Cities are heavily reliant on imported food to survive. Be it from the countryside that surrounds it, or from other countries hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
In the latter case, this requires packaging, storing, and transportation of fresh food in such a way that it arrives at its final destination unspoiled and almost as good as the moment it was picked. A vast, seemingly insane, investment in labor and energy could be avoided if the food could be grown in the city. But, with real estate usually at a premium, how could this be possible?
Enter a system called vertical farming.
This revolutionary form of agriculture is still rather much in its infancy, but the potential for it is truly groundbreaking. Let's find out why.
What is vertical farming?
Vertical farming, as the name suggests, is a form of agriculture that is specifically designed to facilitate agricultural production inside vertical structures like buildings. Large-scale versions tend to consist of a series of vertically stacked surfaces that are usually, though not always, integrated into existing buildings, like office blocks.
They can also be created inside repurposed warehouses, used shipping containers, greenhouses, or other buildings that would normally not be suitable for large-scale farming.
You can also make small, domestic-scale, ones in your own home or garden on a shoestring budget.
For this reason, among others, vertical farming can be performed in places that traditionally lack the enormous amounts of open space needed for growing crops — like in metropolitan areas.
Vertical farming is a revolutionary, and arguably more sustainable, method of farming for several reasons. For example, it tends to require much less water than regular farming — by some estimates up to 95% less.
This is because a proportion of the water used can be recycled and reused. Additionally, less water is lost to evaporation.
It also takes up less space (especially the ground footprint), and has little to no impact on local natural soils (apart from the ground surface right below). According to the Vertical Farming Institute, every square meter (10.76 sq ft) of floor space given over to vertical farming produces approximately the same amount of vegetable crops as 50 square meters (538 sq ft) of conventionally worked farmland.
Generally speaking, vertical farms can be operated without the use of pesticides and herbicides that are potentially very damaging to the environment. Because of the controlled conditions provided by vertical farms, all-year-round cultivation of crops is also usually made possible.
Vertical farms are also seen as a great way to deal with an urban phenomenon called "food deserts". This refers to heavily populated areas that lack access to fresh foods like fruits and vegetables. Because vertical farms can generally be built on a small footprint (or inside existing structures), they can improve easy access to fresh food, which would not need to be shipped from distant farms. The fresh food can be sourced locally, rather than needing to be shipped in and stored prior to consumption.
How does vertical farming work?
Vertical farms tend to consist of one of several models, ranging from stacked wooden shelves on garden patios to warehouses and greenhouses that are able to produce enough food for entire communities, to retrofitted facilities in buildings like skyscrapers.
Some, like those built by Eden Green Technology, consist of specially designed towers with stacked plant cups. For larger, purpose-built vertical farms, hydroponic systems are often employed to help control the indoor climate all year round.
Other aspects of vertical farms can also be regulated, including automated control of temperature, light, and humidity. A high level of control is usually vital for the success of the farm, as failure to maintain specific conditions can lead to the loss of entire crops, in a similar fashion to how events such as droughts and floods impact traditional farms.
There are many other examples, and we'll cover a few notable ones in a bit.
How to start vertical farming or how can you invest in vertical farming?
If you are interested in investing or indeed starting your own vertical farm, you have a few options, but these will also depend on your aspirations. For domestic-scale "off the grid" kind of strategies, simple vertical farms can be created using old pallets, or other custom-made solutions.
You can also buy customized, or standardized, off-the-shelf vertical farm solutions too. We have included a few examples later on in this article.
For larger-scale vertical farming options, you can either directly invest in existing vertical farms (either public or private), or raise enough capital to set up your own. This will, obviously, require large amounts of capital, but the potential for such solutions is predicted to rise dramatically over the coming years.
Some companies (also listed below) offer larger-scale pre-packaged vertical farming solutions that can be quickly scaled up, depending on needs. Many of these solutions can also be combined with more traditional farming techniques, too.
What are some examples of vertical farming?
Now we've covered some of the basics, let's take a look at some interesting examples of vertical farming techniques currently available. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. Hydroponics – growing plants without soil
Hydroponics is a common system of growing plants used in most forms of vertical farming, and it is slowly but steadily gaining importance. It involves the growth of plants in solutions of nutrients, rather than soil — as in traditional farming.
In this vertical farming method, the roots of the plants are submerged in a nutrient-rich solution which is frequently circulated and monitored.
2. Aeroponics – growing plants with no soil and very little water
Aeroponics is another method used in vertical farming. First proposed in the early-20th century, the technique was refined by NASA in the 1990s when it was looking for efficient techniques to grow plants in space.
This technique involves the growing of plants in an air or mist environment, with no soil and very little water. In aeroponics, seeds or seedlings are “planted” in pieces of foam stuffed into tiny pots, which are exposed to light on one end and nutrient mist on the other. The foam holds the stem and root mass in place as the plants grow.
Aeroponics is considered one of the most efficient methods of vertical farming, as it uses over 90% less water than even the most efficient hydroponics systems. And since the nutrients are held in the water, they get recycled, too. It has also been observed that the plants that are grown this way tend to take up more vitamins and minerals, which may make the plants healthier and more nutritious. The extra oxygen the plants are exposed to also results in faster growth.
3. Aquaponics – growing fish and plants together in one place
Another technique used in vertical farms is aquaponics. In this system, fish grow in indoor ponds and produce nutrient-rich waste that acts as a food source for the plants grown in vertical farms.
The plants, in return, purify and filter the wastewater, which is recycled directly back into the fish ponds.
Along with fish and plants, microbes also play an important role in converting fish waste products into useful nutrients for the plants, too.
4. Lokal – growing food in situ
Another interesting vertical farming innovation is a system called Lokal. Developed in collaboration with IKEA's SPace 10 innovation lab, Lokal is a sort of pop-up farming system. Crops are grown hydroponically, and it primarily relies on artificial light, like LEDs, rather than natural sunlight.
According to the designers of Lokal, their system allows plants to grow three times faster than traditional gardens. In the demonstration model, a salad bar was set up in front of the farm, so that the food could be served up straight away
In the future, it is hoped to integrate sensors and machine learning into the system to enable it to connect to and be controlled by, devices like Google Home.
5. AeroFarms – the smart vertical farming innovation
First founded in 2004, a company called AeroFarms is making waves in the field of vertical farming. Using a modified form of aeroponics, they have combined genetics, engineering, food safety, data science, and nutrition into developing their products.
According to AeroFarms, "our commercial farms are optimized for year-round production, no matter the season or weather, and we have grown over 550 different varieties of plants including leafy greens, berries, tomatoes, and more."
AeroFarms aims to transform the whole system of agriculture by building and making farms that are environmentally responsible. They are building farms around the world to make sure there is a local production of food that is nutritious, safe, sustainable, and delicious.
In short, they want to grow more crops in less space in the hopes of bringing about a food revolution.
6. Plantscapers – a building that provides food for its occupants
A Swedish food tech company called Plantagon has come up with a creative solution that allows office spaces, and other high-rise buildings, to help grow food to help feed its occupants. Their system is, in part, based on the concept of vertical greenhouses developed by Åke Olsson — from whom they bought the intellectual property rights in 2008.
Olsson developed a rack transport system that gradually moves the planting boxes from the floor to the ceiling of a vertical greenhouse, thus requiring no artificial light. This system can be installed in new builds, or retrofitted to existing buildings.
At present, the company is currently attempting to showcase its vertical farming system into a purpose-built building in Linköping, Sweden.
It is hoped that it will be able to produce enough food to feed almost 5000 people, and includes high-level automation that will be employed for the maintenance and harvest of plants in order to keep the costs very low.
Moreover, everything from sunlight, temperature, and nutrition, to the air quality will be measured through autonomous and controlled systems.
If the concept becomes a success, more countries, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, United States, and others have plans to adopt it too.
7. VertiCrop – a sustainable farming technique for urban areas
VertiCrop is a proprietary agriculture technique that was been described as one of the "World’s Greatest Inventions" by TIME Magazine in 2009. This patent-pending technology was designed and developed so that food could be grown naturally in the environment of bustling urban areas.
This vertical farming method provides up to twenty times the yield of standard field crops, while simultaneously using only 8% of the water that is usually needed for soil farming.
The vertical farming innovation works on a suspended tray configuration that is unique in itself and moves on a conveyor system. VertiCrop offers optimal exposure to both artificial and natural light in addition to nutrients that are precisely measured for every plant.
It has been designed in such a way that it can promote the healthy growth of crops in controlled and closed-loop environments. Furthermore, it entirely gets rid of the need for using harmful herbicides and pesticides and maximizes food value, nutrition, and above all, taste.
8. Modular farms – produce fresh plants virtually anywhere in the world
Developed by a company called ModularFarms, this vertical farming solution is an entirely indoor system that has the ability to produce healthy and fresh plants virtually in any climate and anywhere in the world.
Not only that, but it provides a level of customization that provides it near endless application possibilities. Being modular, this vertical farming solution can be scaled rapidly in both size and the types of crops it can grow.
Their vertical farming system uses purpose-built steel containers (not modified shipping containers) that can be installed to supplement existing farms, remote isolated communities, or dense urban centers. Each container is effectively self-sufficient and includes everything from lighting, water supply and treatment, environmental control, and everything else the plants need — just hook it up to the power and water supply.
9. Cubic farming systems – the next-gen in sustainable farming
Another interesting development in vertical farming is something called CubicFarms. This fully automated, environmentally-controlled system uses specialized trays that can be moved in a "v-shape" motion to ensure all sides of the plant receive just the right amount of light to maximize their growth.
The system is based on the concept of hydroponics, with the addition of sophisticated water, nutrient, light, and environmental control systems all contained within specially designed steel containers. Each installation tends to be custom-built and is shipped in an effectively complete state.
10. ZipGrow – vertical farming for the modern farmer
Another interesting solution in vertical farming comes from a company called ZipGrow. They have combined the tried and tested use of greenhouses, with the principles of vertical farming and hydroponics to develop an innovative, low-cost, high-yield method of farming.
Suitable for domestic and industrial scale, ZipGrow's solutions also offer, in theory at least, all-year-round crop production for its clients be them commercial farmers or homeowners and hobbyists.
The ZipGrow system uses a specially designed rack system with artificial lighting and a specially designed water recirculation system that saves between 90 and 95% of water consumption over more conventional farming techniques.
11. Bowery – possibly the most technologically sophisticated commercial indoor farm in the world
Utilizing hydroponics, Bowery is another company making waves in the vertical farming community. Its vertical stacking solution can, according to the company, allow users to produce 100 times more produce for the same space if traditional farming techniques were used.
Bowery's system makes use of LEDs, and finely controlled air conditions, to provide plants with the "ideal balance of nutrients, light, oxygen, and CO2."
It also uses a closed-loop system to circulate and purify water in order to oxygenate plants and significantly reduce water consumption.
12. Skyfarm – a wind-powered vertical farming tower
The architectural firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners from London have developed designs for a new, and interesting, vertical farming concept called Skyfarm. The idea is to build a hyperboloid tower that makes use of different farming techniques including aquaponics and traditional soil-based planting methods to produce crops within high-density urban areas or at places where land availability is less.
The multi-story building would also partially be built from bamboo, to create a rigid circular frame while maximizing the sun exposure on the farm. The tower supports both the growth of crops and fish together through a re-circulating system where the nutrients from fish water are fed to the crops while the plants provide filters for the fish to thrive.
The bottom of the tower would contain market and restaurant spaces to help raise awareness among the public, as well as allow them to enjoy the fruits of the project. On the next level, a large transparent tank consisting of freshwater for the farming of fish like bass, tilapia, and barramundi. Above this, plants would be grown using a hydroponics system.
Above the hydroponics level, plants would be grown through aeroponics using only water mists and no soil. And finally, the top of the tower would have water tanks and turbines to power the whole thing.
This tower is an example of a sustainable solution for growing produce with a short shelf life around the year with easy accessibility for the urban population.
13. Sky Greens – possibly the world’s first hydraulically-driven vertical farm
The Singapore-based company Sky Greens has developed a revolutionary vertical farming system which might also be the world’s first low carbon, hydraulically driven farm. Vegetables are planted on specially designed growing troughs, mounted on A-shape aluminum frames, that are kept on rotation throughout the day.
These frames can be as high as 30-feet (9 meters) tall, each with 38 tiers of growing troughs, and each capable of accommodating different growing mediums like soil or hydroponics.
The plants at the bottom receive water, while the ones at the top receive sunlight, with all plants constantly cycled throughout the day. This approach, the designers believe, minimizes the use of water, land, and energy over conventional farming techniques.
In addition, the Sky Urban Vertical Farming System is capable of producing, it is claimed, 10 times more yield compared to traditional farms. While the system is currently used to grow varieties of Asian vegetables, it could conceivably be used to grow all kinds of fruits and veggies.
And that, vertical farming enthusiasts, is your lot for today.
With more and more people living in cities, and the pressure for supplying good quality fresh food close to the point of consumption, solutions like vertical farming could well be the future of farming in many parts of the world.
From dense urban settings to more hospitable parts of the world, vertical farming is only just "finding its legs" and is predicted to be a very big player in the future of agriculture.