The following is a guest post by Nicola Kerslake updating us on indoor agriculture in Nevada. If this interests you, check out the conference happening in Las Vegas on May 14-15th. It’s some pretty cool technology as Nicola describes below.
A little over a year ago, a venture capitalist mentor told me to “go figure out who else is interested in this indoor agriculture stuff”, and so, I began planning the inaugural Indoor Agriculture Conference, which would eventually sell out with more than 230 attendees in April 2013. Indoor agriculture is growing produce and raising fish in containers, warehouses and greenhouses using hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic technologies. It’s a $600bn+ industry in the US alone; it ranges from growing leafy greens in London underground tunnels to the greenhouse operations that produce around half of the tomatoes we buy in grocery stores. As we plan this year’s ag-con – on May 14-15 at Springs Preserve – we’re getting calls and emails from as far afield as the UK, Israel and Australia, a reflection of the remarkable growth in interest in the industry over the past year.
Part of this change is just because of time; the projects which were pipedreams a few years’ back are now viable businesses. For instance, open source hardware firm WindowFarms – its hydroponic kits let you grow food in a window box – raised more than five times its $50,000 target on Kickstarter back in December 2011, and now ships kits all over the world and has more than 42,000 participants in its WindowFarms community.
After a long dry winter, the severity of the drought in the western US has concentrated minds; the California Farm Water Coalition expects 10% of California’s fields to lay fallow this summer. As we illustrated in a recent infographic, more than a third of the US is in drought and 70% of water is used in agriculture. Traditional farmers are starting to conserve water and diversify their crops by adding indoor growing to their farms, given that it uses only 10-15% of the water of traditional farming. Las Vegas sod farmers, Valley Sod Farms, have been experimenting with greenhouse produce, for example.
Indoor ag technology is coming on by leaps and bounds; LED lights cost 25% less than they did 2 years ago, while the Internet of Things revolution is enabling cheaper, simpler control and data gathering systems. For example, container farm company, Freight Farms, allows farmers to control air temperature, humidity and nutrient levels in container farms from their SmartPhones.
Both venture capitalists and private investors are now taking the industry seriously. One beneficiary is Indoor Ag-Con keynote BrightFarms, which raised $4.3mn to expand its hydroponic greenhouse network in January; they offer grocery store chains secure produce supply in exchange for a decade-long contract, unusual for the food supply industry.
Las Vegas’s urban agriculture scene is right on trend, with new farms springing up and local community advocates becoming more numerous and more organized. They’re working on everything from a food hub to a seed library, and the Downtown Rangers are rumored to have ambitious urban agriculture plans of their own. On the sidelines of last year’s conference, I chatted with Las Vegas local Brett Runion who was in the process of planning an aquaponics (raising fish and growing veggies symbiotically) farm with his family. That venture – R Fish and Veggies – is now up and running, growing produce such as kale and micogreens and supplying to the likes of Whole Foods Market.
As with any nascent industry, there’s plenty of room for growth; one enthusiast likens indoor ag’s current state to “the solar industry in 2009”, the point at which the industry began tech-driven exponential growth. We invite you to join us in that growth at our Ag-Con on May 14 and 15.
Nicola is the founder of Newbean Capital, which manages investment operations for two venture capital mandates and also has significant interests in agriculture, especially indoor agriculture. The firm will co-host the 2nd Annual Indoor Agriculture Conference on May 14-15 alongside the Black Emerald Group, a Bay Area merchant banking group.