Vertical farming research to expand in Arkansas

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,642 views 

During the next 30 years, the world’s population is expected to increase by more than 3 billion people and feeding this many new people will be a challenge for farmers. One area that has seen rapid development in recent years is vertical farming and several stakeholders in Arkansas are joining forces to expand research into the practice.

Vertical farming business 80 Acres Farms has entered into a collaborative research agreement with the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station to advance the science of vertical farming.

Scientists with the experiment station, the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, will coordinate with 80 Acres Farms researchers to pursue a variety of vertical farming research topics, said Bryan Renk, director of commercialization for the division’s Technology Commercialization Office.

“Vertical farming is growing and trending,” Renk said. “There are multiple companies forming across the U.S. that are trying to take advantage of that trend.”

Vertical farming is the practice of growing fruits and vegetables vertically as opposed to the traditional way of growing them flat in a field. Farmland is limited, and as food needs grow, different ways to grow crops will have to be employed.

Jean-François Meullenet, senior associate vice president for agriculture-research and director of the experiment station, said the agreement provides a unique opportunity for research.

Renk said the initial round of proposed and current research includes a project analyzing the chemical components of 80 Acres produce, exploration into new protocols for vertical farming, and evaluation of novel blackberry variety selections that are suited for the vertical farming environment.

“We have a great multi-disciplinary team of faculty that can make great contributions to the development of vertical farming technology,” Meullenet said. “I look forward to seeing the impact we can have through this research.”

“80 Acres is expanding its vertical farming R&D facility in Springdale to develop the growing recipes for multiple leafy and fruiting produce crops,” said Victor Verlage, senior vice president for operations, agronomy, and research and development at 80 Acres Farms. “We are calibrating and aligning all the growing conditions, incorporating several proprietary AgTech capabilities that were not available until recently, to bring hyper-fresh fruits and vegetables loaded with taste and nutrition so our consumers can indulge in healthy diets.”

Margaret Worthington, assistant professor of fruit breeding and genetics in the horticulture department for the experiment station and Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas, is evaluating blackberry varieties that may perform well in these novel growing conditions.

“We hope to identify blackberry breeding selections that perform well in fully-controlled indoor environments and vertical farms,” Worthington said.

“Fruit breeding is a long-term effort,” she said. “We need to be forward thinking and consider how the potential varieties moving through our breeding pipeline are going to fit into new markets and production systems that are just beginning to develop.”

“The Arkansas Fruit Breeding Program has a history of mutually beneficial public-private research collaborations and I am looking forward to working with this new partner,” she said.

In addition to collaborating on research, 80 Acres Farms plans to create internship opportunities for Bumpers college students.

“80 Acres Farms is eager to provide opportunities for the next generation of farmers where they will have access to best-in-class vertical farming technology,” said Verlage. “The students will have immersive training right here in Northwest Arkansas, minutes from the university campus.”