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UF/IFAS researchers tackle issues facing indoor farms

People around the world are increasingly turning to greenhouses and indoor vertical farms to grow commodities. The systems use far less land than conventional farms, dramatically reducing some environmental impacts, say University of Florida researchers.

They also require less transportation to get the food to consumers because they are usually in or near urban areas and their food is usually safer.

Also known as controlled environmental agriculture (CEA) – or ‘artificial lighting factories’ – they can help boost food production in urban and drought-prone regions.

In Florida, indoor farms can be found in places like Tampa, The Villages, Jacksonville and Miami, said Ziynet Boz, UF/IFAS assistant professor of agricultural and biological technology.

On the other hand, indoor farms and greenhouses cost a lot of money to start and maintain. You will need $50 to $150 per square foot to build a greenhouse. For a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse, that’s $500,000 to $1.5 million, according to UF/IFAS researchers.

Electricity is not included. That is 20 to 30% of your operational costs.

Boz led a newly published article examining research into the sustainability challenges faced by those growing crops and ornamentals through CEA.

As outlined in the document, the main barriers to these indoor activities are:

  • High electricity consumption compared to traditional agriculture.
  • Geography-related considerations after the indoor farm is built. For example, extreme temperatures affect the effectiveness of your climate control system and your costs. Rural areas can also be cheaper, but may require more transportation.
  • Unfavorable public perception of CEA compared to field production. Consumers view “factories” as unnatural systems and want transparency.

“These issues are now being addressed through optimized lighting and sensor technology, decision support tools to reduce electricity consumption and communications tactics to educate people about the benefits of CEA,” Boz said. “By addressing challenges, farmers and researchers can improve the sustainability, efficiency and yield of CEA activities.”

In this context, Sustainability means the ability to produce food in a way that consumes a lot few natural resources and produces high yield for the lowest environmental impactsaid Bos.

Boz credits most of the paper’s research to two PhD students in agricultural and biological engineering: Donald Coon and Lauren Lindow.

Now that he is participating in this research project, Coon has long-term suggestions for indoor farm operators.

“Include all three dimensions of sustainability: environmental, economic and social,” he said. “Produce a profitable product, with minimal adverse effects and listen and respond to what the consumer is looking for. It is inefficient and risky to focus on just one of them at a time.”