May 9, 2016

Why In-Store Vertical Herb Gardens may not be Coming Soon.

Infarm Vertical Farm

Local production of fruits, veggies and all kinds of organic food is often considered the “holy grail” of a quality, healthy food supply.

The German firm Infarm has coupled with the design firm to produce an in-store vertical farm for fresh herbs and leafy greens.

As someone with an academic background in sustainable transportation and a degree in Environmental Design, I’m always fascinated at the best solutions to our logistics issues. I could easily see an integrated greenhouse in any Whole Foods or retailer who truly cares about having direct control over the farm-to-table supply chain and Infarm takes it a step further by sharing the process with the customers.

However, is it likely that this incredible design will migrate from Germany to the more mindful retailers here in the U.S.?

Unfortunately, I would have to believe that we will not be seeing this state-side anytime soon.

Instead of dismissing the premise though, let’s investigate why such a wonderful design may not work domestically.

With most business decisions not looking at a triple bottom-line, the easiest point of denial for this project is the financial one. Great cities and great communities have a mix of divergent uses all within ready access of those who live there, and this diversity often creates an atmosphere collectively more beneficial than the sum of its parts.

In retail settings though, the cost per square foot of customer-facing products and inventory is at a premium, and to stay in business every square foot of a store must perform. With the growing period, labor, and marginal value of the finished herbs, this vertical garden display nets very little per square foot in actual sales and is better suited as a decoration than a functional retail display.

We can have amazing integrated solutions for our products, but if they’re taking up space in the retail sphere, they need to perform, in fact out-perform, the existing square footage in sales to be effective and help to transform the shopping experience.

If a retail presence is not cost-effective, and could be duplicated by less intrusive or expensive alternatives, where should such a vertical farm go?

The USDA considers 400 miles to be the travel distance for locally-sourced goods, while Vermont has the stringent requirement of 30 miles travelled. Within many cities, it might be possible to reach an agricultural zone within 30 miles of a retail outlet, but often these locations directly adjacent to the city are zoned differently, protected wilderness, or have other restrictions which do not permit them to be functional farms.

Should a farm be present, would an over-densification of vertical farming not create the same industrial feature the local movement is trying to reject? The cost per square foot of production would finally be favorable, but the scale required to be financially viable coupled with the transportation even from 30 miles out runs counter to the premise of this design which is front-and-center in the retail world.

I see two ready solutions to this dilemma, one easier than the other.

Tackling the harder one first, the very premise of vertical farming takes advantage of the logic behind a spatial solution. Just like this vertical farm has multiple uses stacked on top of the same square footage, our cities have a lot of room to integrate and grow vertically, not just horizontally. Exterior walls of large big-box structures are engineered for function, often built with little thought to its presence outside of the architects blueprints.

Perhaps these walls, really any multi-story bland structural wall, could lend its structure to supporting a vertical farm.

As pedestrians, we would be treated to an organic system growing where previously paint and brick dominated our view, bringing our awareness to the function but also beautifying the spaces we use. Nestled within the city, these vertical plots would also take advantage of space that otherwise would have no commercial value, so the return on investment need only be marginal to be better than the alternative. Finally, local retailers could easily cut the transportation costs of their sourcing by having these facilities blocks from the store.

It may not have the immediate impact at the point of purchase, but it would spread a positive image of the store and its mindful sourcing to more parts of the city. These solutions can and should work, and municipalities need to hear from its citizens that they desire these changes locally, in their town.

The second solution is faster, and more immediate. As a consumer, when you see these designs, recognize the retailer is spending money to promote their triple bottom-line values. What they lose in production, they gain in intention. If you share their values, reward them, support these retailers. Recognize you may not be paying the cheapest price, but you can see the value your dollar is purchasing.

Couple your mindful spending with a declaration of how you would like your city to look, and hopefully we can see these incredible designs in American stores soon.

Check Infarm’s modular design in this video:

Author: Bill Shrum

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: video still

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