Improving the profitability and sustainability of indoor leafy-greens production

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A multi-university team of horticulturists, engineers and agricultural economists led by Michigan State University (MSU) has received a four-year, $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study indoor production of leafy greens. Industry partners have matched funding, bringing the project total to $5.4 million. The investigators on the grant include: Erik Runkle, Roberto Lopez and Simone Valle de Souza of Michigan State University, Chieri Kubota of Ohio State University, Cary Mitchell of Purdue University and Murat Kacira of University of Arizona.

Leafy greens include commonly consumed vegetables such as lettuce, kale, and microgreens. Production challenges outdoors have led to interest in growing these specialty crops hydroponically in controlled environments, such as indoor farms. However there is little information on whether this is economically viable. Capital and operating costs can be significant for startups, especially as it relates to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and cooling systems. Leafy greens are a good candidate for indoor farming because they can be grown rapidly and in relatively small spaces. Indoor environments are heavily controlled, so growers aren’t constrained to a small geographic area within the U.S. There are, however, other geographic concerns.

The team and its collaborators have three major goals:

  • Define optimal profitability based on yield and other high-value attributes of the plants, such as nutrition content
  • Optimize indoor environmental conditions, such as humidity, air movement, temperature, light and carbon dioxide concentration, to increase yield and high-value attributes
  • Encourage indoor farming stakeholders to collaborate with academic and industry groups that are working in controlled-environment agriculture.

The long-term project goals are to help integrate indoor farming into the specialty-crop segment of agriculture in the U.S.; to increase the sustainability and hence profitability of this rapidly emerging sector; and to locally produce leafy greens that have higher quality attributes. To this end, our economists will better understand operating and capital expenditures (capex), and define risk and production scenarios that are most profitable. Our horticulturists and engineers will improve production efficiency, product quality, and value-added attributes of leafy greens for reliable, consistent, year-round production. In addition, the team will design and test more effective localized air-distribution methods suitable for indoor production systems, as well as develop strategies to better manage humidity around plants to reduce tip burn. While the project focuses on leafy greens, the results will also inform a wide range of controlled-environment growers through the development of growth recipes, strategies for nutritional content and anthocyanin enhancement, environmental management recommendations, and insights for economic sustainability as well as market and consumer perception of locally produced crops.

For more information, visit the project website at scri-optimia.org.

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