Climate Change Prompts Panama Grower to go Indoors, Vertical
The changing global climate is threatening the systems that businesses have built and societies depend upon. Our global food systems are particularly vulnerable because agriculture is already a sensitive and high-risk endeavor. This is why a global trend to take food production indoors and upwards vertically is growing steadily.
Last month, we reported on news that the agri-tecture trend was becoming more popular in Korea. Also last month, we were able to google hangout live with David Proenza, CEO of Urban Vertical Farms, where we learned more about how climate change effected his operations and prompted him to grow food vertically.
The article below explores how climate change and other social factors have prompted many to grow indoors, some of the history of the trend, and what Urban Vertical Farms is doing in Panama to improve the resiliency of its food production business.
David Proenza and his company are located in Rio Hato in Panama’s central-southern coast and became interested in what his company calls food growing facilities when climate change began affecting his part of the world.
"We have been in the food business since 1985," said Proenza. "Initially we were in packing, marketing and distributing in the U.S., but we began field farming in Panama in 1998 under the Global Farms name.
"We began experiencing climate change in Panama in 2008, which worsened in 2009," he continued. "Prior to 2008 Panama had two seasons: one wet and one dry. You could set a watch by the change of seasons. In late November, the last of the rains would draw to a stop. It would then be dry until late April or early May. It has worsened every year since. This year the rains lasted into January."
Global Farms lost a tremendous amount of money due to crop failure during this climate change period. Proenza knew a couple of years ago that he had to do something or get out of farming totally.
Global Farms produces field watermelons and melons, of which 90 percent are shipped to Europe. The majority of its cucumbers and eggplants are shipped to the United States. The company also produces corn, tomatoes and Bell peppers for the local market.
Proenza explained that “plant factories” got its market hold in Japan several years ago, and today universities and entrepreneurs in the United States and other places around the world are studying the growing system and working on new developments.
"Approximately four years ago, Chiba University in Chiba, Japan, received a grant of about $130 million for research and development of vertical farming technology," said Proenza. "This is particularly interesting to the Japanese because of the food-security issues the country faces, which have been magnified by the radiation fears that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami."
Another issue Japan faces is that younger generations are not following in their farming parents’ footsteps, and so as farmers retire or die, their farms virtually close. This issue makes plant factories an even more interesting aspect of food production for Japan’s future.
The Chiba University Research Consortium began producing lettuces and other leafy items in hermetically sealed, controlled-environment food-growing facilities because they are the easiest products to grow vertically. Other growing facilities around the world tend to focus on leafy greens for the same reason.
The consortium organized eight companies to establish the research center at Kashiwanoha-campus at Chiba University to conduct all types of research.
"There are other important reasons to establish food-growing facility technology," said Proenza. "The World Bank Group, United Nations and major international agricultural organizations concur that by the year 2050, 80 percent of the world’s population will live in cities as opposed to suburbs or farming areas. The sustainability, food miles and local-grown trends and movements make food-growing facilities the perfect alternative to field farming. This is not to mention the elimination of risks like hurricanes, hail storm, frost or other climatic or weather twist. These buildings are being designed to withstand all of these risks."
He added that the versatility of food-growing facilities is endless. Using a fresh-cut processor as an example, he said, “A food-growing facility at or near its operation could provide all the various lettuces, leafy greens, herbs, micro greens and other products for its ingredients,” he said. “And it’s important to note that we can grow all of our foods chemical-free, as well as organics.”
Although Global Farms is still in field farming, and likely always will be, it has reduced its growing space to fewer than 100 hectares today from over 300 hectares in 2008.
During his research during the past few years, Proenza has traveled the world researching food-growing facilities. The first problem he recognized was that a way to grow field crops other than leafy greens on separate levels in the same facility had not been developed.
"Urban Farms has researched and developed techniques that enable us to grow the same products vertically that are produced in the field, including Bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons and even watermelons," he said. "Working with agronomists, we went to fields and looked at how every food plant grows, and we developed ways to grow it in a food-growing facility.
"With some plants we wrap the vines, like in a spool," Proenza continued. "Melons grow horizontally in long trays, one on top of the other distanced apart. And we’re also working on ways to develop potatoes and onions."
Urban Vertical Farms is currently working on patents for the growing method of each product.
Proenza stressed how food-growing facilities increase the level of food safety. Plants are totally contained and computer-controlled in hermetically sealed facilities, and computers are configured to provide the plants with the precise nutrients and water they need.
Urban Vertical Farms is on a timeline to have its first two-story vertical farm completed by the second quarter of 2014. Each floor of the facility will be 30,000-square-feet.
Proenza’s son, Thomas Proenza, is the company’s new business development manager and is currently working out of Ft. Lauderdale, FL. But the company is most seriously considering Orlando for its first facility.
"In addition to the 2 million residents in the Orlando area, it gets about 50 million visitors annually," said David Proenza. "That computes to a huge demand for local fresh food.
"Our first food-growing facility will produce tomatoes, strawberries, red Bell peppers and various leafy items, including lettuces, herbs, micro greens and more," he added.
Urban Vertical Farms continues to work on defining its long-term strategy, and it seeks additional partners to bring its goal of developing food-growing facilities to growers to every major city around the world.
Being a field farmer himself, Proenza knows that farming is not an easy job. But he points out that growing fresh produce in a food-growing facility will be much easier due to the technology and automated systems.
"The core message that Urban Vertical Farms is communicating is that due to climate change adversity, water scarcity, a world population that will reach 9.3 billion by 2050, 80 percent of the population will be living and working in urban settings, food miles, carbon footprint and the changing food requirements of the consumer, traditional farming has a lot of challenges in the years to come," said Proenza. "Food-growing facilities are the future of food production, and they will be developed around cities in the years to come. Urban Farms will be a world leader in this development."
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