A survey was conducted in the Summer of 2019 to gather information on the current state of the CEA (controlled environment agriculture) industry. The survey was sponsored by Agritecture, an urban agriculture consulting company and Autogrow, an agricultural automation company. 316 participants from 54 different companies responded to the survey’s 45 questions, and the results are very insightful. For the full report, download it here.
The survey defines CEA as:
“The growing of crops while controlling certain aspects of the environment including lighting, temperature, humidity, irrigation, fertigation and other factors that influence plant physiological responses.”
Operations that fall under the CEA category include: greenhouses, rooftop greenhouses, shipping containers, high tunnels, indoor farms and vertical farms. Since we are a greenhouse company, we’d like to share with you some interesting findings that have to do with greenhouse operations, as well as some key overall takeaways.
CEA is proving to be a young industry with 60% of company founders being under 40 years old. This is a stark contrast to the trend of aging farmers around the world – 60% of farmers are over 55. One of the biggest rationales for this age disparity is that most CEA operations are technology driven and younger generations tend to gravitate towards,or have a better grasp of technology. Also, with 55% of the world’s population living in urban areas, we’re seeing a decrease of interest from young people to maintain farms in rural areas. This trend of more people migrating to urban areas has encouraged the rise of urban ag and new food technologies.
This graph shows that the majority of people starting CEA businesses have no background experience in agriculture at all. When diving deeper into the different types of CEA operations, greenhouses and rooftop greenhouses stand out as being largely founded by people with agricultural experience. This could be due to these operations being more complex and costly, factors that tend to deter newcomers to any industry.
The CEA census reported a staggering underrepresentation of women founders in the industry. The census said this about the results,
The implications of this gender gap in agriculture has been discussed through various studies. One recent study, however, showed that men who are the sole decision makers tend to take greater risks, including adopting new technologies, changing land use, and intensity or experimentation. This effect is also heightened when paired with exposure to higher levels of education.
The current top three challenges experienced by growers were:
- Labor – including skills, the ability to work with new technology, the availability of workers and the overall cost of labor
- Funding (Ceres website has financing options for various greenhouse projects)
- Scaling or expanding their business – including availability of land, finance to scale and technology
The majority of the census participants grow in indoor vertical farms or greenhouses. Even though it is known that there are many more greenhouse operations than indoor vertical farms, this census shows that vertical farm owners seem to be more digitally driven when it comes to data sharing (i.e. participating in an online survey).
This census graph shows growing methods used by operation. It’s important to note that on-ground greenhouse owners are more likely to use soil as their growing method than other operation types. You can also see that soil is nearly absent in indoor vertical farms and shipping container operations. The census attributes these findings to the fact that soil is hard to manage in the warm and humid environments found in these operations.
At Ceres, we design greenhouses to integrate with a wide variety of growing methods. We have an exclusive partnership with The Aquaponic Source™ to provide growers with aquaponic solutions that integrate seamlessly with our greenhouse design.
What is growing?
The respondents from the census produce a range of crops that nearly matches the crop diversity of outdoor agriculture. The most popular crops to be grown by CEA operations are salad greens and microgreens due to their quick crop cycle. The census had this to say about microgreen production:
The rise in popularity of microgreens should be seen as positive for a couple of reasons:
- Microgreens are a high-priced, high-quality commodity. If there is a demand for this crop in a certain region, then there is likely demand for other, more affordable CEA crops such as herbs or cherry tomatoes as well.
- Demand for microgreens generally demonstrates a consumer base concerned with healthy and clean eating, which is one of the main target markets for CEA crops. The fact that these markets are spreading globally is good sign for CEA production.
Be sure to check out our blog on microgreen production in a Ceres Greenhouse.
Some of the more unusual crops being grown in CEA operations include tree nuts, tree fruits and melons.
When it comes to policy and government, the top three areas of support needed from the CEA community are:
- Access to affordable land or indoor spaces for farming
- Availability of technical experts/support
- Educating local government about urban farming
The cost of land in urban areas is ever rising and it’s forcing some urban farmers to grow high-value crops for an exclusive market. This poses a problem to the idea that urban farming should make local food more accessible for people living in cities. One suggestion to this issue is to utilize underused, vacant or neglected urban spaces and turn them into urban farms to increase local production. The success of these farms will educate other cities of the viability of CEA operations in urban spaces.
Because the CEA industry is relatively new, there is a need for more technical experts and a set industry standard. Fortunately we are seeing an influx of CEA programs at Universities worldwide and more online resources are being developed for technical support. Also, there have been discussions within the CEA community over the possibility of open source agricultural forums where farmers can share their best practices with one another.
At Ceres we implore data-driven technology to optimize our greenhouse environments. We have a dedicated data team that analyzes greenhouse readings from current clients and estimates energy savings for future clients. They’ve developed an energy calculator that is now live on our website.
The adoption of technology in the CEA community is relatively widespread and it’s a big game changer when it comes to the success of the industry. Here is a graph of technology used in the different growing environments:
When it comes to local government, there must be a better understanding of the implications and benefits of CEA projects in their communities. Some of the key arguments for politically backing CEA projects, as defined by the census, include:
- Increase in jobs
- Co-locating CEA projects next to certain businesses to increase efficiency and make communities more sustainable. I.e.: locating a greenhouse next to a CO2 producing facility
- CEA facilities to assist in disaster recovery, ensuring people have quick access to fresh produce after a hurricane or flood related event.
- Crop diversity
This graph shows the profitability of each type of CEA growing environment. The trend seems to mirror the capital cost of starting each type of operation. Greenhouse and rooftop greenhouse profitability is about the same even though rooftop greenhouses are a little bit more expensive to establish. The census attributes this to the fact that a lot of rooftop greenhouses are built with a pre-determined consumer base – i.e. a rooftop greenhouse over a restaurant.
A Ceres greenhouse has a higher up front cost but a lower operational cost than traditional greenhouses. This is because our efficient design and innovative systems save growers on energy costs – up to 39% more compared to a traditional greenhouse.
Of all the graphs, this one is the most hopeful. It shows that, even though the CEA industry struggles with funding, expertise etc., business owners have an extremely positive outlook on the future.
In the conclusion of the census report, the authors defined these three signs as the best demonstrators of developing strength in the industry:
- CEA in the form of both vertical farming and greenhouse production is spreading throughout the world. That it is occurring in countries with drastically different economic and natural resource profiles means that CEA is providing value and interest across various cultures, climates, and other local contexts.
- CEA is a method of producing an increasingly wider diversity of crops, in addition to other farm products. The diversification of use cases for CEA will continue to strengthen the industry.
- CEA is attracting younger professionals to the agriculture industry. This is extremely important with the aging populations associated with traditional farming in most areas of the world.
It is exciting to see greenhouses play a huge part in the success of the CEA movement. We’d like to think that Ceres’ is contributing to this forward-thinking industry through our innovation and technological developments. We learn more and more about our agricultural potential as we take on more greenhouse projects aimed at feeding bigger communities.
In 2020 Ceres will be assisting a collegiate team in designing an urban greenhouse for the city of Dongguan in China, as a part of Wageningen University’s Urban Greenhouse Challenge. We expect that this collaboration will be just as enlightening for us as it is for the students as we face design challenges with them. Be sure to follow up on this collaboration as we post updates on the project.
If you’d like to learn more about our greenhouse projects, contact us. A greenhouse expert is waiting to hear from you!