Vertical farming, an agricultural technique that involves growing plants indoors in precisely programmed conditions, is spreading rapidly. Kimbal Musk (Elon’s brother) is opening an incubator for vertical farming startups in Brooklyn, the world’s largest vertical farm is set to open this fall, and personal indoor growing boxes are being developed for home use.
Soon, an unlikely company will also start using the technology: Target.
“Down the road, it’s something where potentially part of our food supply that we have on our shelves is stuff that we’ve grown ourselves,” Casey Carl, Target’s chief strategy and innovation officer, tells Business Insider.
In January, Target launched the
Food + Future CoLab, a collaboration with design firm Ideo and the MIT Media Lab. One area of the team’s research focuses on vertical farming, and Greg Shewmaker, one of Target’s entrepreneurs-in-residence at the CoLab, says they are planning to test the technology in a few Target stores to see how involved customers actually want to be with their food.
“The idea is that by next spring, we’ll have in-store growing environments,” he says.
During the in-store trials, people could potentially harvest their own produce from the vertical farms, or just watch as staff members pick greens and veggies to stock on the shelves.
Most vertical farms grow leafy greens, but the CoLab researchers are trying to figure out how to cultivate other crops as well.
“Because it’s MIT, they have access to some of these seed banks around the world,” Shewmaker says, “so we’re playing with ancient varietals of different things, like tomatoes that haven’t been grown in over a century, different kinds of peppers, things like that, just to see if it’s possible.”
Because the CoLab is a research partnership, the projects don’t only focus on technologies that could one day be used in Target’s stores or supply chain.
For example, the team is currently developing a small vertical farm would allow farmers or researchers to conduct agricultural experiments and trials. A medium sized version, which is being tested in an off-campus MIT facility, would measure a few hundred square feet and could be used to grow produce for a restaurant or store.
The largest vertical farm the team has developed, at just under 8,000 square feet, could grow crops for an entire neighbourhood or community. That big farm is currently being tested in India, where the team is attempting to grow non-food crops, like cotton, that often use up soil, water, and resources that could otherwise be used to grow food.
The CoLab team has also used the same research to create a self-contained growing box that can educate kids about how food is grown. On September 30, that product, called Poly, is being given to 35 public school classrooms in Boston and Minneapolis. Shewmaker says the team hopes to eventually make a market-ready version that could be sold to textbook or curriculum companies.
Carl says anticipating and shaping the future of food — at Target and beyond — is essential to the company’s growth.
“Food is a big part of our current portfolio today at Target — it does $20 billion of business for us,” he says. “We need to be able to see more effectively around corners in terms of where is the overall food and agriculture industries going domestically and globally.”