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Green
19
Jan

Are In-Home Vertical Farms the Next Big Appliance for Connected Kitchens?

A little less than a year ago, The Spoon looked at a number of hydroponic farming devices that could fit into the average person’s apartment. These were for the most part table-top models or units that could hang on a wall. At the time, the concept of having a grow system in your own home seemed more than a little novel.

Fast forward to now and things have changed. Putting an indoor vertical farm in the average consumer’s home isn’t yet a mainstream concept, but as more startups and major appliance-makers alike have shown over the last 12 months, the idea is making its way into the Everyman’s kitchen with more speed these days. Now, thanks to a bunch of concepts shown off at this year’s CES, suddenly the idea of having a smart farm in your kitchen doesn’t seem so novel.

Whether you’re contemplating your own home grow system or just curious, here’s a look at what’s available and what’s in the pipeline.

Aspara

If you’re like me, you have minimal space (almost none, really) in the home for adding much in the way of smart farming systems. Aspara’s hydroponic growing device could potentially solve that problem because it’s small — 14 inches high and 21 inches wide — and could reasonably fit on a countertop, shelf, or even on top of the refrigerator. The system uses a combination of LEDs, an auto-watering feature, and sensors that detect nutrient levels, humidity and air, and other factors to create the optimal grow “recipe” for the plants.

After a user does the initial planting of the seeds, the Aspara app manages most of the grow process, notifying the user when it’s time to refill the water tank and harvest the plants. It also includes tips and recipes for growing and lets you monitor multiple Aspara farms at the same time.

The device is currently available in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S. through online retailers. For U.S. buyers, the device currently goes for $259.99 on Amazon for just the machine and $339.99 with a starter seed kit included.

Rise Gardens

Chicago, IL startup Rise Gardens is one of those companies aiming to make a truly “plug in and go” indoor vertical farming system for the home. This one is a standalone console that can be purchased with one, two, or three “levels” for plants and weighs between 60 and 106 pounds depending on the size.

A user assembles the garden — much as you would a piece of furniture from IKEA, from the looks of it — then downloads the app, which controls the lighting and nutrients schedule and reminds the user when it’s time to water the plants. Each garden comes with a starter pack of 12 plant pods that can be inserted directly into the grow trays.

Price ranges from $549 for a single-level console to $949 for a triple.

Agrilution’s Plantcube

Not to be confused with Plantycube (see below), the Plantcube made headlines at the end of 2019 when its maker, a German company called Agrilution, was acquired by appliance-maker Miele. Less device than full-on kitchen appliance, the Plantcube automates temperature, light, climate, and water levels of the indoor vertical farm, and can be controlled from within the Agrilution app.

The appliance looks like a wine cooler and is about the same size. However, unlike a wine cooler or any of the systems listed above, the Plantcube is meant to be built directly into your kitchen cupboards or beneath a countertop. That would perhaps explain the price point: €2,979 (~$3,300 USD), a figure most consumers wouldn’t spend on an indoor farm right now. Even for those who would, the device is currently only available to those in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Luxemburg or the Netherlands.

Even so, the concept Plantcube pushes is one to watch. It’s entirely possible that appliances like these eventually become as common in the home kitchen as microwaves. The price point would have to come way down for that to become a reality, which is one reason we’re watching Plantcube closely in the future.

GE Home Grow

As The Spoon’s Mike Wolf wrote recently, CES 2020’s standout in the consumer kitchen was GE because, “rather than create product demos designed as show-off vehicles for new technologies, GE illustrated how these technologies could be employed in a cohesive, systematic way to provide consumers answers to some of their biggest problems.”

Among those technologies was Home Grown, GE’s indoor gardening concept that uses a combination of hydroponics, aeroponics, and soil-based grow systems that are built directly into the kitchen design. For each of the three systems, water, nutrient, and light delivery are controlled through an app, which also guides the user through the seeding and harvesting stages of the grow process.

The system also offers consumers information on the health benefits of each plant as well as how to prepare herbs and greens in meals once they are harvested.

Home Grow is purely conceptual at this stage, so there’s no price point on these systems. Like the Plantcube, however, GE is thinking bigger than the just-another-appliance concept and imagining a system that can encourage healthier eating, reduce food waste, and increase consumer education around the foods they’re eating.

Honorable Mentions

We’ve covered these in-depth already, but LG and Plantycube are also at the forefront of bringing vertical farming technology into the consumer kitchen. Both showed off products at CES this year.

LG’s forthcoming appliance is the size of a fridge and, as I wrote recently, “takes many of the functions found in commercial-scale indoor farming and applies them to a device specifically made for the average consumer.”

N.thing’s Planty Cube, meanwhile, is a highly modular indoor farming system that can be small enough to fit on a countertop or large enough to serve cafeterias at schools, offices, and other institutions.

Since things are never as simple as they seem, there are obviously still a lot of questions around these “plug-in-and-grow” systems. Will they raise consumers’ utility bill significantly? What happens if they break? Are they worth the cost if they can only grow leafy greens and not more substantial veggies, like carrots or broccoli?

Many more questions will sprout up as companies introduce new systems to the consumer market, and it’s ok that those questions won’t get answered immediately. The more important point here is that entrepreneurs and corporations both are testing new ways to make food cleaner, more local, and more in the consumer’s control. Right now, we need concepts as compact as an Aspera and as conceptual as GE’s Home Grown right now to help get us there.

By Jennifer Marston

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