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How Does Vertical Farming Work?(For Beginners)

What is vertical farming, and how does it work? What are the main differences with normal farming? Can I do it on a small scale myself? All of these answers and more are discussed in this article...

What is vertical farming? 

Vertical farming is most generally defined as the process of scaling the growing area of produce or other crops vertically into the air in "stacks" as opposed to spanning outward as in a traditional farming model.

Vertical farming often but not always uses technology to aid the growing process, for example common elements include: 

- humidity control
- temperature control
- artificial lighting (mixes of artificial and natural light can be used)
- control / monitoring of nutrients and fertilizer

What is the history of vertical farming? 

The modern concept was popularized in the 1990s by Dickson Despommier, a professor of ecology at Columbia University in NYC.

According to urban farming legend, Despommier challanged his students to implement a plan as an assignment.

The plan?

To produce food for all of Manhattan's millions of residents using only urban rooftop agriculture.

When the most optimistic design provided produce for only 2% of Manhattan's population, Prof. Despommier suggested the idea that would lead to the modern concept of vertical farming:

Integrating urban agriculture with not just city rooftops, but also all of the floors of skyscraper style buildings. This concept could also be copied in independent vertical farming "towers".

Despite the creation of the vertical farming concept nearly 20 years ago, the term has (oddly) only become popular on the internet (as evidenced by Google search volume) over the past 5-8 years (see image above)

This could be attributed to the release of Despommier's book in 2010.

Pro's and Con's of Vertical Farming

Many experts have criticized Despommier's concept of vertical farming. Common criticisms: 


- form over function: there are many critics of the Despommier vertical farming school of thought, for example, critic Stan Cox, a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing has gone on record periodically since 2010 denouncing vertical farming (most recently in a February 2016 article in Treehugger.com titled "Vertical Farms: Wrong on So Many Levels").

Cox stated in a 2010 article titled "Vertical Farms aren't going to solve our food problems":

“Although the concept has provided opportunities for architecture students and others to create innovative, sometimes beautiful building designs, it holds little practical potential for providing food.”

- too expensive to operate from a financial perspective: from a unit-economics perspective, the profitability of vertical farming has been questioned (electricity usage, water usage, infrastructure cost). For this reason, community vertical farming has been supported over commercial vertical farming.

- too expensive to operate from a resource perspective (energy): a structure hundreds of feed tall would have issues with light pollution from the artificial lighting used in vertical farming and such a structure would require a lot of water to operate at peak performance (producing significant non-potable water waste).


- reduction of "food miles": 
with massive local productio capability, and the urbanization of the world population, large scale vertical farming construction would reduce the average travel distance of food (some produce you buy at the store regularly travels thousands of miles from harvest to plate)

- reduction of stress on traditional farmland: overuse of traditional farmland is damaging to future production capability and expansion of farmland when current areas are not producing enough crop output leads to other negative effects like extinction of native species and environmental pollution.

Current Examples of Vertical Farms

Plantogon - Linköping, Sweden
Credit: Inhabitat

The globe-like design of the Plantogon is not random, in fact quite the opposite: fresh vegetables grow in the spiral structure at the core of the Plantogon starting at the top, then slowly slide down to the base of the building in order to provide optimal light exposure for the crops based off of their stage of growth.

The structure broke ground in February of 2012 and was expected to be completed in 12-16 months, but was not finished until late 2015.

The structure occupies approximately 400 sq. meters of space and outputs 300-500 tons of food per year. According to CEO Hans Hassle, the cost of the building will be recouped in approximately 5 years due to its food production capabilities.

What are they growing? Bok Choy and Chrysanthemum for early customers in Asian markets. 

In this interview on YouTube, Hassle defines vertical farming as maximizing the ratio of ground space and food output at its most basic level.

Other benefits of this system?

A more streamlined growing system allows for more competitive pricing capabilities: Hassle estimates 60% of vegetable prices in supermarkets is middleman cost not associated with the growing process.

Vertical Harvest - Jackson, Hole USA

A 3 story hydroponic greenhouse in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the United States, Vertical Harvest grows year-round and employs disabled members of local community.

The facility is only 4500 sq feet, (418 square m), and utilizes a similar "carousel" design to the Plantogon controlled by timers to optimize light exposure. Yield is approximately 100,000 pounds per year (45,000 kg approximately).

The growing medium used by Vertical Harvest is coconut husks (Plantagon uses peat moss).

What do they grow? Leafy greens, herbs (basil), tomatoes, and microgreens.

How Vertical Farming Works

Four key areas to analyze the function of urban farming are:

(1) physical layout
(2) lighting
(3) growing medium
(4) sustainability features

We can use the following example and break down the key characteristics and their function: 

(1) The primary goal of vertical farming is to maximize the output efficiency per square meter / foot, resulting in a "stacked" tower like structure

(2) often a combination of grow lights and natural light will be used, technologies like rotating beds can increase lighting efficiency and natural light exposure

(3) growing medium can be hydroponic, aquaponic, or even aeroponic (no soil or other medium). Non soil mediums like coconut husks or peat moss are often used.

(4) Sustainability features that offset the energy costs of the farm may include: rain water collection tanks, wind turbines, multipurpose spaces in the structure not used for cultivation.

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