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Indoor Vertical Farm In Cincinnati Will Be Fully Automated

Jan 29, 2020
Originally published on January 29, 2020 6:19 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The bok choy, kale or culinary herbs in your salad may have been planted, grown and harvested by a robot. Experts say the market is ripe for fully automated indoor farms. Here's Ann Thompson of member station WVXU in Cincinnati.

ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Modern indoor vertical farming is popular in Japan and the Netherlands and is slowly catching on here. Enormous warehouses use artificial light and robots to grow plants that are stacked many stories high. That's what's going on here at a company called 80 Acres Farms just outside of Cincinnati. The building under construction will be enormous - the size of 1 1/2 football fields. It will be fully automated, including every step from seeding to packaging.

In a smaller building across the road, CEO Mike Zelkind is pointing to Sam, a 2 1/2-story industrial robot with a really long arm whose task is to move plants around.

MIKE ZELKIND: There are no people in the grow zones. The trays move in and out with a robot right behind us. And there's another automatic retrieval unit on the other side that comes - meets the robot, the trays get reloaded, and it gets towards harvesting and packaging.

THOMPSON: This robot gets help from other smaller robots that monitor the plants with cameras and control the lighting, nutrients and airflow.

ZELKIND: Each grow zone is, in a sense, like a very deep, long vending machine. And there's a schedule for loading, for unloading, for growth cycles.

THOMPSON: 80 Acres partners with a British robotics company and a Dutch horticultural firm. Tisha Livingston says her company will sell this robotic technology for building indoor farms. One such farm is under construction in Shanghai.

TISHA LIVINGSTON: A lot of the countries that we're working with don't have the infrastructure between the fields and where the food is grown and where the people are. So being able to move all of this fresh, perishable produce into the cities next to the populations is life changing.

THOMPSON: While automation is too expensive for some indoor vertical farm startups, it's working for California's Iron Ox, which relies heavily on automation. In fact, its CEO, Brandon Alexander, is a former Google X robotics employee.

BRANDON ALEXANDER: I think the more players and the more people tackling this problem, the better. This is a massive market that is still stuck with the highly centralized process of field farming

THOMPSON: Whole Foods and Kroger are among the grocery stores selling the produce grown by robots.

Shopping in the organic section at a Cincinnati Kroger, Helen O'Neal (ph) has no problem with robots growing her salad.

HELEN O'NEAL: We are - have increasing food demands, and I think that anything that's going to lower the footprint of farming is great.

THOMPSON: She does express concerns, though, about robots replacing workers. But while the robots do the heavy lifting, they still need humans to program and operate them. Consultant Jim Pantaleo, who works with people to build indoor farms, says robotic farming is just one possible way to help bolster the world's food supply.

JIM PANTALEO: How will we feed people in 2050? Indoor farming will never be the answer, but it can be a great supplement to field farming or outdoor farming.

THOMPSON: Some say it will be an even better supplement once the price of the produce comes down. 80 Acres says the cost of its pesticide-free greens is on par with that of traditionally grown organic produce and hopes to eventually compete with non-organic greens.

For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

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