Are algae microfarms the future of urban farming?
by Robert Henrikson
rowing local food in community gardens and urban farms is a popular and growing trend. Because urban space is limited and valuable, some entrepreneurs are transforming old warehouses and even underground spaces into indoor farms using artificial lighting. Others propose vertical farms, even growing food in skyscrapers.
But some scientists calculate that indoor urban farming results in food production with a high cost, high energy use and a big carbon footprint, regardless of whether energy comes from the conventional grid or renewables. They caution indoor food grown with artificial lighting may be less sustainable and more negative for the environment than food transported from 3000 miles away.
Greenhouses growing food in empty lots or nearby urban areas would be a more cost effective solution. Urban greenhouses would extend the growing season, use existing urban infrastructure, enjoy close access to local markets and customers, and harness the best source of energy – the sun.
What’s coming now is the opportunity to grow high value microalgae to diversify greenhouse food production and significantly enhance revenues.
Over the past 30 years the algae spirulina has gained global recognition as a superfood supplement. This productivity breakthrough grows over 20 times more protein than any other conventional food crop on the same area, yet its therapeutic benefits are even more remarkable. Published international research shows how small amounts daily boost immune function, enhance detoxification, restore beneficial intestinal flora, improve neurological function and rally the body’s own healing response. Spirulina commands premium retail prices, $80/lb for dry product in the USA, €150/kg in France. Where fresh frozen product is available locally, even higher prices.
Most people think of large algae farms located in hot sunny desert or tropical locations. But in this past decade, over 110 algae greenhouse microfarms have spread across France. In the USA, spirulina is being successfully grown in greenhouse microfarms in the northern climate of the Pacific Northwest.
These new algae microfarms are modular and scalable greenhouse systems with smart monitoring systems and web cameras so remote experts can successfully guide local operations at many locations simultaneously. With insulated ponds and efficient LED lighting and heating systems, the algae growing season can be extended in northern climates well beyond the typical short 4 or 5 months.
I founded one of the world’s first and largest algae farms, Earthrise Spirulina, in Southern California, 35 years ago. For decades, algae have been grown on large commercial farms with extensive technical staffing and infrastructure. Now the time has come to introduce algae microfarms to grow healthy foods in local communities. Profitable business models already exist.
Now, through Smart Microfarms, the Pacific Northwest algae microfarm testbed will develop metrics for microfarm operations and productivity especially for temperate climates. They will test practical, affordable and replicable systems for growing algae for local food and high value products in community, urban, rooftop, mobile and vertical gardens to demonstrate how microfarms can transform small food growing area into generating more income.
Smart Microfarms (smartmicrofarms.com) can help terrestrial, hydroponic and aquaponic greenhouse farms diversify income streams with high-value algae products.
Algae Microfarms (Amazon.com), the new book by Robert Henrikson, features individuals and organizations around the world growing algae on a small scale and making a difference today. Some of these small farms are humanitarian, some are commercial, some are both. Look into our future of scalable microalgae systems for home and community gardens, urban and rooftop farms and even living buildings.
Video: Pacific Northwest Spirulina Algae Microfarm. Located near Olympia Washington, this is a testbed for extending the growing season for algae in a northern temperate climate. This smart microfarm will show how microfarms generate income from a small area.