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What is Indoor farming?

Thanks to technology advances and globally recognised benefits, indoor farming methods are being acknowledged as a practical means to address global population growth and climatic challenges. 

What is indoor farming?

Indoor farming, also known as indoor agriculture or indoor vertical farming, is a method of growing crops indoors under controlled environmental conditions. Instead of relying on conventional outdoor farming practices, indoor farming uses technologies like hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics to grow plants in enclosed spaces like warehouses, greenhouses, or even shipping containers.  
 
Indoor farming has evolved to address the urgent needs of a rapidly growing global population, which has led to concerns about a potential food shortage crisis. The world's population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, and with it the demand for food will increase at an unprecedented rate.  

This growing demand, combined with the challenges posed by climate change—such as unpredictable weather patterns, extreme temperatures, and natural disasters—requires innovative approaches in agriculture. While traditional farming has thrived on large expanses of arable land and favourable weather conditions, adapting to these evolving global needs will be crucial for future food security. 

Indoor farming addresses these challenges head-on by providing a controlled environment where essential elements such as temperature, humidity, light, and nutrient levels can be precisely managed. This allows for consistent, year-round farming, irrespective of external weather conditions. The growing demand for this type of agriculture has given rise to a number of novel Australian farming systems that are leading the charge when it comes to addressing the issues facing our global food system.  

What are the benefits of indoor farming?

Meeting the growing global demand for food is the primary benefit of indoor farming, which offers innovative solutions without replacing conventional agriculture. For example, Stacked Farm, Australia's first automated indoor vertical farm, can produce several tons of produce weekly, equivalent to a 20-acre farm. CEO Conrad Smith highlights its potential to complement traditional farming by rapidly growing livestock feed with 95% less water. 

In addition to boosting food production, agri food innovations have enabled indoor farming to provide many other benefits, including resource efficiency, year-round crop production, space efficiency, and improved sustainability outcomes. 

Year-round production 

While conventional farming practices rely on favourable weather conditions, indoor farming allows for year-round crop production through controlled environments. By precisely adjusting factors like temperature, humidity, and light, farmers can ensure consistent, high-quality yields regardless of external weather conditions. Specialty crop production and a steady supply of fresh produce are big advantages, as demonstrated by 26 Seasons, an indoor vertical farming company that uses this method to grow strawberries year-round.  

Space efficiency  

Unlike conventional farming, which requires extensive land use, indoor farms maximise productivity per square metre by growing multiple layers of crops within a confined space. This is advantageous for urban environments where land is scarce and expensive. For example, indoor vertical farms like Australian agritech startup InvertiGrow, partnered with Woolworths to demonstrate the space-saving capabilities of indoor vertical farming. They showed that this method not only improves food production but also makes efficient use of available space, contributing to sustainable urban agriculture. 

Resource efficiency 

Indoor farming is highly resource-efficient as it uses methods like hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics that use less water than traditional soil-based agriculture. These systems recycle water and nutrients, cutting waste and reducing the overall environmental footprint. The controlled environment in indoor farming also minimises the risk of pests and diseases, often eliminating the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides. According to Bowery, a leading indoor vertical farming company who use artificial intelligence (AI) to optimise their inputs, they can produce 100 times more food per acre compared to traditional farming, while significantly reducing pesticide use and using 95% less water. 

Improved sustainability outcomes  
 
Indoor farming has the potential to improve sustainability outcomes. By enabling centralised food production, it reduces the need for complex supply chains and transportation, lowering overall emissions. Indoor farming can slash carbon emissions through the use of renewable energy solutions like solar, wind power and biogas. Plus, it has the added benefit of avoiding soil degradation, common in conventional agriculture, which can help preserve ecosystems and promote sustainable land use.  

How does indoor farming work?

On the surface, growing crops indoors may go against the basic principles of farming, given crops need sunlight, water, soil, and the right climate to thrive. However, worldwide recognition of indoor farming benefits has led to the development of controlled environment agriculture (CEA), a technique that brings these essential elements indoors. By carefully regulating temperature, humidity, lighting, water, and nutrients, CEA creates the perfect growing conditions for plants, ensuring that crops can grow year-round. 
 
CEA functions similarly to a greenhouse but with greater precision, creating a perfect microclimate for growing plants. This technique provides plants with the exact levels of nutrition, sunlight, and water they need, while precisely controlling other environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and even carbon dioxide levels. In these controlled environments, indoor farming systems such as hydroponics, aquaponics or aeroponics are used to assist plant growth.  

Hydroponic farming  

Hydroponic farming grows plants without soil, which instead favours nutrient-rich water solutions. Plants are supported by a medium such as rockwool, and receive essential nutrients directly through the water. This system allows for faster growth rates, higher yields, and uses significantly less water when compared to traditional soil-based agriculture methods. Freight Farms have successfully made indoor farming accessible to everyone, utilising hydroponics systems inside shipping containers to enable the growth of plants indoors. Their system uses nutrient-rich water and LED lights to stimulate growth, allowing farmers to produce fresh food 365 days of the year.  

Aquaponic farming 

Aquaponic farming combines aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (growing plants without soil) in a symbiotic environment. Fish waste provides organic nutrients for plant growth, while the plants help filter and clean the water for the fish. Companies like Future Farming are utilising this closed-loop system to maximise resource efficiency, reduce waste, and produce both fresh vegetables and fish, promoting sustainable agriculture.  

Aeroponic farming 

Aeroponic farming involves growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or any solid growing medium. Roots are suspended in the air and periodically misted with a nutrient-rich solution. This method ensures plants receive optimal levels of oxygenation and nutrient uptake, leading to faster plant growth, higher yields, and efficient use of water and nutrients, making it highly sustainable.  

By combining horticulture with genetics, engineering, food safety, data science, and nutrition, indoor farming companies like Aerofarms have been able to understand and adapt plant biology in a novel way. Their use of Aeroponic technology in their operations saves water and eliminates the need for pesticides and herbicides. 

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