a vertical farm.

Vertical farm systems and design

A vertical farm is a system of energy transfers and the efficiency to which these transfers are controlled will determine the viability and economic success of an operation.

Historically, vertical farming has been too expensive and inefficient to compete with traditional farming, but the costs of development and indoor production are improving each day, as are the demands from consumers.

A vertical farm, depending on the size, could cost up to $100 million to develop, but the cost of each component is decreasing as industries like solar and robotics continue to flourish.

One of the biggest improvements made was in LED lighting, which due to increasing popularity have been going continuously down in price and up in efficiency.

Three areas of control to ensure a successful vertical farm design are:

  1. Climate
  2. Lighting
  3. Spacing

To ensure the best yields, these three elements need to be monitored and maximized through smart mechanical, electrical and structural design.

Items to keep in mind are ventilation and air handling systems, sufficient and consistent power, and efficient automation to ensure equal delivery of nutrients and water.

The vertical farm comparison

Currently, items produced at a vertical farm are being sold to grocery stores and restaurants at a small premium due to high costs of vertical farming, though parity is close with improved automation and potentially shorter transportation requirements.

The buy-in from consumers is also there due to the many benefits of these goods:

– With respect to taste, many believe that products grown indoors are actually more flavourful because all the elements are controlled to create the best food items. Producers can change the flavour profile of plants by adjusting the nutrients and lights.

– With respect to cleanliness, due to the tremendous amount of automation, these plants are rarely touched by human hands or environmental elements. Vertical farms don’t need to use pesticides because there are no bugs. There is no toxic bird poop on produce because there are no birds within the warehouse. The product is so clean it does not need to be washed, which is a huge step forward for human health and safety.

Globally, we eat about one third of the fruits and vegetables we should be consuming, which has led to an increase in heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the land, resources or ability to create the amount of high nutrition food humanity requires.

Most produce we consume has been packed up and shipped from another country via ships, trains and trucks, which negatively impacts the environment as well as the flavour capacity of our produce.

Most products are designed for durability, rather than taste profile, because they have to be shipped for days and survive on shelves without going bad.

Vertical farms would allow for the emphasis to be on quality and taste over the ability to ship.

Being able to grow produce in communities anywhere through vertical farms means that produce can be offered in places that would not normally have had access, all while year-round jobs are being created.

This technology, if implemented, could mean every community has its own local indoor farm that grows fruits and vegetables to the highest calibre while concurrently reducing the amount of waste produced through farming.

Alberta’s vertical farming potential

Around the world, we are seeing a concerted push from many countries to integrate an indoor farming program to their communities to allow for better autonomy, deliverables and conservation in the agricultural sectors.

Canada, however, is lagging behind on this trend, despite being a prime example of a nation that would exponentially benefit from an indoor farming model, thanks to our six-month winters.

In fact, a 2020 report by the Alberta government on the vertical farming industry counted just seven indoor farming operations in the province, including warehouses and transport containers.

Leaders in this space — including the Netherlands, Israel, U.S.A. and Singapore — are encouraging this industry within national borders through a slew of grants and incentives.

Canada has dipped a toe into this type of assistance, but has a long way to go.

Unfortunately, high energy costs, high development costs and overall high barriers to entry mean indoor farms require substantial scale, financial backing and a smooth permitting process to be economically viable.

Were Canada (and Alberta) to take a more active role in attracting new and existing vertical farm operations, agritech could grow into a burgeoning industry. Its technology and processes could be exported worldwide.

If feasible, vertical farms could also potentially be a means to absorb excess office and retail space that no longer suits the needs for which it was originally designed.

These well-located assets close to large residential bases and downtown cores could feasibly be repurposed to service this growing industry.

Pipe dream or future reality, we’ll have to see!

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on Scrivens’ blog The Commercial Connection. It is reprinted by RENX with permission.

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