The Future of Agriculture — in a Danville Industrial Park

by James A. Bacon

Newark, N.J.-based AeroFarms will invest $42 million to build its largest, most sophisticated indoor vertical farm to date in a joint Danville-Pittsylvania County industrial park. The project will create 92 new jobs.

Virginia competed with North Carolina for the project. Subsidies include a $200,000 grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund, a $200,000 grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund, $190,000 from the Tobacco Regional Opportunity Fund, and an unquantified tax benefit from locating in a Virginia Enterprise Zone.

Aerofarm’s business model is incredibly cool. The company uses proprietary aeroponic growing technology to “produce highly flavorful leafy greens at at rate 390 times more productive than field-grown plants,” states a press release from the Governor’s Office. The farming techniques use a fraction of the water and fertilizer of traditional agriculture.

The company grows 750 different crops in industrial buildings, using sensors and data to make precise adjustments to micronutrients, temperature, airflow and light — elements that farmers have little control over in their fields — to optimize plant growth. “We adjust the fertilizers, we’ll track magnesium, iron, zinc and all the minerals and elements,” CEO David Rosenburg explained at Fortune magazine Global Sustainability Forum in September.

“When you can really play with those environmental factors and all these tools in a big data way in a farm the size of [a] building, it really becomes illuminating of how plants react in different ways.”

That could be game changing for food as we know it, Rosenberg explained. “There are ways you can influence taste, nutritional density, shelf life, color, all these factors. Typically farmers are just hoping for yield, but there’s a lot more to celebrate—not just diversity, but quality.”

The AeroFarms deal follows an announcement in June that Shenandoah Growers was investing $100 million in three indoor-agriculture facilities. Billing itself as a “next-generation indoor bio-farm,” Shenandoah Growers specializes in cultivating herbs such as basil, mint, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, thyme and oregano. (There was no mention in this Harrisonburg Daily News-Record article of the company receiving any state grants, subsidies or tax breaks.)

Bacon’s bottom line: Indoor farming is attracting serious capital because it offers significant advantages. The upfront cost of building industrial-scale structures is offset by using a tiny fraction of the land and consuming far less water and fertilizer. Thanks to the ability to utilize data to make precision adjustments, indoor farming is phenomenally productive. If the concept takes off, we could see indoor farms replace convention farming wholesale for a wide variety of crops — especially leafy greens and herbs. Indoor farming is being used to cultivate strawberries, and I can hardly wait for the practice to spread to blueberries as well. It seems unlikely that indoor farming can ever displace mass-volume crops such corn, wheat and soybeans — but, who knows?

The implications are fascinating to explore. The economy is undergoing a weird inversion. With indoor farming, we’re seeing agricultural production move to industrial parks and other factory settings. And with solar farms, we’re seeing energy production shift from industrial sites to what once were land-intensive agricultural settings.

It will be interesting to see how Virginia Tech, which has defined “precision farming” as the future of agriculture, responds to the trend. Future Farming describes Tech’s SmartFarm Innovation Network:

On the farm of the future, drones will fly over forests and crops to communicate with robots embedded in harvesting equipment on the ground. Sensors on livestock and in field crops and forest lands will be linked to the cloud where big data is transformed into practical information regarding precision feeding, protection, and management decisions. Plants will be biodesigned to require less water and fertilizer, and be tolerant to drought, pests, and floods while producing more food. Farmers will operate their businesses with iPads as much as tractors.

Sounds similar to the thinking behind AeroFarms — with one big difference. Virginia Tech seems focused on helping traditional, land-intensive, outdoor agriculture make the transition to smart farming. That may make sense for corn, wheat and soybeans. Whether smaller Virginia farms can compete with the giant mechanized farms in the Midwest, which no doubt are embracing smart-farm concepts as well, remains an open question.

One thing for sure: There are no limits to human ingenuity. American “farmers” are adopting practices that will allow them to conserve resources and still feed the world.

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17 responses to “The Future of Agriculture — in a Danville Industrial Park

  1. re: ” Farmers will operate their businesses with iPads as much as tractors.”

    probably NOT without internet, though…. and all those rural kids if
    they’re gonna do this – they need STEM as well as access to internet.

    some day I hope enough of us, think clearly enough to realize that those who say we can’t do rural internet are an impediment to real progress.

    We’re NOT going to grow food in the urban areas nor are we going to provide electricity or dispose of trash and sewage inside of our urban areas. Rural is what powers our urban areas… and our urban regions could not exist without rural regions with elecricity, internet and roads. Some day enough of us will figure that out and we’ll stop fooling around …….. and get smart.

    • You keep making the same inaccurate statement hoping that repetition will somehow make those statements true. Fairfax County disposes of its waste in waste to energy incinerators located in Fairfax And Prince William Counties. Arlington County has a sophisticated wastewater treatment operation that separates the water from the biosolids. “Arlington is fully urbanized; there are no large farms nearby where the residue could be disposed. The county uses a contractor to obtain permission for disposal elsewhere, and to transport the “once waste, now nutrient” material to farms and forests. There, the biosolids are applied on pastures or forest soils. Human waste from people in the sewershed of the Arlington plant is recycled into grass or trees, as plants and organisms in the soil incorporate nutrients and trace elements in the biosolids.” “In Virginia, biosolids were applied to about 50,000 acres in 2006. By comparison, untreated animal manure was applied to nearly 400,000 acres.” In other words, it becomes fertilizer.

      • I doubt seriously that 100% of the waste is incinerated. Biosolids are exported to the rural areas. Electricity comes from rural areas. Most of the food in NoVa is grown in rural areas – poultry farms, pig farms, cattle, dairy , etc – all outside of NoVa. The animal manure you speak of is from animals that are grown for food in NoVa….

    • Another fallacy – internet vs broadband internet. What are the plants in these vertical farms going to do? Stream Netflix? Watch porn? Hardly matters, in Danville 99.6% of the people have access to broadband coverage of 25mbps or more. Pittsylvania has 77.9% of its population covered by broadband. Of course, if you move the speed requirement up to 1Gbit then Pittsylvania County falls to zero and Danville falls to 0.2%. The percentage in Fairfax County is o.1%. In Buchanan County 100% of the population has access to 1 Gbit broadband.

      Don’t listen to the rural broadband charlatans Larry. The exclude important data, make up facts and otherwise misrepresent the actual situation.

  2. Ready, fire, aim? Every article I’ve read about this has focused on producing fresh food close to the buyers of that fresh food – especially restaurants. Or, producing food in places where there are too many people relative to the cultivatable acreage – in Hong Kong for example. Why are these vertical farms any better than greenhouse based farming? Easy – they require less land. Is that all? I hope not because we have plenty of land in Virginia – at least in the rural farming areas. And the energy consumed in vertical farming is extreme …

    “The energy demand associated with vertical farming, however, is much higher than other methods of food production. For example, lettuces grown in traditionally heated greenhouses in the UK need an estimated 250kWh of energy a year for every square metre of growing area. In comparison, lettuces grown in a purpose built vertical farm need an estimated 3,500kWh a year for each square metre of growing area. Notably, 98% of this energy use is due to artificial lighting and climate control.”

    I believe the average electricity consumption per house in the US is 903 kWh per month or 10,836 kWh per year. So, three square meters of lettuce consumes the same electricity as a house? How could the economics work? Are the costs of transporting fresh basil from Florida so high that they more than offset the energy costs of vertical farming? Maybe so, I don’t know but I hope the operations we are subsidizing will be around in five years.

    There’s only one plant I know for sure would be worth the cost of vertical farming (in a locked and secure environment) and it’s not legal in Virginia.

    • Very good points. Vertical farming replaces free sunshine as an energy source with electrically generated energy. Thus, vertical farming comes into direct conflict with a green, anti-carbon agenda. Hmmm…. I wonder how long before vertical farming is anathematized.

      But, hey, it can still help feed the world!

      • But plants only photosynthesize in daylight (I think). Unless the vertical farmers are trying to get to 24 by 7 photosynthesis why couldn’t on-site or nearby solar panels be a big part of the answer. This is what Virginia should be subsidizing – not just neat-o vertical farms to grow harcort vert for the barista-class in Henrico County but the engineering of sustainable vertical farming – combining clean energy production and vertical farms.

      • yeah.. what these are – are modern day hot houses/green houses…. which have been around a long time and tend to grow specialty stuff.

        Not only the artificial sun but keeping them heated…no way they could grow stuff like wheat or corn or potatoes, rice, fruit, etc.

        Large scale “truck farming” can be see in places like Southern California .. thousand and thousands of irrigated acres of hundreds of vegetables and fruits – like blueberries.

        To the north and east – millions of acres of corn and wheat. East of there millions of acres of rice, soybeans, north west – potatoes. sugar beets.

        If you want to appreciate the scale – consider, for instance, how many heads of lettuce – 2 million people ( the population of NoVa) would consume – in a week. 100,000 heads of lettuce per week?
        How about eggs? how many dozen eggs are consumer in NoVa every day?

        Some speciality stuff can be grow in NoVa in modern day green houses but 98% of the “food” is grown outside of NoVa – on farms that need electricity and internet to operate.

        • Don’t forget marijuana. Grow houses use lots of electric lighting.

          With the increasing number of restaurants in and near Tysons, this would be a good use of some of the older buildings on the outer edges of Tysons that are not ripe for development.

  3. Will the economics of providing the environmental needs of temperature and light be balanced by the value of the crops without $590,000 in grants plus “unquantified tax benefits” or $100 million grants?

    This article discusses how it is possible to have artificial light sources that allow photosynthesis and are more sustainable for vertical farming.
    Photosynthesis under artificial light: the shift in primary and secondary metabolism, Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2014 Apr 19; 369(1640): 20130243.
    “Recent development of light-emitting diode (LED) technologies presents an enormous potential for improving plant growth and making systems more sustainable. This review uses selected examples to show how LED can mimic natural light to ensure the growth and development of photosynthetic organisms, and how changes in intensity and wavelength can manipulate the plant metabolism with the aim to produce functionalized foods.”

    • Good point. 92 jobs for $590,000 (plus unspecified tax breaks) means $6,413 per job. And what do these jobs pay? “While the wages ranged were relatively low (ranging from $9-$15/hr) … ”

      Meanwhile Tricky Dick Saslaw has patroned SB10 regarding minimum wages:

      2020: $10 per hour
      2021: $11 per hour
      2022: $12 per hour
      2023: $14 per hour
      2024: $15 per hour

      2025+: Minimum wage rises automatically at (minimum) the pace of the CPI.

      So, we’re spending $6,413 per job to build an industry that is already paying (at the bottom end) less that Virginia’s minimum wage on July 1, 2020 (Saslaw will get this one through)?

      • these operations and farms are automated …these days and/or use immigrant labor … hybrid mix:

        These fields are as far as the eye can see in Southern California… and the crops go from the fields directly transportation hubs that send it across the country in hours/days.

  4. Wow! The things one learns on this blog!

  5. Hell, this site development gig is revolutionary in its depth, scope and reach. It’s gonna the change Danville, Virginia for generations. Already blueberry lovers are flooding the town. Flying in from far away as London and Paris, Tokyo and Singapore. Hotels are packed. Home prices skyrocketing county wide. Blueberry parlors and delicatessens are reliably reported to be sprouting up and down Main Street.

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