We’ve seen the rise of numerous innovations designed to improve our world and mitigate issues that come with a rapidly expanding global population. Vertical farms are part of a rising influx of ‘urban agriculture,’ which allows food to be grown closer to large population points. Now more people are recognizing the value of vertical farming, although few people understand what it really is. It’s got a ton of benefits, but we still have to weigh those against other factors to really determine if vertical farming can take over the future of agriculture.
What is vertical farming?
Vertical farms can take many different shapes and sizes, but they operate the same at their cores. First of all, in a vertical farm crops aren’t grown horizontally (which you may have gleaned from the name), but in a stacked or tower formation. In tower style vertical farming, plants are grown upward, intertwining into the lattice or supporting structure. In the stacked method the vertical ‘stacks’ are basically growing trays, supported by shelves on top of one another. Vertical farms are maintained in indoor areas using Controlled Environment Agriculture, or CEA, techniques and technology. This means that the farmer can control everything from heating, to humidity, to light and watering cycles.
Vertical farms don’t use soil to provide sustenance to the plants. Instead, they rely on hydroponics to deliver nutrients to the plants. In hydroponic growing, water is saturated with a nutrient solution and cycled through the growing trays that hold the plants. Some vertical farms use aeroponics to provide nutrients to the plants. Aeroponics is a form of hydroponics, but rather than using a ‘flow’ of water, the water is pushed through pressurized nozzles. This creates small droplets that are delivered directly to the plants’ roots.
Many vertical farms are being established in homes, abandoned warehouses, multi-storied buildings, and specially designed constructions. In a lot of urban areas, vertical farms are being constructed and used as the new ‘rooftop garden’. The idea is to create a more ecological, accessible, and economical approach to mass food production.
What can be grown in a vertical farm?
Some crops, like grains can be difficult to grow in closed, indoor systems such as a vertical farm. So for instance, wheat is not something that’s likely to thrive in a vertical farm. That being said, there are tons of plants and crops that flourish in vertical farms. The most common are leafy greens like spinach, kale, and lettuces, because they grow quickly and produce large harvests without taking up much space.
Other vegetables (‘bulkier’ ones, if you will) can grow well in vertical farms if the environment is set up properly. Tomatoes have long been a favorite in vertical farms, and many vertical farms are also beginning to produce squash, peppers, and more.
Why choose vertical farming over traditional agriculture?
Vertical farming has plenty of advantages over traditional agriculture that make it an attractive solution for food sourcing. First, and one of the biggest draws for the common populace toward vertical farming is how little space is needed in relation to the amount of crops that can be produced. By producing so much food in so little space, we’re able to free up a lot of land.
A company in Wyoming has even developed a vertical farm that produces the same amount of produce as a traditional farm, while using only 1/10 of the space.
If we’re already using that land for farming, why should we convert to vertical farming?
We allow soil to turn over more easily. Certain crops can be extremely draining on the nutrient contents of soil, and have to be rotated with other crops simply to reinvigorate the soil. And depending on how quickly you see the population growing, that land just might come into high demand for housing or energy production. Just for reference, according to the UN, the population will be 9.7 billion by 2050, that’s up by 2.4 billion. And if you’re also paying attention to rising sea levels (you may have heard of certain states that will be losing some valuable coastline), arable land at higher elevations could become prime real estate.
Vertical farms also leverage more ecological techniques for farming.
Since almost all vertical farms use either hydroponics or aeroponics to sustain plants, there’s very little water usage (certainly in comparison to field agriculture). To put it into perspective, vertical farms typically use about 90% less water than soil farms. Some vertical farm innovators have even claimed that their farms use up to 98 or 99% less water.
Thanks to their inside locations, vertical farms have another advantage. They’re more or less protected against the threat of pests and contamination. That means a few things:
First, an entire crop won’t be destroyed as a result of pests and infestation. Second, pesticides and chemicals aren’t necessary since being indoors will eliminate the threat of pests. And third, since harmful chemicals aren’t being used, we’re protecting the surrounding ecosystem. Field agriculture can have a lot of negative impact on the environment around it when pesticides are used, and runoff goes into natural water sources. Vertical farms don’t have the possibility of creating this collateral damage.
Vertical farms also provide the possibility of a more centralized food production system. Right now, most food is transported across great distances to reach the stores where consumers then purchase it. That makes food more expensive, but it also means that we have to rely on fossil fuels. In turn, that means the ‘foot print’ on our food is higher since we’re producing more emissions to deliver it.
They can produce consistently, regardless of season
Field agriculture is primarily a seasonal endeavor. There are summer crops, autumn crops, and so on, but you can’t grow it all at once. If you’re farming indoors with Controlled Environment Agriculture, as you’d do with a vertical farm, this becomes a non-issue. Farmers using CEA can consistently produce plentiful harvests year round, without natural events disrupting their farm. Not only that, the harvests are predictable and reliable. This makes it easier to plan food production and deliver on the demand.
What does it take to make a vertical farm?
Vertical farms are different than other at home farming and gardening systems. The way that vertical farms are being used today is mostly as large, commercial scale food production sites. You can always implement vertical growing techniques at home, but to get a large scale facility built it takes a bit more to get it going. Some companies specialize in creating vertical farm systems, while others self-establish theirs. In either case, it can be a large (but worthy) endeavor. Plants aside, here are the main components of a vertical farm:
Finding a large space to support a vertical farm is the first step in establishing one. Whether created out of a government initiative or by an entrepreneur, finding a space can be a process. While there are plenty of empty buildings around, they have to find one that can be converted with minimal cost. That means checking for structural damage, damp, proper insulation, proximity to reliable power, etc.
Depending on the level of automation, the equipment will vary a bit. However, a vertical farm still needs plenty of supports to hold the plants, which will take up the bulk of the space alongside the plants. Then there need to be ventilation systems in place to prevent rot, fungus and disease. In almost every instance there’s also going to be a heavy amount of artificial ‘grow’ lighting needed.
Then, hydroponic or aeroponic systems need to be set up to provide sufficient nutrients to the plants. The ways of setting the watering systems up can be very different. Some vertical gardens even use rotating racks (upon which the plants are held) that alternate plants through aeroponic cycles. Other vertical gardens use a more traditional hydroponic method, leaving the plants in place and putting them through ‘flood and drain’ cycles.
This is by far the most neglected consideration of a vertical farm. Now, vertical farms are sustainable, efficient systems and a lot of automation contributes to their success. But no matter how advanced the automation and machine monitoring is, we can’t leave them unattended.
Vertical farms still need a set of human eyes (or several sets, ideally) keeping a lookout for plant health and potential machine errors. Workers often have to dress in protective clothing to prevent contamination to the plants, keeping that benefit of indoor agriculture. In some vertical farms the workers are responsible for more manual tasks (such as examining roots or testing samples), but all require at least some human help in their maintenance.
In fact, human labor is one of the largest components of a vertical farm. In comparison to soil agriculture, the amount of labor required still ranks as minimal. That being said, human labor is currently one of the top expenses in maintaining a vertical farm. Lighting is still number one, but the cost of human labor comes in as a close (and critically important) second.
Planned and Established Vertical Farms
Not everybody’s there yet, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t already successful vertical farms being created around the world. Just to add a little perspective, we should talk about a few really innovative ones worldwide. First, let’s talk about the next big up-and-comer, Dubai:
Dubai is a country wherein a gross majority of its foodstuffs have to be imported (currently about 75%). In an effort to mitigate this costly but necessary process, a new vertical farm is in the works. The facility will be called Crop One, and feature 130,000 square feet (yes, that’s correct) of vertical farm space. The size is more than double any previously seen, and plans are in the works to develop solar energy programs to power it eventually.
Sunqiao is an urban, agricultural district being planned in Shanghai, China. This project incorporates vertical gardens on a massive scale, showcasing agriculture that looks like a forested skyscraper. Plants will be grown in tall towers, floating greenhouses and gardens, green walls, and basically any other type of vertical or hydroponic growing you can imagine. These systems are becoming a popular solution to the growing demand of food production in China’s densely populated urban areas.
This vertical farm is a rooftop system that began in 2012. The unique thing about this vertical farm is that not only does it support the urban area’s plant biodiversity, it also considers the issue of diminishing bee populations. It uses technology in an innovative solution called a ‘smart roof.’ Basically, the smart roof holds a greater water capacity than most vertical rooftop gardens, and employs a sensor to ensure plants receive an adequate water supply. Because bees are not only facing a survival crisis, but are also critical to pollination, there are six beehives also located on the roof.
What’s holding back the development of vertical farms?
The uptake on vertical farming is growing, although there are critics of the systems. Depending on the level of automation especially, vertical farms can have a fair cost with their set up. That being said, they don’t have to be expensive endeavors. A small, start up vertical farm (we’re talking around 100 square feet or so) can cost a few thousand dollars to begin and run for a year. Even still, for the hobbyist gardener that can seem like a lot.
While vertical farms do a good job of using only a small percentage of the water used in field agriculture, they have a lot more energy costs. Being indoor, these farms need supplemental heat, lighting (almost guaranteed to be the highest expense of a vertical farm), and plenty of regulation. Electric costs can be cut, but only if the farmer invests in solar technology to help power the vertical farm.
It’s also important to recognize that while we love innovation, as humans we’re pretty much creatures of habit. That means that outside of agriculture, infrastructure, and public works professions, a lot of people don’t see the need to construct new vertical farms. That’s especially true when we realize that no matter the source, they’re still getting their produce at the supermarket. Plus, a lot of people just plain don’t ‘get’ the point of vertical farms. As with anything else, unfamiliarity often breeds hesitancy.
What’s in the future of vertical farming?
Like anything else that uses technology, the future is likely to bring a lot of innovation and improvement. We can expect to see even greater efficiency, larger scale farms, more technological additions, and (hopefully) a more widespread understanding of the value of vertical farms.
There are already systems in place that allow a high level of monitoring and control of these farms, even remotely. From apps to advanced computer programs that detail everything from humidity levels to expected crop production, the technology exists. What we can certainly expect is to see greater accuracy, and a greater influx of its use.
Vertical farms and hydroponic growing systems are much more common in some urban areas (such as cities in Asia) than in others (such as the United States). We can expect to see more vertical farms being established as time goes on. Some regions will adopt these farms more quickly, but worldwide they will gradually become more commonplace.
While vertical farms are already quite efficient compared to soil farming, the future of vertical farming is heavily invested in efficiency. As we innovate more with technology, efficiency naturally follows. For example, even our LED lighting (while already pretty efficient) is more advanced and efficient than only a few years ago. Our current LED lights are up to 40% more efficient than those produced in 2014. That’s a notable improvement for a few years’ time.
The next big increase in efficiency is likely to be in the overall energy consumption. Although still in the works, many companies are developing energy systems for vertical farms that either rely on solar energy, or use solar energy to supplement power to the farms.
So, can vertical farming takeover for traditional agriculture?
Well, that answer is kind of a mixed bag. In some ways, it already has. People are starting to recognize that the future of food production is changing. The future of food production is a great many things. And yes, vertical farming is one of them.
Here’s the thing:
We have a global situation where we’re faced with an inevitable ultimatum: evolve and flourish, or become obsolete. As we humans are pretty driven for survival, evolving and flourishing seems to be an attractive option. When we’re talking about the future of our agriculture, it’s far better to get ahead early rather than start too late. That means adopting new farming methods, like vertical farming, is going to be critical to our global well-being.