GreenForges digs deep to farm underground

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Vertical farms usually look above. Aerofarms, Plenty, Gotham Greens – These companies looking to the sky are trying to revolutionize agriculture, with tall warehouses full of equipment moving upwards. But Philip Labrie is looking down. Labrie is the CEO and founder of Pre-Seed Startup greenforge, an underground agriculture company founded in 2019, that seeks to take farm technology vertically under buildings. Earlier in his career, Labrie thought he too might be looking to the sky for farming potential with rooftop greenhouses. But he found that the sky really has a limit.

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“I stumbled upon a paper that was analyzing how much food production capacity we could make in cities using rooftop greenhouses,” he said. “It is a relatively small number; We’re talking a 2 to 5% range for cities by 2050. No one was asking the question, ‘Can we go underground?'”

Agriculture has always been a business driven and restricted by space. when agriculture first emerged about 12,000 years agoThe farmers had to clear the forests for the harvest. This destructive process continues till now many days. For farmers to grow more grain and earn more money, they need more land. Traditional vertical farming attempted to address this land conversion issue by moving farms into urban environments and stacking crops on top of each other. But warehouses still have somewhere to sit. Greenforge is trying to take advantage of the space that would otherwise go unused under our feet.

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After two years of research and development, the company is planning its first pilot underground farming system north of Montreal in the spring of 2022. Joan Agtec, An incubator for agricultural technologies. The company’s farming system will use existing indoor farming technology, including controlled LED lighting, hydroponic growing (growing without soil) and climate control for humidity and temperature, but with a novel approach.

Instead of taking over large warehouses, Greenforge would drill 40-inch-diameter holes into the ground beneath new buildings and lower equipment into the holes. Crops will be maintained and harvested by mechanically pulling them to the surface where a human can fix or lift. The pilot program will keep the fields 15 meters deep, but Greenforge has plans and models for 30 meters deep fields.

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Greenforge shows how its basement vertical farm will be mechanically drawn to the surface so customers can easily lift leafy greens off the ground. image credit: greenforge

According to Labrie, moving vertical farms from top to bottom of the ground comes with a number of other benefits, some directly facing the biggest hurdle controlled eco-farming farming – energy expenditure.

“For surface vertical farms, one of their greatest energy loads is constantly having to work on that HVAC system as the outside temperature is changing – hot, cold, wet, dry. They really need to maintain the environment. have to work hard [inside] Stable,” said Labry.

Energy costs have made vertical farming more expensive in some places, both in terms of emissions and dollars. when compared for traditional farming. And it’s one of the main reasons many vertical farms stick to leafy greens; It is too energy-intensive to make something else profitable. But going underground can immediately eliminate the challenge of maintaining a stable environment inside, while a variable environment exists outside.

“The moment you go underground, you are now season-agnostic,” said Greenforge’s engineering manager Jameel Madanat. “This is where the holy grail of energy savings is going to be.”

Madanat explained that anywhere in the world, no matter the year or the environment, the temperature is constant underground. In Malaysia, it is fixed at 20 °C from 10 meters deep. In Canada, at a depth of 5 meters, the temperature stabilizes 10 °C No matter the temperature above ground.

“When it comes to electricity or energy supply, the more stable it is, the better your economics works,” Madanat said. “The grid doesn’t like it when you have to consume a high amount of energy at once, and then release it all at once. The grid likes a steady supply.”

Due to the steady demand for energy, the temperature outside the underground farm is stable, creating the potential for large-scale energy savings and sustainability. Greenforge is also able to do this with light by giving half of the crops daylight while the other at midnight and giving them in turn so that the energy required for lighting is always the same.

Additionally, Greenforge is only looking at areas that derive most of their energy from renewable electricity, such as solar or hydropower, in order to avoid adding emissions to the environment through burning fossil fuels.

“It just doesn’t make sense to grow food indoors by burning stuff,” Labrie said.

Greenforge predicts that its underground system will increase energy efficiency by 30-40% compared to traditional vertical farms. Currently, the company is sticking with traditional indoor crops such as leafy greens, herbs and berries. The company plans to produce about 2,400 lettuce heads each month for the 100-foot farm, which translates to about 14,000 pounds per year. But Labrie hopes that with Greenforge’s increased efficiency, it will be able to graduate to other crops — even those as elusive and dramatic as wheat — in the future.

But of course, growing underground doesn’t come without hurdles. According to Madanat, making the mounting device to fit in a tunnel about the size of two truck tires is a design challenge. The company has had to create its own hardware solutions to be able to fit and remove systems in such a small space. Moisture is another enemy the company is battling.

Unlike vertical farm leaders, Planty and Aerofarms, Greenforge doesn’t want to be a grocery product brand. Instead, Labrie is focusing on appealing to builders of new high-rise hotels or apartment buildings, creating an added benefit of fresh produce and a new revenue stream for guests or tenants.

“We see a lot of potential with integration into buildings. We have interest from hotel companies and real estate developers,” said Labrie. “Integrating food production into buildings is not as easy as it looks. You have to sacrifice very expensive commercial or condo space. And so our solution enables them to monetize their underground space. “

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