By Doug Graves
NEW YORK CITY – Is the future of farming indoors? Vertical farmers think so.
Before farmers dash to sell their farms, they need to first take a deep breath. Vertical farming has been around since 1999 and it’s not about to replace conventional farming anytime soon. But experts do say vertical farming is gaining traction and has a place in the agriculture world.
One such vertical farm operation is Square Roots, with ‘campuses’ in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Grand Rapids, Mich. There are 10 satellite vertical farms around New York City alone, each utilizing shipping containers in parking lots.
One of those satellite farms in New York City, for example, produces the same amount of food as a two- or three-acre farm annually, just from 340 square feet. This yield is achieved by growing plants at 90 degrees, and by using artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure the environment is optional for each specific plant, including the day and night temperatures and amount of CO2 needed. Combined, these farms serve 100 retail stores within five minutes of each farm.
Other known vertical farms include 80 Acres Farms (Hamilton, Ohio), Bowery Farming (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Farm One (New York, N.Y.), AeroFarms (Newark, N.J.) and Plenty (San Francisco, Calif.).
“The mission of Square Roots is to train the next generation of farmers, who are probably working in a landscape growing food for people in an increasing urban setting,” said Sylvia Channing, one of Square Roots’ entrepreneurs. “More and more people are moving to the cities and demanding healthy, fresh food.”
The two types of vertical farming that have gained the most headway since their inception in 1999 include building-based vertical farms and shipping-container vertical farms.
Abandoned buildings are often reused for vertical farming, such as the farm in Chicago called “The Plant.” An abandoned meatpacking plant was turned into a vertical farm. However, even new buildings are constructed for vertical farms.
Recycled shipping containers are popular for housing vertical farm systems, oftentimes equipped with LED lighting, vertical stacked hydroponics, smart climate controls and monitoring sensors.
Techniques of vertical farming include hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics and controlled-environment agriculture.
With hydroponics, plants are grown without the use of soil. The roots of plants are submerged in liquid solutions containing macronutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, potassium, calcium and magnesium, as well as trace elements, including iron, chlorine, zinc and others. The advantages of hydroponics include the ability to increase yield per area and reduce water usage. Example, hydroponic farming could increase the yield per acre of lettuce by roughly 11 times while requiring 13 times less water.
Aquaponics is coined by combining two words: aquaculture (which refers to fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil). Aquaponics integrates the production of terrestrial plants with the production of aquatic organisms in a closed-loop system that mimics nature itself. While absorbing nutrients, the plants purify the wastewater, which is recycled back to the fish tanks. The plants consume carbon dioxide produced by the fish.
Aeroponics does not require any liquid or solid medium to grow plants. Instead, a liquid solution with nutrients is misted in air chambers where plants are suspended. Aeroponics is the most sustainable soil-less growing technique as it uses up to 90 percent less water than the most efficient conventional hydroponic system. Aeroponic systems have not been widely applied to vertical farming, but are gaining more attention.
“Our indoor farms are living biosystems, constantly adapting to maintain optimal climates for growing specific crops,” said Tobias Peggs, Square Roots’ chief executive. “We’re then able to understand how changes in the climate can impact yield taste and texture. It’s just amazing what we can do. We can actually design the lights to, say, make a leaf of this to be a little bit bigger, or a little smaller, or increase or decrease the oils in a leaf, all depending on what you need.”
Artificial lighting helps in extending the hours of natural daylight, which further increases the health, growth rate and yield of the plants. Artificial lights can also extend the availability of crops throughout a season.
The global vertical farming market size is anticipated to reach $40.25 billion by 2021, according to a new report by Grand View Research, Inc. According to the report, vertical farming is effective in ensuring stability in crop production and maintaining reliability even in adverse climatic conditions. It provides multiple benefits over traditional farming techniques, such as less use of water, the lesser need for agrochemicals and low dependence on agricultural labors. In addition, vertical farming makes use of metal reflectors and artificial lighting to maximize natural sunlight.
The global population is predicted to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, and to feed everyone, it’s estimated that global food production will need to increase by up to 70 percent in the next 30 years. Add to that, the obstacles of rising temperatures and more frequent droughts brought about by global warming make traditional farming methods increasingly inefficient and unpredictable.
Adding to the interest in vertical farming is that fact that genetically modified organisms and environmental and health effects of pesticides and other non-natural substances that are used for increasing agricultural production have encouraged consumers to adopt organic foods.
There’s an emerging consensus that the agriculture industry needs to adapt to use less water and chemicals, make crops less vulnerable to changes in the climate and produce more yields. Part of the answer may lie in the emerging start-ups growing produce in indoor environments, where growing conditions can be better managed.
Viraj Puri is co-founder and CEO of Gotham Greens in New York City. Gotham Greens is a pioneer in urban indoor agriculture that operates more than 500,000 square feet of greenhouses in five states. Puri said vertical farming has an increasing role to play in the future of sustainable food production.
“While indoor farming may not represent the future of all fresh produce production, it will become more prevalent,” Puri said. “Customers are increasingly recognizing the reliability, consistency and high quality of greenhouse-grown produce that’s grown in close proximity to large population centers using fewer natural resources. Other agricultural commodities like grains or fruits or root vegetable, however, can’t yet be produced.”