Over the course of the last week multiple readers and friends have reached out to me in regards to the topic of Vertical Farming. While some of these individuals were simply asking for an explanation of what this practice is and how it is beneficial, others were inquiring as to whether the practice could be implemented on a household level and if this practice would be truly sustainable within their small urban communities. Due to the amount of interest that this topic has brought forth within both my readership as well as the general public and the local agricultural community here in Crete, I have decided to diverge from my typical location and community-based informational article and instead take some time to inform you, dear reader, on this incredibly innovative and advantageous farming practice.
While Vertical Farming is considered a modern practice, the idea of producing food on vertically constructed platforms actually dates back as far as 1909, when the first sketch of a tall building being constructed in order to cultivate food was published in LIFE magazine. The sketch depicted vertically stacked homesteads set amidst a rural farm landscape and was thought to be, as stated by Rem Koolhaas in his book Delirious New York, “The use of Skyscrapers as an Utopian device for the production of unlimited numbers of virgin sites on a metropolitan location.” Simply put, this crude drawing was believed to be the answer to urban and metropolitan farming, and over the course of many years, it turns out that that’s exactly what it was.
One of the biggest problems our world faces today is contending with the increasing population of human beings that occupy our planet’s surface. Our exploding population has led to the over-development of precious land that we forget is crucial for our survival in terms of the production of food and precious resources including compounds as elementally simple as oxygen.
By 2050 the world’s population is expected to grow by another 2 billion people and while this fact brings up many problems and complications for our planet as a whole, one of the biggest challenges we’ll have to face and answer is how to feed everyone? Due to industrial development and urbanization we have already lost roughly one third of our planets arable and farmable lands over the last forty years alone. With that number in mind, and our growing capacity as a species to develop and dominate even more land in less time thanks to newly developed, modern technologies, one may ask, “How much more farmable land are we going to lose over the next forty years?” Increasing food demands along with ever decreasing arable lands poses one of the greatest challenges of today’s existence, along with global warming, climate change, and air pollution. How does all of this tie into vertical farming? Well this unique farming practice may be our only answer to providing for and feeding the growing population of tomorrow while preserving our lifestyle of today.
So what is Vertical Farming? Simply put, Vertical farming is the practice of producing food, or medicine, on vertically inclined surfaces. Instead of farming vegetables and other foods on a single level, such as in a field or a greenhouse, this method produces foods in vertically stacked layers which are commonly integrated into other structures such as skyscrapers, shipping containers, or repurposed warehouses. Even abandoned mine shafts and metro lines have been used as vertical farming sites for experimental purposes, both of which have been successful.
Vertical farming is often coupled with Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology and indoor farming techniques. CEA is based on a technological approach to agriculture and food production with the main goal of providing protection for crops while also maintaining optimal growing conditions throughout the development of the crops. The kind of technology that CEA often includes are hydroponic, aquaponic, aeroponic, and aquaculture systems. When using CEA tech the artificial control of temperature, light, humidity, and gases is key and makes producing foods and medicine indoor possible. This control over the environment allows for a higher quality and production yield, as well as the mobility and diversity of site production locations, due to the environmental growth factors needed to enact photosynthesis being artificially created, and therefore constructible in nearly any location. The primary goal of vertical farming is to maximise crop output in a limited space while also producing crops on otherwise barren and uncultivable land.
There are four critical areas to cover when learning the ins and outs of vertical farming and how the whole system works.
- The Physical Layout
- The Use Of Lighting
- The Growing Medium
- The Possible Sustainable Features.
The physical layout of a vertical farm seems simple enough: its vertical. However, there are many different ways in which one can design their vertical farm depending on the space that your using and the CEA system that you choose to implement. Again, keep in mind that the primary goal of vertical farming is to produce more food per square meter. To accomplish this goal in the majority of vertical farms, crops are cultivated in stacked layers in a structural design that is known as “a tower of life”. This arrangement does not only optimize available space but allows irrigation systems and watering methods to be powered mainly by gravity instead of large industrial pumps.
As it is in any farm system, lighting is crucial. Due to a vertical farms vertical layout, maximizing light for each plant is made extra complicated for light needs to hit the plants from the sides, for the top of each plant is shadowed by its sister that grows directly above. Do to this design factor vertical farms incorporate artificial light as well as natural sunlight and often bounce solar rays around the given space through the use of reflector panels. Another way people have solved this lighting challenge is through the use of rotating or turning beds. This need for sideways light is one of the reasons that skyscrapers and large glass buildings have been increasingly popular within the vertical farming community. The More glass enclosing the crops means the more light available to feed them, the higher the building the less disrupted and more constant that light becomes.
One of the most unique characteristics found in vertical farming systems is its use of growing mediums. The majority of vertical farms don’t use soil at all. Instead other mediums are used in which to root and feed the crops. These mediums are usually the same that are used in closed aquaponic, hydroponic, or aeroponic systems. While it is possible to use soil in a vertical farm it has been found to be significantly less effective. When water passes through soil, the soil absorbs a large percent of it, a large percent that never reaches the roots of the crops you are trying to grow, and therefore goes to waste and leaves you using more water then you may have initially planned to use. Soil is also quite heavy, and in a vertically designed system, overweight containers could literally be your downfall, especially for systems ranging on larger and taller scales.
Vertical farming is not automatically sustainable or environmentally friendly. Just because the design is considered sustainable and efficient with its use of added resources, such as water and nutrients, it doesn’t mean every vertical farm system is 100% green. Large industrial farm companies have also jumped onto the vertical farming bandwagon but instead of keeping the process green and clean they have implemented the use of insecticides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, making the crops anything but sustainable and organic. However, the majority of vertical farm systems that operate around the world, I am happy to say, keep their systems 100% organic and sustainable.
Vertical farming naturally conserves water simply based on its closed system design, therefore making anyone who uses a vertical farm system water efficient. In fact studies have shown that vertical farming uses anywhere from 70-95% less water then traditional farming methods. Along with preserving water resources many people implement solar arrays to power water pumps or filters or, depending on the CEA tech they have used, people may choose to include natural water filters such as real fish or lava rocks in their vertical system.
As you see, vertical farming isn’t all that complicated and is quite simple to implement if you are motivated to do so. Vertical farming has shown much promise and seems like the obvious farming method of the future, however, like everything else in life this system too has its drawbacks. One of the limitations regarding vertical farming is its financial feasibility. The cost of building skyscrapers as platforms on which to farm, combined with the other costs of establishing a vertical farm such as lighting, heating, and labor, can easily outweigh the beneficial outputs produced by vertical farms. For example, to build a 60 hectare vertical farm the building alone can cost well over $100 million. Furthermore, while vertical farms would be an attractive and useful addition to metropolitan areas, the high price of real estate within cities actively impede the financial viability of constructing such large scale vertical farms in urban locations. Another difficulty that comes with vertical farming is the complication with pollination. Vertical farming takes place in a controlled environment without the presence of insects. As such, the pollination process needs to be done manually, which can be labor intensive and costly.
This leads us to yet another complication with vertical farming; high labor costs. As high as energy costs are in vertical farming, labor costs can be even higher due to the majority of farms being concentrated in urban centers where wages are higher. This coupled with the need for higher skilled labor leads to yet another high cost of running large vertical farms in the eyes of operators and employers. However, automation in vertical farms may lead to the need for fewer workers. Manual pollination may become one of the most labor-intensive functions in vertical farms while the rest of the process is mostly done mechanically. While atomization is beneficial for it both increases efficiency and lowers costs, some people worry that vertical farming has become overly dependent on technology as a whole. The entire vertical farming system is extremely dependent on various technologies for lighting, maintaining temperature, and controlling humidity levels. Losing power for just a single day can prove very costly for a vertical farm, especially one of large industrial scale. Many believe the technologies in use today are not ready for mass adoption.
While there many seem to be quite a few drawbacks to vertical farming let us not forget how beneficial the system could be for our entire planet. Having greater output from a small cultivation area is not the only advantage of vertical farming, some other major benefit of the practice include, for starters, increased and year round crop production. Vertical farming allows us to produce more crops from the same square footage of growing area used in a conventional farm. In fact, 1 acre of an indoor area offers the equivalent production to at least 4-6 acres of an outdoor farm. According to an independent estimate, a 30-story building with a basal area of 5 acres can potentially produce an equivalent of 2,400 acres of conventional horizontal farming. Additionally, year-round crop production is possible in a controlled indoor environment which is completely regulated by vertical farming technologies.
Along with increased and prolonged production, indoor vertical farming means that crops don’t become affected by unfavorable weather conditions or natural calamities such as torrential rains, cyclones, flooding or severe droughts—events which are becoming increasingly common as a result of global warming. Crops produced through vertical farming also increase the production of organic products due to crops being cultivated in a controlled indoor environment without the need for other chemicals or pesticides. As you can see vertical farming provides many benefits to our society, however, one of the biggest benefits is still to be mentioned. By 2050, around 80 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas, and the growing population will lead to an increased demand for food. The efficient use of vertical farming may perhaps play a significant role in preparing for such a challenge and may be our only chance in feeding a world whose arable, or farmable, land has been taken over for the sake of urban development.
There are many places around the world that have already begun to implement large scale vertical farms. Tokyo, Japan, is one prime example of the urban implementation of vertical farming. Another is sweden with its World Food Building in Linkoping. Along with these site by site projects large farm corporations such as AeroFarms in New Jersey and Green Spirit Farms in Michigan have also incorporated vertical farms into their production. Even here in Crete Agreco and Creta Farms are two larger organizations that produce veggies and fruits using vertical farming methods, while some small scale farms have also began to build their own vertical farms in greenhouses and shipping containers.
If you feel at all drawn to this subject and would like to get involved with the vertical farming movement there are many ways in which to begin your own home-scale vertical farm. Companies such as Cultivate the City have begun to sell ready made vertical farm installations that you can simply nail to the wall or set up in your living room or backyard. Below you will find a link to their website if you, again, have any interest in trying your hand at vertical farming. Vertical farming may be the simplest, greenest solution to the ever looming challenge of how we will feed our ever growing population. We are amidst a constant battle for space and land but soon we will find that the real battle lies with our own actions as a species. A balance must be found between our occupation of this planet and our depletion of its invaluable resources. How we find and maintain that balance is still to be seen, and it is up to us to find a solution. Could vertical farming be one of those solutions? By 2050 we will find out.
Gauthier, Paul. “Vertical Farming a Reality.” Association for Vertical Farming, Association for Vertical Farming, 2018, vertical-farming.net/.
Huang, Tony W. “Home.” Urban Crop Solutions, 2018, urbancropsolutions.com/.
LeBlanc, Rick. “What You Should Know About Vertical Farming.” The Balance Small Business, The Balance Career , 2016, http://www.thebalancesmb.com/what-you-should-know-about-vertical-farming-4144786.
Lewis, Andrew. “The Urban Vertical Farming Project.” The Urban Vertical Farming Project, Word Press, 12 Apr. 2017, urbanverticalfarmingproject.com/tag/diy/.
The World Bank. “Population, Total.” Data, 2019, data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL.