As consumers grow tired of contamination risk, and their tastes broaden to include fresher produce, the opportunity exists for startups to disrupt their local food supply chain.
The age-old job of the farmer has been replaced by a new wave of local small footprint farmers. These farmers are able to grow and deliver to market high-quality food with very little waste. These farmers sell directly to restaurants, grocery stores, or at farmers markets around the world.
Most small footprint growers use a form of hydroponics to grow their product. Hydroponics is simply growing plants in water rather than soil, allowing the farmer to give the plant the perfect conditions for growth.
The return on investment for a crop of herbs can be quite high. For leafy greens like lettuce, it's entirely possible to keep your cost at around $1 while selling retail for $4. Big restaurants and hotels can do 10,000 plates a night or more, supply deals with companies of this size will net a lower price but provide a higher volume. If space is a concern, its best to grow out of your local farmers market and have the ability to get more space before taking on high volume.
There are a variety of places you can grow — from shipping containers to greenhouses. The darker the place the higher the cost of electricity. Greenhouses use less energy, but if you live in the north you will still have to run supplemental lighting and heat.
Most people believe the future of this industry is verticle.
Vericle gardening is growing plants on top of plants in a warehouse. Some are stacked on verticle walls, but most are horizontal systems stacked on top of each other. Many believe that this is the future of farming, particularly for leafy greens. Most real estate is valued by the square footage, the vertical footage provides “free expansion” to the indoor farm.
The most popular hydroponics system for leafy greens is the NFT system (Nutrient film technique). It is a system of pipes typically made of PVC or metal gutters that continuously flow water over the roots of the plant. The water drains into a reservoir where a pump pushes the water back up into the system in a continuous cycle.
There is a massive opportunity in flowering plants, though the equipment can be very specific. If you are interested in growing Tomatoes , your costs will be significantly higher as light and smell usually need to be contained. You may be able to excel at flowering plants — particularly if they are heritage varieties, but they represent a small section of the industry right now. Lighting, ventilation and nutrient formulas can drive up the price of flowering plants and may be why only specific flowing crops like Tomatoes or Cannabis are grown in significant quantity — and nursery plants are largely ignored.
Lettuce grown in a hydroponic system uses 2% the water it would if grown in a field 3000 miles away. It's a great plant to start out with because almost everyone eats it — and there is constantly outbreaks of food born illness related to Romaine and other leafy lettuce which only helps your marketing. It's also easy to grow.
Romaine Lettuce would take a week or two longer than most varieties that finish in about 30 days. On a perpetual system, you can be delivering fresh produce weekly to the farmers market or restaurant.
Indoor agriculture, particularly urban agriculture, is the future of our civilization. Opportunities rarely exist where it is possible to disrupt an industry with relatively little money.
What many farmers lack are branding and marketing strategies. By catering to local markets it's quite possible to establish strong local ties. Many people are making the switch to plant-based diets and ideas like the 50-mile diet are really starting to take hold.
Our food supply is currently at natures mercy. Climate change, draining aquifers, and man-made dams are devastating water supplies in many cities around the world. Crops are wiped out by weather in dramatic fashion every single year. It seems every week there is some new warning about the food we eat.
Getting started with indoor agriculture is as easy as building your own system and feeding your own needs. For those who fall in love with it — every city in the world needs indoor farms providing nutritious local foods. Someone will become a household name because of this industry — if you start now — it could be you.
Ryan Geddes is currently working with House&Canvas.