OId MacDonald had a farm…and a robot, and racks of plants, and lots of plastic to grow plants in…

Ag & Food |  5 min. read

The future of farming?

How about farms that go up vertically – measured in stories high, instead of in acres wide?  How about farms that are inside buildings, instead of outdoors?  How about farms that are in a city, instead of out in the country?  How about farms that use water, instead of dirt?  How about farms that use plastic, instead of dirt?  Not to mention robots and drones working the crops.

All possible.  All happening, in fact.  And perhaps, the future of farming.

Over the year to come, we’ll tell you more in detail about these innovations, and other changes in how we grow our food.  But the future of farming has more in common with the past and the present than you might think.  Petrochemicals, for instance.  Past, present or future, you can’t farm without the products made from them:  from the strong, lightweight plastics used to build the racks (and even the “ground”) plants grow on, to the carbon fiber-reinforced resin used to make many of those drones and robots and other equipment used on the indoor farms of the future – to the fuels that move the tractors, combines and other equipment used on the outdoor farms of today, as well as the fuels that move the food those farms grow to us – farming has deep petrochemical roots.


Today, we’ll start with an introduction, and we’ll start in – in San Carlos, California.

That’s where Iron Ox has turned a warehouse into a grow house:  a dirt-free indoor farm growing romaine lettuce, kale and other leafy greens.  What replaces dirt at Iron Ox, is water (water supercharged with nutrients) – and racks, rows and rows of horizontal and vertical racks of plants…

(Photo from Iron Ox)

…fresh food grown for people living in cities (like so many of us), grown in the cities where we live, and grown year round (which even in California, isn’t possible outdoors).

And the “Iron Ox”?  Much of the work on this farm is done by robots (like the one in that picture, lifting and moving racks of plants). Those robots can move in any direction, so they can place those racks closer together and get the most out of those indoor spaces.  The robots move on Mecanum wheels made from a high-tech synthetic rubber derived from petrochemicals like ethylene, propylene and toluene.  Even the robot arm that plants seeds and transfers plants?  That bends and flexes thanks to polypropylene joints.


In Houston, Moonflower Farms has replaced the dirt with vermiculite that contains a mineral blend.  In their mini-warehouse (more of a shack really), their micro-greens are racked vertically…

(Photo from Moonflower Farms)

…under hot pink lights.

That meant, after Hurricane Harvey swept over the Gulf Coast, Moonflower had 10 inches of water on the floor – but almost all of their crop was just fine (since it was up above the ground, and the flood water).

(Those racks, by the way, must be light-weight and strong, which requires engineered polymers like high-density polyethylene, ABS and HIPS.  And yes, those high-tech polymers are made from petrochemicals such as ethylene, propylene, butadiene and benzene.)


Also in Houston is Acre in a Box.  In this case, the “box” is an old shipping container.  And inside that 320 square feet, is an acre (and a half, actually) of produce…

(Photo from Acre in a Box)

…growing hydroponically day and night, come rain or come shine, or even come hurricane.


At Urban Organics, in St. Paul, Minnesota – it’s easy to see one advantage of indoor farming.  The average high temperature in January is 23 degrees.  And unless you like a hot bowl of pine needle soup (think Euell Gibbons), there’s not much of anything growing fresh in that weather.

Urban Organics is an aquaponics farm – meaning they also grow their plants in a nutrient-rich water – but in this case, the fertilizer comes from fish (fish poop, that is).  In turn, the plants filter the water as they absorb those nutrients, the clean water goes back to the fish, and round and round the system goes.

(Photo from Urban Organics)

And this type of advanced agriculture wouldn’t be possible without the engineered plastics made from petrochemicals.  Companies like Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems use polyethene and fiber-reinforced resins, made from the petrochemical ethylene, to make fish tanks and filter tanks.  Ethylene is also used in the polyethylene and vinyl liners.  And the advanced membrane technology that allows for water recycling depends on petrochemicals as well (like the xylene, that makes the polyamide, that makes those membranes).


But maybe the most far-out farming is going on in Japan – where Mebiol Research and Development is growing tomatoes – indoors – on a plastic sheet.

(Photo from Mebiol)

This plastic (polymer) sheet is a hydrogel called polyvinyl acetate – a material like a super sponge which soaks up water and nutrients.  The tomatoes (and there are other plants too), grow ON the polymer, spreading their roots across the surface, and absorbing the nutrient-steeped water. That polymer starts with ethylene, again – which as you know by now, is a critical part of future farming.


Oh, and those drones?  Drones nowadays inspect crops – check for plants that are underwatered – spot diseased plants – evaluate smoke contamination after a fire.  And after a fire, drones can plant new trees (as seeds), to help restore burned-over wilderness areas (and since they are drones, getting into a wilderness to plant is not a problem).

(Photo from DroneSeed)

The drones, by the way, don’t dig holes and plant seeds – these drones “shoot” seed pods into the ground.  The pods are packed with nutrients, and coated with capsaicin (the stuff in chili peppers), to keep animals from eating the seeds.

(These sophisticated, seed-planting drones have to be tough, to withstand a wide variety of weather conditions and constant stress from the multiple blades – so fiber-reinforced resins are used because they are as strong as steel and much lighter in weight.  The resins are a special type of plastic called epoxy, and the petrochemical propylene is their foundation.)


All of these methods of farming use far less water (as much as 90 percent less water) as conventional farming – they take up far less land – they can grow food year round – and they can grow food in the same place where most of it is being eaten, our cities.  All good, and all important at a time when there is less and less good farmland, and more and more of us needing to be fed.  And as we told you at the beginning of this peek at the future, all of this depends on farming’s deep petrochemical roots.


Right after World War I, there was a hit song:  “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?”

Millions of American soldiers came home after the war, having left their home town for the first time, their state for the first time, their country for the first time – and maybe, so the song went, soldiers who’d left small towns across America, might have a taste now for big city life, and wouldn’t want to go home.

That might be different in years to come though.  Because “down on the farm” might be very much a part of big city life.  And it won’t be “down” on the farm anyhow.  Those future farms will go up, up into the air.  Skyscrapers filled with vegetables?  Stay tuned throughout the year as we follow this story.