Kalera’s vertical farm in Houston is part of the growing high-tech agricultural sector in Texas.

Jesse Fenn bent over a row of young lettuces growing in neat formation like a farmer crouching over a field of produce – only Fenn’s field stretched 25 feet below him.

Fenn stood atop a scissor lift floating above a dozen levels of vertically stacked white trays filled with lettuce. To his left, a worker in a dark lab coat harvested heads of ripe lettuce from the trays to move them about two stories lower for processing.

“When I interview new recruits, I ask them if they have vertigo. You can’t be afraid of heights with this job,” Fenn joked.

Scaling scissor lifts are a daily task for a vertical farmer overseeing the growth of approximately 10 million heads of lettuce per year from Kalera’s 4.5-acre indoor farm located in the Industrial Park Park-59 north of Houston. Kalera, an Orlando-based vertical farming company, opened the 85,000 square foot vertical farm a year ago to supply markets in Texas and Louisiana with freshly grown leafy greens – betting that consumer demand for fresh and sustainably grown produce will support its growth.

Its lettuces are available at Trader Joe’s and HEB grocery stores in Houston, with more locations expected as it expands its national retail footprint by more than 40% this year. After going public through a $375 million merger in June, Kalera is gobbling up industrial real estate across the country.

He recently opened a farm in Denver, adding to his existing locations in Atlanta, Orlando and Houston. This is followed by new farms in Seattle, Honolulu, St. Paul, Minnesota and Columbus, Ohio.

Kalera is part of a nascent but flourishing vertical farming movement. Consumer appetite for locally grown produce, technological advancements in agriculture, and efforts to shorten supply chains are driving the growth of vertical farming in Texas and around the world.

This year, Eden Green Technology opened a 2-acre vertical farm in Cleburne, south of Fort Worth, with plans to expand an additional 3 acres. South of Austin, German agri-tech company Infarm is planning a 73,000 square foot vertical in Kyle. And in southwest Houston, local vertical farming company Dream Harvest grows green vegetables sold at Whole Foods grocery stores and Sweetgreen restaurants.

RELATED: Houston’s Dream Harvest Secures $50 Million in Funding to Expand Vertical Farming

Globally, the approximately $4.34 billion vertical agriculture industry is expected to grow approximately 25.5% annually over the next few years, reaching an estimated revenue of $33 billion. by 2030, according to estimates by consultancy firm Grand View Research.

More and more investment is flowing into the sector: in 2021, indoor farming startups raised more than $1.6 billion globally across 70 deals, around 86% more than the capital raised in 2020, according to Seattle financial data company PitchBook. Walmart is also jumping into the game after investing in vertical farmer Plenty.

Investments in the sector could help cities like Houston gain access to better, more sustainable products, advocates say. Like most Houston produce, most of the region’s lettuce is imported from out of state, typically traveling hundreds of miles from California before ending up on a Texas plate. Not only does this create more greenhouse gases, but it also means Houstonians are snacking on older greens.

RELATED: Why Houston imports most of its products

Companies like Kalera want to disrupt this model by opening vertical farms near major cities. Vertical farms can turn industrial warehouses into fields of green growing under energy-efficient LED lights.

Green stacking means Kalera can squeeze more crops into a smaller footprint. In her 64,000 square feet of grow space at her Houston farm, Kalera estimates that she uses about 97% less space than a standard farm. And they are also more productive, because the crops grow all year round without being exposed to floods, droughts and the vagaries of nature.

One acre on a vertical farm can produce the equivalent of four to six acres on a standard farm, according to Columbia University estimates.

Unlike greenhouses, indoor farms rely on light, not the sun, and an elaborate system of sensors and artificial intelligence to cultivate the perfect environment. Crops thrive in a steady supply of nutrient-rich water.

“There are no seasons here,” said Fenn, assistant general manager of horticulture at Kalera in Houston.

There are also no pests, no weeds, and no exposure to animal pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli, and listeria. At night from his home in Conroe, Fenn opens his smartphone to check on the progress of the harvest before going to sleep, using Kalera’s proprietary software to monitor the farm’s sensors. It can change lighting, humidity and temperature with the flick of a finger.

“I like to call myself a farmer,” he said, “but that’s the simplest form of a farmer.”

Advances in lighting technology and artificial intelligence have made high-tech farms possible. But a myriad of challenges remain. For one thing, most vertical farms aren’t profitable yet, although Kalera’s Houston facility is almost here, said Aric Nissen, director of marketing at Kalera. The company’s initial cost for setting up the tech farms is about $10 million, Nissen said.

Electricity costs are also eating away at its profits. Vertical farms use an average of about seven times the electricity of a traditional greenhouse, according to a 2021 report from agricultural technology consultants Arigtecture and WayBeyond Ltd. For its Houston farm, Kalera contracts with utility company TXU Energy to purchase wind power and renewable energy credits. The company is also exploring the potential of solar panels, Nissen said.

The lack of cultural diversity is another obstacle. Most seed varieties bred for vertical farms are leafy greens, in part because they can grow in shorter crop cycles, allowing farms to be more productive, Dr. Genhua Niu noted. , professor of urban horticulture at Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Dallas.

Some companies are experimenting with vegetables such as tomatoes and radishes, but most are staying in the early stages because the longer growing times make profitability a challenge, Niu said.

“The industry is still in the early stages of developing and improving its technology,” Niu said, “but I’m hopeful that even though it’s not very profitable right now for most companies, there is great potential”,

Vertical farms use hydroponic techniques (growing plants in water instead of soil), but they use up to 95% less water than standard farms because they recycle water. That could make the facilities particularly attractive to drought-prone regions like Texas.

Companies like Kalera are benefiting from a further surge in demand from grocery chains and restaurants looking to shorten supply chains after the pandemic disrupted transportation and distribution in agriculture, food processing and other industries.

“Because you can put vertical farms very close to demand, you could avoid future supply chain disruptions,” said Priscila de Pinho, agricultural chemicals specialist at consultancy Accenture. “The amazing thing about vertical farming is that it creates the ability to do it anywhere, because you can pick up any building, even abandoned buildings, and put a vertical farm there. You can literally leverage real estate in a completely operationally game-changing way.

About James Almanza

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