COVID-19 Roundtable: Indoor Ag Perspectives on Coronavirus
One of indoor ag’s greatest strengths is its diversity. Under one roof — hopefully with a rooftop garden — it unites agriculture, tech, business, tradition and innovation in a way few other industries can match. This diversity means that when it comes to confronting something like coronavirus, people may experience the crisis in different ways. And it means a world of different people bringing their unique experiences to the monumental task of keeping people fed while the rest of the world is shut down.
With that in mind, we reached out to our friends across the industry for a (socially-distanced, email) roundtable on what they’re seeing now, and what it means for the industry.
Supply and Demand Are Changing
As shelter in place orders go out across the country, shuttering bars and restaurants, Americans are returning to eating at home, and that’s changing how they buy.
“Supply chains are disrupted and most indicators say that it will take three to four weeks to adjust to the current coronavirus situation. There is a big shift away from restaurants and toward retail food purchases and direct to consumer options. Direct-to-consumer quickly went from something grocery stores and restaurants wanted to figure out to an urgent need given the number of people that cannot or do not want to venture out of their house.
“Local produce and products from vertical farms can fit nicely into this new model. They provide local and fresh options that can fill in current supply chain gaps. Consumers tend to increase purchases of local, organic, and natural products when there is a human health or food safety concern. This spike will likely happen here. The only factor pulling it down is that these products tend to be more expensive and many people are very worried about their jobs. Over 3 million people filed for unemployment this week and that number is expected to rise dramatically in the coming weeks.” — Michelle Klieger, Strategerm Consulting
Automation Is Imperative
Whether you harvest insects, like Ÿnsect, or make agtech solutions, like Autogrow, it’s clear that this moment underscores what we’ve known for a long time: automation is one of the keys to the next generation of indoor ag.
“We have a robotized manufacturing process, where we require fewer workers. They are wearing a full suit, so they are secure, and have a mask, like a diver. The risks of contamination are very low.” — Alain Revah, Ÿnsect
“We recently launched our new environmental sensor network, Folium, and we’re super excited to present this state-of-the-art solution to commercial growers. Launching a new product just before a global pandemic hit, who could plan for that? We are responding to this by changing channels we utilize to connect with our customer base, including more marketing and video conferencing based meetings.”
“In the current climate it’s pretty evident that if you have advanced automation systems and new smart applications to run your farm, e.g. remotely accessible environmental and crop information along with farm management tools, it gives you the freedom to make sure you are aware of what’s happening with your crops and manage them, without having to always be physically on site. And it minimises commercial risk. You can’t do without a grower or manager (yet) but you can certainly use solutions that can help — especially during isolation situations, reducing risk to a minimum.” — Darryn Keiller, CEO, Autogrow
Protect Your People
Our product is great food, but great food comes from great, hard-working people, and their health is always key. That means shaking up business, and how we connect with each other on an emotional level, too.
“We restricted international travel earlier in March, we could see that coming. International travel and now domestic have effectively been suspended. Cancellation of trade shows has been the biggest impact, they are how the whole industry operates in terms of customer engagement.” — Keiller
“We are dealing with anxiety and the fear of the unknown with all of the employees. We are all human and struggle with not knowing details and being out of control. So lots of communication, discussions (which are slightly more awkward as we all practice social distancing). Trying to understand all of the new rules and options for employees as we continue to process the changes that are happening on a day to day basis.” — Paul Brentlinger, President, CropKing
A Silver Lining?
There is no doubt that coronavirus is awful in just about every way, but somewhere in there is small but powerful silver lining: it’s making people think seriously about where their food comes from, and what it takes to keep stores and markets full.
As Brentlinger puts, it, “I think it shows us how prepared we need to be for any situation, and how essential we are to the world.”
Amen to that!