Everything you missed at the Vertical Farming Summit in Washington DC

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Vertical farm in hoophouse built by Cultivate the City

It’s a wrap! What an inspiring way to spend three days here in Washington, D.C.. The Association for Vertical Farming and the University of District of Columbia outdid themselves.  The event connected me with thought leaders, commercial ventures, financiers, agronomists and directors of policy. Here’s everything you missed at the CAUSES and AVF Summit.

Day One: Urban Agriculture & Vertical Farming Summit

David Young and Nathan Hosler doing Gods work in New Orleans

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me,” (Matthew 25:35).  David Young of Capstone Community Gardens & Orchard reminds us of how beautifully simple urban gardening is. You connect to people, grow what works, and never give up. I was inspired by David’s story of leaving his career to answer a call from God to feed those in need. Now, this volunteer group provides over 5,000 pounds of food to the food desert of the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. If you want to learn more about seeing a need and meeting a need, reach out to David. I’m sure he could use the help. 

Vivek Prasad, adjunct faculty at GMU and consultant to the World Bank, gave the most informational panel of the day. Among many great insights, he taught us about the rapid urbanization that is occurring across the world. In the coming decades, more than three billion people will move to cities.  According to his research and projections, it is expected that by 2020, 85% of the poor in Latin America, and about 40-45% of the poor in Africa and Asia, will be concentrated in towns and cities. That is staggering. Mr. Prasad and I appear to agree that, on the whole, urban and vertical farming is not yet a source of great income for these people in urban settings, but rather it is the way they can survive. By growing their food locally, they reduce the economic burden of living in a city center – enabling them to have access to education, healthcare, and all the other benefits of a larger metropolitan area.  

In the coming decades, more than three billion people will move to cities.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Clearly something must be done. 10x the population of the United States will move into urban areas around the world. I have trouble even understanding what that means. Certainly, population growth is directly correlated to nutrition. And as I learned in a recent visit to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the most effective way to curve birth rates is to educate them and help them increase their personal income. That’s certainly something I can get behind. Until then, I think the most important thing we can work on for this rapidly expanding population is to ensure their nutritional security so they can grow up to be fully-contributing members of our society.  Think of it as maximizing the utility of our people.

Day One Lessons Learned:

  1. The best solutions are hyper-local, integrated with the community.
  2. People are moving to city by the billions. Our cities need to prepare.

Day Two: Association of Vertical Farming Summit 2017

Sonny Ramaswamy, Director National Institute of Food and Agriculture

W hat happens when you gather 100 people from around the world who genuinely care about the future of food, nutritional security, and real results? Well, apparently, AVF Summit 2017 happens. Other than serving a grain-based lunch, this gathering certainly lived up to its namesake. Over the course of 10 hours, I listened to thought leaders like Sonny Ramaswamy educate us on where Vertical Farming is now, where it is likely to go in the future, and what areas they thought could use the most help.

The world produces enough food, but it’s not the right quality and is certainly not evenly distributed.

Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin

Sonny did a great job of setting the record straight. Vertical farming is still in its infancy, and is likely to only play a minor role in the future of food. It is an exceptional compliment to open-field farming. We officially have more people struggling with obesity than we do with starvation. The world produces enough food, but it’s not the right quality and is certainly not evenly distributed. The interesting thing about vertical farming is that it encourages healthy food and it reduces the ecological footprint of farming. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture wants to reduce the ecological footprint of farming by 50% in the next 15-20 years. That’s impressive. 80% of our fresh water is currently dedicated to agriculture. What a great way to improve both water and nutritional security for people across the US.

Twice as many people are dying from excessive amount of calories than dying of starvation

Enter the Chief Resiliency Officer

The legacy of the Rockefeller family is alive and well in the 21st century. After building out the energy infrastructure that created the American empire, they have turned their attention to, “promoting the well-being of humanity throughout the world.” Supporting this mission, they launched the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative to equip cities around the world with the strategy, tools, and partners necessary to succeed. “One critical step cities can take to facilitate their resilience building is to hire a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO). The CRO is an innovative position in city government and acts as the city’s point person for resilience building, helping to coordinate all of the city’s resilience efforts.”

This initiative is a stroke of brilliance. In many ways they are “helping me, help you.” The foundation has created a vehicle that incentivizes cites to take seriously the problems inevitable with mass migration. It rewards them with prestige, it funds an initial role that will likely prove the need for a larger focus, and it equips them with partners and resources to take immediate action for their region. I love donations that leverage and multiply. This is how the titans of industry should be helping the world we live in.

As long as we are living on a grain-based diet, we are going to have obesity problems.

Day Two Lessons Learned:

  1. $4.4b is being invested into the emerging AgriTech industry.
  2. Urban agriculture forces us to re-examine the value-chain of food, from seed to mouth.
  3. As long as we are living on a grain-based diet, we are going to have obesity problems.
  4. Cannabis is helping fund the way for technology development in vertical farming.
  5. Lights go in the canopy not above it. Light loss is serious to profitability.
  6. One food-safety issue in a vertical farm could ruin the game for everyone.
  7. Most farms are still collecting data via spreadsheet.
  8. 180,000 people are moving into cities every day.

Day Three: Field Trips

Robert van Heuvelen at VH Strategies kicked-off our Saturday morning with a working educational session on the Agricultural Innovation Alliance. This cohhilition of individuals, universities, and corporations hopes to move the needle on US policy in preparation for a rapid expansion of Urban Agriculture here in the US. Given the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill expected to publish in draft form any day now, I would say this is an area that needs active work should Vertical Farming hope to survive the next five years. Other than another grain-based breakfast, this was a great way to start the morning.

Vertical farm in hoophouse built by Cultivate the City

Some people like to just talk about building vertical farms. The people at Cultivate the City actually do it. This farm is located inside a hoophouse at WS Jenks & Son using towers provided by Bright Agrotech and a little workbench engineering. If you are in the DC area and are interested in urban agriculture or vertical farming, I highly recommend you stop by and check out their offerings. Their largely volunteer staff was very helpful and happily fielded our game of 20 questions.

If you want to learn about vertical farming, you are going to have to get your hands dirty.

If you want to learn about vertical farming, you are going to have to get your hands dirty. What better way to spend an internship than separating seedling roots and preparing the next vertical tower? Whether you are building a large-scale commercial operation, or just setting up your own Click n’ Grow, the beautiful thing about farming is that it invites us all into the dirt. No matter how refined this process gets, I hope we never lose our connection to mother earth. There is something beautiful about creating, enabling, and spreading life. I only wish I would have learned about this earlier so I could spend more time appreciating moments like these.

Day Three Lessons Learned:

  1. Vertical farming is still volunteer based, but these people have a dream!
  2. We tend to over-complicate the design and over-react to anomalies.
  3. You can grow food anywhere there is light, water, and nutrients. The sky is the limit.

Overall, I would say the AVF Summit 2017 was time well spent. I’ll save my commentary on the state of vertical farming for another post, but for now, I think I can safely say it shows promise even though it is still a few years away. For me, eliminating pesticides from the food chain is worth the fight.  Now that I know about food deserts, rapid urbanization, and the importance of managing water, I am even more convinced that vertical farming should have a place in the world of the future.

What do you think of vertical farming? If you’re interested, pick-up a copy of The World We Made by Jonathon Porrit. I found it to be a great resource to help me dream.

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