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AGTECH

Visiting Mirai Vertical Farm

Last Saturday we packed the kids into the minivan and navigated the highways, bridges, and tunnels of the most populated metro area on earth, destined for Chiba, home of Tokyo Disney, but we wouldn’t be visiting the Magical Kingdom again today. Our destination was an indoor vertical farm called MIRAI. The only problem was that I still wasn’t sure why.

A few weeks earlier I had contacted Spread, near Kyoto, operator of the largest indoor farm in Japan, but they had turned down my request for a tour. By some miraculous coincidence my wife knew the CEO of Mirai from her university days, a gentleman named Nozawa Nagateru. I was surprised and elated when he agreed to give me (us) a personal tour of their Chiba farm. I would’ve preferred to go alone; but I needed my wife there for introduction and translation, and with her came the kids.

The drive from our place on the Shonan coast was an hour and a half. My eyes were burning with seasonal allergies. Spring was the season of suffering for many people in Japan.

As we crossed the Yokohama Bay Bridge, I caught sight of the cruise ship that had been in the news. There were some people with COVID-19 “Corona” virus on board.

Mirai grew produce in clean room environments, where workers wore full body suits and breathing gear, sanitized in an airlock before going in. It was better quality control than whatever they were doing to contain the virus on the cruise ship. A day or two in that clean room and my allergic reactions would also subside.

Entering Tokyo, the kids slept and I got the head space to think about what I was going to ask Nozawa-san. How would represent myself to him? Why was I visiting an indoor farm? I wasn’t a journalist. I wasn’t a horticulturalist. I didn’t know anything about growing plants. Never mind the fact that I didn’t have a business card, the obligatory prop of any professional engagement in Japan. At least we were bringing souvenirs from our hometown of Kamakura, and a paperback copy of my book. I had worked in information technology for most of my life, and I was the author of an unknown novel that happened to feature a character who abandoned his corporate gig for a life of helping people and growing things indoors. If anything I was an otaku (geek). There were otaku obsessed with everything from Pokémon to bullet trains, so why not vertical farms? Either way, I was going on a whim and a dream, armed only with the desire to work with beneficial tech.

The Mirai farm consisted of a couple of tidy, non-descript warehouse buildings tucked into the midst of an industrial zone. A mob of uniformed workers from a nearby factory smoked cigarettes outside the convenient store down the street. If anyone had to pick the most unexpected place to find tens of thousands of vibrant green plants, this was it.

We parked in front of the main building and Nozawa-san met us outside. We exchanged greetings Japanese-style and he ushered us to the side of one building. Inside and upstairs, we entered an observation room overlooking a vast space containing rows of illuminated towers ten meters high, each containing thousands of plants in various stages of growth. Monitors on the wall displayed graphs of data points collected from the farm below, as well as from other facilities, both local and remote. “Mirai” meant “future” in Japanese, and they lived up to their name.

Nozawa-san poured green tea into paper cups and we sat down at a table to talk. His company was one of the early pioneers of indoor farming technology, with over fifteen years in the business. Their unique, data-driven approach to cultivating perfect produce could be described as precision farming, focusing on the balance of over two hundred growing factors. Like all vertical farms, their main selling points were steady, reliable production of perfect produce, at a fair price. Of course their products were free of pesticides and GMO’s. Best of all, their vegetables tasted great. We sampled fresh romaine lettuce and basil from a platter on the table. Each plant was ninety-five percent edible, with minimal stalk to throw away. Their produce was clean at harvest time. No need to wash.

Aside from the Chiba facilities, Mirai owned and operated a lab and another large farm in Tagajō, Miyagi prefecture, the area hit hardest by the Great Tōhoku earthquake of 2011. I asked if this lab was built in response to the doubly-whammy natural and manmade disasters there. Yes! Absolutely, he said. They chose this site to help the area recover, and to demonstrate the benefit of their tech. Sendai wasn’t too affected with fallout from the Fukushima meltdown, but I guessed their clean room facilities would be immune to radioactivity, as well as to pollen, vermin, and disease.

Mirai sold their design and built farms in numerous locations that were hard-pressed with resource issues and-or harsh weather conditions, with successful operations in Antarctica, Northern China, Mongolia, and Russia. Nozawa would soon visit Norway to consult on the construction of a farm there. Mirai was a leader in urban farming, too, having built farms in cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, and Beijing.

Mirai’s yield is up to one hundred times more resource efficient than traditional farming, using just two percent of the water and a fraction of the land. Their primary expenses were electricity (for the LED lights, the pump, cooling, and control systems) labor, and insurance.

Not knowing anything about the business, I asked the most common sense question on my mind: what would it take to make Mirai more cost-efficient than traditional farming? Sure, their product was of the highest quality and healthier on every level, but at what point would it make more economic to grow produce with the Mirai method as opposed to traditional farms? It turned out to be a good question. Mirai’s solution was in the size of plant. By growing bigger plants they could essentially get more bang for the buck. It wasn’t as simple as that, of course. Other operations, like Spread, got more bang for the buck by growing smaller plants and harvesting quicker. It was a complicated equation of precision farming, taking into account numerous factors of resource usage, output, and time.

Next I asked Nozawa-san what he thought of the impending world food crisis, and how Mirai might play a role. He was of course aware of American vertical farm marketing campaigns, but he answered flatly: “starving people don’t want lettuce”.

Excellent point. Poor countries facing population explosions and resource deficits needed protein and grain. The best answer to this problem was the kind of work done by George Kantor, Senior Systems Scientist with Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, Farm View project, whose work focused on using technology to accelerate the efficiency of traditional farms. CMU was working on tech that didn’t require radical change; it could be plugged into existing, traditional farming techniques. Even the trillions of data points collected by start-ups like Plenty seemed only applicable to growing plants indoors, so it still wasn’t clear how vertical farming would save the world.

There was only so much to keep our young kids entertained in the observation room. They were getting unruly to the point it was impossible to concentrate, and it was a natural time to go. Nozawa-san also had two boys, too, so he understood. We decided to call it a wrap, taking a couple of photos and presenting our gifts. Nozawa was impressed with my novel even if he couldn’t read it in English. He asked why I wrote. I shrugged and told him it was the kind of work I wanted to do. I think he assumed my reason for the interview was research for my next book. Who knew? Maybe it was. Later it occurred to me that this was our first family outing in nine years dedicated to something I wanted to do. I didn’t stray far from the path between work and home. My visit to Mirai was a real treat. It may have been unclear how I could contribute to the business of indoor farming, but the fact that this was how I chose to spend my first real “me” time in nearly a decade spoke loud and clear. I was drawn to beneficial tech. It was work I wanted to do.

MIRAI Vertical Farm

FarmView: CMU Researchers Working to Increase Crop Yield With Fewer Resources

Categories
AGTECH

Vertical Farms NYC

New York metropolitan area is a nice place to be if you’re into indoor farming. Here are few examples of what they’ve got going on.

Aerofarms

This New Jersey startup has received tens of millions in funding in the past fifteen years. They’re based in New Jersey, but the skyline in the animated graphic on their spectacular homepage is most definitely Dallas.

What did they do with all this funding? Their big farm is in Newark, measuring THIRTY THOUSAND square feet. And remember, this is a vertical farm. They should list the size in cubic feet.

Aero’s website is impressive and inspiring. It advertises the same noble message I’m seeing on every vertical farm website: by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet, with less arable farm land than there exists today. To solve the world food shortage crisis, Aero grows 390 times more crops per square foot than soil-based farms. As expected, they grow the freshest greens with no pesticides and no GMO. Their produce is nutritional and “bursting with flavor”. I’m starting to see that “nutritional” and “bursting with flavor” are interrelated selling points for vertical farms in general, and that there might be some genetic reason for this link that dates back to humanity’s hunter-gatherer days. Either way, I’m sold.

Still, something about this impending world food crisis doesn’t make much sense. It’s fantastic they’re trying to avoid or solve a very big problem that could affect a good chunk of the world’s population, but I’m wondering: how are the places that need food the most going to afford a fancy, data-driven vertical farm run by robots and AI?

The overpopulation and food scarcity won’t be happening in the rich countries that can afford this high-tech farming gear. People are living longer in America but the fertility rate is below 2.0. Japan’s fertility rate is so low they’re expected to lose fifty million people by 2050! (I got this stat on population pyramid dot net.) So what is Aero’s plan to save the world from going hungry? Do they propose to grow produce with robots in rich countries and then ship it overseas? If so that eliminates the “hyper-local” factor. I’m making a mental note to ask them about this.

Their website also has an image showing how the growing process works. It looks like they use a cloth barrier to hold the plants above the growing solution, and in at least one of the growing stages there is an aeroponic barrier instead of liquid nutrient solution. I’m guessing these must be technical trademarks.

I wrote them via their website contact form with questions about their software, and about their strategies for saving the world; but a week later and no response.

Bowery Farming

Based in New York City, Bowery Farms looks like the archetype for “Urban Farming”. They cater to upscale restaurants that distribute their produce to select, local grocery stores within short driving range of their farms. Like many vertical farm websites, their message is positive. They “believe a better future is possible,” and “set big, bold goals”. They also “practice radical candor” and “say hello when (they) walk through the door”. On the surface “Radical candor” sounds like the kind of place I’d like to work. Saying hello when walking through the door seems like basic human nature, but maybe that’s something you have to remind New Yorkers every day.

As for what systems they use: “BoweryOS, our proprietary software system, uses vision systems, automation technology, and machine learning to monitor plants and all the variables that drive their growth 24/7.” I can’t imagine there are too many job postings on Indeed.com asking for experience with BoweryOS. Still, it sounds interesting. I’d have to guess it’s a collection of home-grown apps running on a Linux-based OS.

Bowery boasts some high productivity stats: “Bowery farms use zero pesticides, 95% less water, and are 100+ times more productive on the same footprint of land than traditional agriculture.” Good for them.

BrightFarms

Founded in 2011, this New York-based startup has accepted $113 million in funding so far to “pioneer the future of local, low-impact farming.” To be accurate, Bright builds horizontal farms. As the name might suggest, they use natural light to grow greens. There’s not a lot on their website about the tech they use, but they build greenhouses, so that eliminates the most expensive part of a typical indoor farm operation: electricity for lighting. I could be wrong about this, but their op appears to be low-tech compared to vertical farms. There’s no sign of robots or AI. They build, own, and operate greenhouse farms that create permanent green-collar jobs. Sounds great! When can I start?

These people might be based in NYC, but they design structures that can be built anywhere. From their website: “Yes, we grow salads. But we grow a lot of other things, too. Like, big ideas and positive attitudes, jobs in communities across the country, sunny greenhouses, and accessibility to fresh, delicious produce. But most of all we grow trust – your trust – by delivering clean, fresh, safe, and delicious greens.” Kudos to their marketing people. What a great message. It’s great to see such inspirational messages that are so low on BS. Their product is so obviously good. It requires zero spin. There are so many companies and whole industries that could never be so honest and positive about what they do.

Bright’s message about building green jobs sounds fantastic. This is a nice break from “robots are taking our jobs”. How can I get involved?

Gotham Greens

Founded in 2009, this Brooklyn startup has taken in around $45 million. Gotham also builds greenhouses, growing plants with natural light, like Bright farms. As usual there’s not as much detail as I’d like to see on their tech, but according to their website: “Our latest greenhouses are advanced, data-driven, climate-controlled facilities — the most efficient production systems available today. These greenhouses are some of the highest-yielding farms around, and use less energy, less land and less water than other farming techniques. Plus, advancements in machine learning and data analysis allow us to monitor our crop’s health and progress, so we can deliver a fresher, more delicious product. Happy greens make happy people.”

Sounds great! Way to go, NYC.

Next week I’m going to get a first-hand look at a vertical farm in Japan. I can’t wait.

Categories
AGTECH

Vertical Farms

If I could do any kind of work, I’d devote a good part of my week to working at a vertical farm. (Or building one myself.) A couple years ago I wrote a novel called TOKYO GREEN. It’s about a guy who abandons his high-paying job in Silicon Valley to live a more natural, beneficial life. The MC ends up in Tokyo, where he builds an indoor farm for a bunch of retirees, with the help of a rogue AI. At the time of writing the novel I didn’t know much about vertical farming. I still don’t know much about it now. But I do know I want to get involved. I’ve worked twenty-plus years coding and automating systems, and I have a rough understanding of how machine learning works. This was the knowledge I brought to writing the book, and it’s the knowledge I could bring to vertical farming today.

I’m thinking about this now because I got an invitation to visit a vertical farm in Chiba, Japan (near Tokyo Disney) in a couple of weeks, and I want to have some informed questions for them. In particular I’m interested in the computing systems and software they use, as this is the most likely way I can contribute my current skills.

In general it does not seem likely that vertical farming will offer many job opportunities, as the technology that makes these operations economically feasible is also the technology that is eliminating the need for human work. Still, I’m imagining my contribution to beneficial technology starting with the question “what kind of work would I do if I could choose anything?” I’d write, of course, but vertical farming is at the top of the list.

Vertical farming is a sustainable, cost-effective method of Controlled-Environment Agriculture (CEA). It combines tech like aquaponics, hydroponics, robotics, and machine intelligence (analytics) to grow plants indoors. I’ve also seen “urban farming” and “low-impact farming” used to describe this kind of AGTECH, but these are general terms. Vertical farming refers to the particular way of growing plants in tower racks or even sideways, on a wall.

Hydroponics is all about growing plants without soil, in a nutrient-rich solution, and one way to get those juicy nutrients is through the age-old techniques of aquaponics. There is something very appealing about creating a cyclic, sustainable ecosystem of plants and water-dwelling creatures and organisms. For example, the hydroponics system might drain its water into a catfish tank for re-circulation and watering the crops. It reminds me of when I’d siphon fish poop out of my fish tanks and use it to feed the plants. Aquaponics takes it a step further, completing the loop.

How is vertical farming beneficial? It produces fresh, hyper-local, inexpensive greens with superior flavor, using sustainable techniques. The very nature of Controlled-Environment Agriculture means the product is free of pesticides and GMO. What could be more beneficial than that?

These indoor farms are also far more productive than soil-based farming, growing thirty or more crops per season, and they use a fraction of the resources. Some common stats cite up to 100% less water, 100% less land, and 100% less shipping fuel than field-grown produce that’s delivered to stores in far-away places. It would be interesting to know the net carbon footprint of a big vertical farm operation, considering the electricity it sucks off the grid. (In TOKYO GREEN, the MC uses solar panels to run his farm.) Some indoor farms use actual sunlight, further reducing the need for electricity.

Vertical farms are on the rise. I read somewhere that the industry has grown from near nothing to US$3 billion invested in the past three years. Even if those numbers are off, the industry promises to grow even more in the coming years.

The recent ascension of vertical farming is made possible by certain technologies that have become robust and cheap enough to make this method of food production economically feasible. These technologies include perception devices (cameras and sensors used to monitor and measure plant growth), machine intelligence that processes the data produced by the perception tech, and robotics that carry out the instructions of the AI.

According to this article, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has developed an integrated system called ACESys (Automation, Culture, Environment) that powers vertical farming, but the only thing I saw on the CMU website about this system was an implementation of it in a vertical farm in Taiwan in an effort backed by University of Illinois. There’s nothing about what the system is on a technical level, or how it works.

CMU is doing a lot of great things with robotics and AI, with a particular focus on AGTECH. Their mission is to avoid a world food crisis by the year 2040. By “world” they mean what used to be referred to as the third world, as that’s where populations will explode. CMU is developing soil-based, high-tech farming that will enable existing farms to produce all the food they need while reducing resource usage by half or more. I’d love to dive deeper into what CMU is doing, but for now I’ll focus on vertical farming. In the next week I’ll take a look at what various vertical farms are doing around the world.