retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Give a man a head of lettuce, and he'll have a salad for dinner tonight. Teach a man how to grow a head of lettuce, and maybe he can help change the world…

Interesting piece in the Guardian about Grove Labs, which is "designing an appliance to grow leafy green vegetables indoors. Its two founders, who conceived of the business while students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, envision people’s homes having 'groves,' or spots to grow their own fresh food. The company, which recently raised $2m in 'seedling' funding, says it intends to help people grow food productively at home using sensor-controlled gardens and smart phone apps."

According to the story, "the Grove Lab founders are among a growing number of entrepreneurs who are getting a green thumb. They’re using information technology and new lighting techniques to advance the field of 'building-integrated agriculture,' or growing food in structures such as warehouses, rather than greenhouses.

"Proponents contend that indoor farming and urban farming are necessary to feed a growing global population. Urbanites could potentially purchase locally grown, pesticide-free food year-round, lowering emissions associated from tractors and shipping products. Producing food indoors also means that consumers are shielded from disruptions in the food supply caused by natural disasters and that farmland could be restored to ecosystems, such as forests, that could absorb greenhouse gases. Growing food indoors uses 98% less water and 70% less fertilizer than traditional methods, and has a higher yield, according to the Association for Vertical Farming."

To be sure, at this point in their development "indoor farms still contribute little to the global food system because production costs are higher than conventional growing methods," the story says. "And they tend to use more electricity. But businesses are starting take advantage of new technologies, including energy-efficient LED lighting and automated systems, to bring down costs. As these technologies become standardized, indoor farming will make sense in more locations, says Chad Sykes, CEO of Indoor Harvest, which builds custom indoor farms for professional growers."

The story goes on to say that "it remains to be seen whether indoor farming can displace a significant portion of the current food production or serve consumers who can’t afford more expensive produce. But many indoor-farming entrepreneurs say their technology can serve to diversify the current food system, allowing food to be consumed where it’s produced."

On the other hand, I think that recent history would suggest that these kinds of disruptive changes are not only possible, but likely … when people bring considerable brainpower to the act of finding ways to do things like indoor farming.

It's been years since I saw it, but one of the in-store features that I best remember is an enormous hydroponic facility created by Fiesta Mart down in Texas with the stated goal of providing its own fresh produce to the greatest extent possible. That concept, if I recall correctly, was not economically sustainable … but then, you see hydroponic tomato plants in a Price Chopper store in Latham, New York, and you realize the power of such an approach.

Sure, it remains to be seen whether indoor farming is a big idea with legs. But at the very least, it is an Eye-Opener … and I wouldn't bet against it.
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