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Technological Potential in CEA
August 30, 2023
Joe Swartz


Plenty has already been said about the ways in which vertical indoor farming has let us down.

As my colleagues and friends have reckoned with what recent bankruptcies mean for the industry, there is a fear that the world of horticulture might just move on without us. Big farms going under is one thing, leaving hundreds unemployed and leaving investors out hundreds of millions of dollars, but the more existential threat is the threat of losing hope in the potential of CEA.

For many people, vertical indoor growing technology was portrayed as the hope of ushering CEA into a bright future, and in the wake of its letdowns, there are now doubts that CEA really can play a significant role in helping to solve the world’s food problems. Of course placing our faith in some salvation that only vertical could provide was never realistic, but this moment of reckoning grants us an important opportunity. Now we know something that doesn’t work, and that’s a type of progress too. We can get back to focusing on new potential breakthroughs in other areas.

The underlying principles of CEA are sound. There are still more farms growing than there were a decade ago – and not just growing sustainably and productively, but maintaining economic viability too. Entrepreneurs are fond of saying that one of the most important skills you can master is the art of failing quickly. Failure is inevitable, so embrace it.

In this article, I want to share some thoughts on cycles of progress and technological innovation in CEA, and point out a few areas in which future-minded growers should be paying special attention to look for breakthroughs in the coming years.

What Problem are You Trying to Solve?

People are always looking for the next big thing, and this can sometimes take us to ridiculous places.

My colleague Paul Harris and I used to have a running joke where we would cook up the most laughable CEA pitches we could imagine. One of the funniest ideas that we cooked up was to put a CEA growing container on a cargo ship that was set to embark on some course around the world. The angle would be that by the end of the voyage, you could have a crop all ready to harvest! Was it technically possible? Sure. Could we have sold you on the environmental benefits this offered? Maybe. But was this something anyone actually needed? No, not at all.

Imagine our surprise when, several months ago, we actually heard about a start up selling almost this exact idea. In my view, this isn’t solving any problems for anyone, but I guess you could say it sounds cool.

The first point I want to make when talking about positive technological development is that it needs to solve a problem.

Too many technologies are a solution in search of a problem. When we start at that place, it’s easy to run aground, just like indoor vertical megafarms with tech valuations did.

There are thousands of CEA growers running sustainable operations and dreaming about scaling up. There are thousands more prospective growers trying to figure out how to break into the market. These are real people with real problems. Any technological breakthrough that will have an impact in helping our industry step forward needs to start by recognizing the actual challenges that our people are running into, and the actual needs of plants.

A History of Innovation

I’ve been proud to work for AmHydro for the last 7+ years, because before joining, I was a customer! AmHydro has enjoyed a positive reputation in the industry going back to its founding in 1984, but sometimes, I think that folks have the impression that our company is more conservative and innovation-averse than we actually are. This might be because of the stability and reliability that AmHydro has been known for. It might be because we’ve recently been outspoken about the shortcomings of indoor vertical. But this impression couldn’t be further from the truth.


AmHydro didn’t invent NFT technology, but back in the 80’s they were one of the first companies to bring it to the States and utilize it at a commercial scale. Well before the modern internet, AmHydro founder Michael Christian spent a year traveling the world learning about emergent CEA technologies and testing their viability. In the years since, the company has been at the forefront not only of NFT adoption, but other technologies like automatic nutrient dosing systems and our proprietary Crop Turn Technology. 

While it’s true that our NFT channels have remained simple (it’s a simple technology!), we have iterated on the design multiple times based on feedback from growers and extensive testing. We’ve got some more innovations in the pipeline too, and I’ll give you a sneak peak toward the end of this article. Through it all, the guiding principle is to make sure that the technology is not just about sounding cool or edgy; it’s about serving the needs of the plants, the needs of our growers, and ensuring our growers can maintain economic viability.

Failure is Not the End

Students of history might be interested to know that Indoor vertical is not the first time that CEA booms have been followed by a big bust.

In the 1980’s, some big companies like GE and Weyerhauser Lumber invested in building huge “Lettuce Factories” in the American Northeast; an early version of “indoor growing.” They borrowed viable technologies from Dutch growers, but without scaling responsibly and without sufficient growing experience, the projects ended as big failures.

Through the years we’ve seen plenty of failed movements toward automation for automation’s sake, or for example, failed experiments to supercharge productivity by simply keeping the lights on all the time. We’ve seen the rise and fall of systems like rotating drums, or hanging bags. It’s important to get failure out of the way quickly, but it’s also possible to resist “innovations” that are doomed to failure before they happen.

Technological improvement and refinement has made our industry the success that it is in so many ways today. But we get in trouble when we focus on innovation decoupled from objectives. It’s like putting a square peg in a round hole. Humans are awfully creative, but technologists very often have a bad habit of focusing on uniqueness more than they focus on problem solving.

So What’s Worth Paying Attention To?

I’ll be honest, I don’t think that we need any more innovation related to growing more per square foot right now. The existing technologies for that are really impressive, and I don’t hear many people suffering from not having enough square footage.

So what innovations should we be looking out for?
I’m keeping an eye out for two things right now.

First, I’m looking at AI and Automation.

In this area, I’m not talking about mechanically replacing all humans on a farm. That’s doable (and has successfully been done in many places), but it’s far too expensive up front for most growers, as well as introducing a lot of potentially very expensive points of failure.

What I’m talking about is bulletproof systems that small to mid-size farmers can use to solve the challenges they know they face. The innovation of automatic nutrient dosing and climate control is a great example of this. I think there’s more steps of this nature to take, allowing farmers to have more reliable control of their farm while needing to deal with fewer headaches themselves.

Second, I’m looking at Farm Management Software.

Managing a farm takes up enormous mental bandwidth and there’s a lot of disconnects and pain points. Lead growers need to get detailed and reliable data to their crews. They need to track all their processes to identify bottlenecks or lack of efficiency. They need to operate, schedule, and forecast crops and production. They need to produce all the data needed for proper food safety audits. Many of the largest farms develop proprietary programs to track this sort of thing, but I have yet to see a plug and play solution that I feel sufficiently meets the needs of smaller growers.

Here’s where I get to tell you that AmHydro may or may not be investing in developing some solutions ourselves. We may or may not be very excited to share some big news with you by the end of the year…

Whether we are or aren’t though, the overall points here are something I feel really strongly about asserting. Innovation is the lifeblood of CEA, and indeed of all horticultural production. But we get in big trouble when we start pursuing innovation for innovation’s sake, and we get away from good old problem solving.

CEA’s best days are still ahead, and technological creativity will help us continue to play a role in feeding a hungry world. We just can’t forget that at the end of the day, the plants are the most important thing, and the people who grow them.

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