Even though more than 40 percent of American land is farmland, more people than ever before are moving into cities. (1, 2) Many of us may never step foot on a farm, and unless you’re lucky enough to live near a local farmers’ market, you’re likely at the mercy of your local supermarket as to what types of fruits and veggies you can purchase and where they come from.
But while cities keep booming, people are more concerned than ever about where their food is coming from. Is there really a way to merge the two? Vertical farming, some say, is the answer.
What is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming is a method of producing crops that’s quite different from what we normally think of as farming. Instead of crops being grown on vast fields, they’re grown in vertically, or into the air. This normally means that the “farms” occupy much less space than traditional farms: think farming in tall, urban buildings vs. farming outdoors in the countryside.
Vertical farming is credited to Dickson Despommier, a professor of ecology at Columbia University, who came up with the idea of taking urban rooftop gardens a step further, and creating vertical farming “towers” in buildings, that would allow all of a building’s floors, not just the rooftop, to be used for producing crops.
Most vertical farms are either hydroponic, where veggies are grown in a basin of water containing nutrients, or aeroponics, where the plants’ roots are sprayed with a mist that includes water and the nutrients required to help the plants grow. Neither require soil for the crops to grow. Usually artificial grow lights are used, though in places blessed with an abundance of natural sunlight, it might be a combination.
And, in some places, it seems to be working quite well. Sky Greens is in Singapore, a country with a population of more than 5.5 million on a main island that’s just 26 miles wide and 14 miles long. In a four-story rotating greenhouse, the company produces 1 ton of greens each day, impressive for a country that imports about 93 percent of its produce, since there’s little available land.
Back in the States, AeroFarms, based out of Newark, NJ, operates several farms. Its global headquarters is a 70,000-sq. ft. vertical farming behemoth, the largest in the world, and can harvest up to 2 million pounds of produce annually. Additionally, AeroFarms helps area children get a little closer to the foods they eat. In a partnership with a local elementary school, students actually harvest their own greens in a 50-sq. ft. AeroFarms unit in their dining hall.
5 Benefits of Vertical Farming
While vertical farming is still relatively new, there are some real benefits.
1. There’s year-round crop production. Say goodbye to seasonal crops. Because vertical farms can control all of the technology required to grow the produce, there’s really no such thing as the wrong season. If a head of lettuce needs a certain amount of humidity and light, a vertical farm can arrange that. A growing season of just a few months is replaced with a year-round production.
Bonus: without things like bugs and weeds, vertical farms don’t need to use pesticides and other harmful chemicals to ensure plants keep growing.
2. They’re weatherproof. Every farmer knows that unseasonably cold or hot temperatures can affect an entire harvest, while a natural disaster like flood or hurricane can derail them for years. In a controlled environment like a vertical farm, there’s no need to fear Mother Nature.
3. They use less water conservation. Generally, vertical farms use less water than traditional farms. Most data points to a 70-percent reduction in water use compared to normal farms. As water becomes more scarce, particularly in communities already suffering from droughts, this is huge.
4. There’s less spoilage. Without the risk of fluctuating weather conditions or pesky critters, there’s a lot less food waste. On traditional farms, up to 30 percent of harvests are lost each year. (3) On vertical farms, that number goes way down.
Additionally, the food from vertical farms is usually sold locally, reducing transportation emissions and time from farm-to-table. Instead of several days of transport, during which foods can go bad, produce can be in the hands of a consumer in just hours.
5. They take up less space. In vertical farming, one acre of indoor space is the equivalent of 4-6 outdoor acres. (4) A lot less space is necessary to produce the same amount of produce, particularly useful in cities, where outdoor land is limited. Instead of building out, vertical farms allow people to build up.
They also create farms out of places that already exist, like abandoned warehouses and buildings. AeroFarms’ space, for instance, was a nightclub space that was abandoned. There’s no need for new construction, because we can breathe new life into old spaces.
What’s Not So Great About Vertical Farms
Of course, it’s not all roses when it comes to vertical farms.
First of all, not everything can be grown in a vertical farm. Things like potatoes don’t turn enough of a profit to make it worth growing them indoors. Vertical farms usually stick to leafy greens and tomatoes, which grow quickly and can be sold at a premium on the market. Heavy crops like wheat and rice, which make up a lot of the American diet, aren’t feasible for vertical farms, as they require a lot more space and weigh more.
While vertical farms might also use a lot less water, they do require a lot of energy. In nature, sunlight is free. In a vertical farm, all those artificial lights add to carbon emissions at a much higher rate than traditional farms.
One reporter found that it would take 1,200 kilowatt hours of electricity to power the lights it takes to produce 2.25 pounds of food, or about the same as the average American refrigerator uses a year. (5)
That’s an incredible amount of energy for a very small amount of food, and that’s before considering heating and cooling costs.
When producers have to pay for things that regular farms get for free, those costs are passed onto consumers. Greens grown in vertical farms are more expensive than their traditionally grown counterparts which means that they’re likely out of reach for the average consumer.
It’s ironic: while in theory, vertical farms are perfect for city dwellers, who are likely to be further away from farms, the price point will still be out of reach for many. Essentially, if you can afford the vertical farming produce, you likely already have access to better food options to begin with.
Additionally, while nature can’t disrupt vertical farming crops, human error can. In a perfectly controlled environment, the yields will definitely be better than those in nature.
However, that relies on each person who tends to the vertical farm doing things just right 100 percent of the time. While the time necessary to rectify mistakes is less than “in the wild,” the high cost of running these farms makes errors even costlier.
Are vertical farms ready to flip our country’s agricultural model on its head and completely disrupt traditional farms? It’s unlikely. Vertical farms are still in their infancy and more studies need to be done to figure out how to make them work on a larger-scale — or if that’s even worth it.
But they’re not ready to be discounted just yet, particularly as new methods to reduce energy usage are uncovered. There’s also the chance that certain vertical farming techniques could be incorporated into traditional farms, creating a sort of hybrid. You just might find vertical farmed greens coming to a grocer near you very soon.
- Vertical farms are being heralded as the farms of the future.
- Some farms, particularly in large urban areas, are successful already.
- There are several benefits to vertical farming, including no reliance on weather, less water usage, and the ability to convert city spaces into working farms.
- It’s not all positives, though. There’s a limit to what can be grown on vertical farms, their energy usage is really high and the prices will appeal to just a small fraction of people.
- As vertical farms continue developing.