Widely reported around the net a couple weeks ago, some sources indicate that development has begun on a $200 million vertical farm facility in the desert of Nevada. Or maybe not. The city and county apparently don’t know anything about it. The design apparently originates with one Chris Jacobs – but it’s just that, a design. So, the whole story may be bogus, but it raises some interesting questions. If we can’t trust the headline, we probably can’t trust the numbers (and there are only a few available), but for the sake of exercise…
As reported, the 30-story facility is large enough to feed 72,000 people. That’s about 13% of the population of Las Vegas – 8 of these (for $1.6 billion) is enough to feed the city (feeding the tourists is another problem). It would take about 4200 of these to feed the country (303,300,000 / 72,000). They’re anticipating $25 million from produce and $15 million from tourists. Presumably the tourist revenue will drop off as these things spring up like weeds. Ignoring tourists and pesky things like inflation, and with a stated annual operating cost of $6 million, the farm complex would break even in about 10.5 years ($200M / $19M net/year).
The most-often-cited source (Next Energy News) reports that “Revenue from the 30 story Vertical Farm would approach $40 Annually” – an obvious typo. At Restaurant Reformer we’re sure that’s supposed to be $40 million.
For those counting food-miles as a measure of sustainability, building a farm near the city could be a very good thing. As a contained environment, things like pests are excluded physically and seasons are irrelevant. There’s a lot to be said for farming in a building, but what’s the real story?
For that, the Restaurant Reformer follows the breadcrumbs to Dr. Dickson Despommier’s vertical farm site, where we find an economic analysis that appears to have a bit more research behind it (thanks to Jackie Baumgartner, Locky Chambers, Alexis Harman, Jun Mitsumoto and Jordana Rothschild). This material is the basis for some more-respectable stories on the subject, including New York Magazine, CNN, Wired, and the BBC.
Despommier’s numbers are a bit different – a 21-story building that costs $84 million to build, $13.5 million/year in pre-tax revenue from lettuce. That gets into the black a lot faster than the Vegas theory (84 / 13.5 = 6.25 years).
They’ve done all the heavy lifting over at Despommier’s vertical farm site, so we’ll leave the expertise to the experts. The story got picked up and carried around the net, so that suggests there’s some interest in the idea – even if it’s not happening in Vegas today.