Vertical farm research expands in Houston area

Vertical farm research expands in Houston area

Vertical farming offers opportunity to urban area food production.

It may be hard to believe that a densely populated, heavily-industrialized area is breaking 21st Century ground by offering tax-incentives for agricultural research and education projects, but in the case of the City of Pasadena, Texas, a satellite city surrounded by greater Houston, it's true.

As demand for more farm acres rises to meet the expected increase in future food demands, the last place you would expect farmers to grow food would be in the heart of a city.  But the rise in the number of consumers wanting locally grown food is causing some to look deeper into alternative methods that could bring farms into communities and urban environments, making the trek from farm to table shorter than it has ever been.

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While crops like grain and cotton may never be produced in indoor farm facilities, produce, herbs, berries and even biomedical crops are being grown indoors utilizing LED lights and various types of root irrigation systems including hydroponic, aeroponic and other delivery methods. And in modern times, most of these hi-tech growing areas are being located within city limits. The idea of producing food near its point of final destination is a popular and growing alternative to traditional farming.

At least city leaders in Pasadena seem to think so by authorizing land use and tax-incentives for the development of the World’s First publicly-owned, open data, Crowdfunded, Vertical Farm Research and Education Campus.

STRONG CITY SUPPORT

Indoor Harvest Corporation has been selected to design and build the center under terms of a Chapter 380 Economic Development Agreement with the city government, which passed the measure unanimously. The company is a state of the art design-build engineering firm for the indoor and vertical farming industry, providing production platforms and complete custom designed build-outs for both greenhouse applications and building integrated agriculture projects.

"The Pasadena project, or CLARA, which stands for Community Located Agricultural Research Area, is a project largely developed by the City of Pasadena and Indoor Harvest as a way to help revitalize the oldest section of the city, an economically depressed area with an abundance of empty lots and empty buildings that are not being used, the first of which would be a vertical farming research center," explained Chad Sykes, Chief Operating Officer of In Harvest.

"Pasadena is no stranger to hard times. We can look back to the hurricane of 1900 when the city was practically destroyed. It was then when local resident Clara Barton, a former Civil War nurse, founded the American Red Cross, and she also brought strawberry production to the community following that storm disaster, which helped to save the economy of the city. So we are very happy to designate this new project by using an acronym that tributes her, CLARA."

Designers say CLARA will be a scaled vertical farming operation utilizing the most advanced technologies, and will be overseen by Indoor Harvest, supported by non-profit partners, with research and education, rather than commercial production, as its focus.

The idea is to create a community project that provides research and education by various local sponsors while producing healthy food products for local consumption. CLARA will also allow for other partners to test new methods and technologies so this data can be collected and better methods of vertical farming can be developed.

"The one common theme that seems to keep emerging in the vertical farming space is that the lack of publicly available data, experienced people and the high costs of research and development (R&D) are hampering the growth of commercial vertical farming. This cost can be quite high and I believe CLARA can solve some of these barriers by providing usable data and experienced people for the industry."

OTHER PARTNERS

Sykes says partnering in the project is Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services, the Houston Food Bank, and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, which has launched a new healthy, accessible and community-supported local food system in the City’s north side.

One of the major goals of that initiative is to eliminate conditions that cause limited or uncertain access to adequate food in the area, known as food insecurity. It is one of seven projects awarded $250,000 by the national BUILD Health Challenge in recognition of its efforts to improve community health. CLARA will serve as the production base of the initiative’s new food system.

Indoor Harvest has invested more than $2 million in developing its business plan and fixture-based approach to vertical farming. This approach allows considerable flexibility in the design and construction of vertical farms while lowering costs regardless of scale. Sykes say Indoor Harvest intends to use the CLARA facility as a demonstration farm and showroom for its products and services. All production and environmental data generated from operations will be made publicly available through a searchable database and the crops grown will be integrated into the city’s new healthy food system and donated to needy families.

In addition, Sykes says the project aims to help train the next generation of farmers and provide a pipeline of skilled labor to the vertical farming industry. Already the city has engaged the Pasadena Independent School District’s Kirk Lewis Career & Technical High School and the San Jacinto College Continuing and Professional Development division to develop the curriculum.

"We look forward to the collaboration and the opportunities that will be provided for our students to learn as well as to share in the building of a unique community project," said Dr. Sarah Janes, vice president of Continuing and Professional Development at San Jacinto College.

Pasadena is one of the top twenty most populous communities in the state and the second-largest in Harris County. It was awarded the Texas Economic Development Council’s 2013 Community Economic Development Award and named a “City of the Future” by fDi Magazine and the Financial Times.

"We are looking forward to the future of producing local foods that will be accessible to the public," says Richard Scott, Director, Community Relations for the City of Pasadena

In the Agreement with the City of Pasadena, each party’s obligations will only commence on the date Indoor Harvest certifies in writing that an adequate level of funding exists. According to Sykes, that is expected to be satisfied sometime in the next 45 to 60 days.

To help fund the construction of CLARA, Indoor Harvest has commenced a Rule 506(c) crowdfunding effort to sell up to 5,000,000 shares of Preferred Stock to generate a $5,000,000 goal.

"There is an opportunity for us to expand our brand through industry advocacy and partnerships, attracting additional clients, while helping communities and researchers in the process, and the data made available by CLARA will help entrepreneurs prepare vertical farm business plans, help innovators innovate, create a trained workforce, provide health officials and agricultural researchers with valuable feedback and provide the basis for a community-supported food system," Sykes added.

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