How Does Vertical Farming Work? (For Beginners)

Look: 

We've all heard about "vertical farming".

But you're probably wondering: 

"What is vertical farming, and how does it work?" 

Or Maybe: 

"What are some vertical farming advantages?" 

Or Maybe Even: 

"Can I do it on a small scale myself?"

A crash course in vertical farming and how it works


Well:

All of these answers and more are discussed in this article.

So here's the goal: 

At the end of this article, you should have enough knowledge to start planning your own vertical farm.

So let's get started...

What is vertical farming? 

Here's the deal: 

Most people think vertical farming is the process of growing vertically in "stacks" into the air.

But here's the kicker: 

Although many vertical farms are built in large stacks of layers, the defining trait of a vertical farm is that the "plane" of growing is vertical, not horizontal (like traditional farming).

So in reality: 

Vertical farming can be in just in one layer (But usually it's more).

Now, keep in mind: 

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? 

Now you may be surprised to hear this, but: 

The modern concept "vertical farming" was actually popularized in the 1990's (over 25 years ago!) by Dickson Despommier, a professor of ecology at Columbia University in NYC.

Now: 

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.

But there was a problem: 

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...

What he suggested: 

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".

So, what's the bottom line? 

Despite the creation of the vertical farming concept multiple decades 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).

How could that be? 

The popularity surge could be attributed to the release of Despommier's book in 2010, "The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century"

Now...

We've covered so far: 
1) the definition of vertical farming
2) the history of vertical farming

But you're also probably wondering: 

What are the different types of vertical farms? 

Or: 

"What are the pro's and con's of vertical farming?"

Or:

"What are current examples of vertical farms?"

Or: 

"How does vertical farming actually work (step-by-step)?"

Well you're in luck.

Why? 

We are covering all of those parts next...

What are the Different Types Of Vertical Farms? 

There are three main categories of vertical farms: 

1) Mixed Use Skyscrapers


2) Despommier Skyscrapers


3) Stackable Shipping Containers

Pro's and Con's of Vertical Farming

Now, here's the deal: 

Many experts have actually criticized Despommier's concept of vertical farming.

Why?

Here are common criticisms: 

Cons:

- 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).

But, here's there's also tons of supporting arguments: 

Pros:

- 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.

Now: 

We've covered the pros and cons.

So let's move on to the top reasons why vertical farms fail, plus current examples of vertical farms...

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Top Reasons Why Vertical Farms Fail

What are the specific reasons why vertical farms fail? 

According to this post from Chris Michael, co-founder of Bright Agrotech, vertical farms fail for 3 key reasons.

1) Lack of Focus: It is common for vertical farms to try to both grow crops for sale as well as sell or license their actual growing technology. Said Michael,

"Farmers can either grow food or develop technology, but they shouldn’t do both"

2) Labor Costs

Although labor costs can be low on the unit scale, approximately $10/hr - $15/hr, the inefficiency of harvesting in many vertical farming systems make these costs add up more quickly than in a more conventional growing style.

Although automated harvesting options can potentially mitigate this cost in the future, it is still best practice to have a vertical growing design that makes it easy for labor to harvest.

Harvesting automation equipment has its own problems, such as: 

1) upfront cost
2) skilled & expensive labor required to operate

According to Michael,

"Farmers should implement a growing system that reduces labor costs and does not require expensive automation technology to be economically viable."

3) Layout and Workflow Optimization

One warning for vertical farmers is to overlook the importance of efficiency in the entire growing process.

An efficiently designed vertical garden will have lower labor costs (see #2), less harvesting equipment, and will operate more like an "optimized system" than a form of art.

Michael concluded: 

"When evaluating farm equipment options, look past production. Every system can grow crops, but not every system can optimize workflows and maximize labor efficiencies"

With these common pitfalls addressed, lets move onto some examples of vertical farms in action! 

Read on to see video and text overviews of some of these farms (they're pretty cool!) 

Current Examples of Vertical Farms

Plantogon - Linköping, Sweden
Credit: Inhabitat

Here's the deal: 

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.

Why? 

The goal is to provide optimal light exposure for the crops based off of their stage of growth.

But building this structure took longer than anticipated: 

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.

That's almost 3x longer than expected.

So...How big is the "Plantogon"?

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.

And....What are they growing?

Bok Choy and Chrysanthemum for early customers in Asian markets. 

Still craving more Plantagon? (I don't blame you)

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

Here's a quick summary: 

Vertical Harvest is 3 story hydroponic greenhouse in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA. It grows year-round and employs disabled members of local community.

But here's the crazy part: 

The facility is only 4,500 sq feet, (418 square m), and utilizes a similar "carousel" design to the Plantogon controlled by timers to optimize light exposure.

The result? 

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.

Still craving more vertical harvest?

Check the video below.

Now: 

Ater all this info, you may just be interested to know exactly how a vertical farm functions. ˆ

In other words: 

"What are the actual components of a vertical farm?"

Well: 

We cover a simple, step-by-step walk through of the components of a vertical farm below...

How Vertical Farming Works

The bottom line: 

There are four key areas to analyze the function of urban farming:

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

We can use the following example and break down the key characteristics and functions of a vertical farm: 

First things first: 

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

Then: 

(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

Now: 

(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.

And finally: 

(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.

Starting Your First Vertical Farm? Follow These 4 Steps To Be Successful

If you are thinking about starting a vertical farm, you should focus on 4 aspects of your plan in order to be successful. These points are summarized from this article written by Amy Storey of Bright Agrotech.

1)  Use of Space Efficiently (With Vertical Growing Planes) 

There are 2 forms of vertical farming: 

1. Growing on the normal horizontal plane and stacking beds vertically

2. Growing plants on a vertical plane (growing sideways) 

Each of these growing styles in a vertical farm has different results for how space will be utilized.

Now, here's the key: 

The key advantage for space utilization lies in vertical plane growing systems.

Why? 

Vertical plane growing systems can have plants growing on both sides of the plane (think one plant growing sideways in each direction).

Additionally, harvesting is much less labor intensive with vertical growing plane systems in vertical farming, which we will discuss next (#2).

Growing in the vertical plane is usually a more efficient use of space than in the horizontal plane. source: Bright Agrotech Blog

2) Reduce Labor Costs

The accessibility of your vertical farm is key to reducing labor costs. As discussed in detail above, the advantage once again falls with vertical growing planes that do not have stacked rows of plants.

Why? 

Horizontally stacked rows of plants are not efficient to harvest, monitor, or otherwise tend to. Less efficient = more time = more labor cost.

3) Focus On Profitability

For beginner vertical farmers, there's good news and bad news. Bad news first: 

Bad News: 

The idea among growers that higher volume leads to higher profits is common but false. Depending on the design of your vertical farm, costs increase at a faster rate with scale than crop production does.

Good News: 

Focusing on unit profitability, not scale, is doable even for a beginning grower.

How does one focus on profitability? Focusing on efficiency (#1), labor cost management (#2), and investing in environment and plant health (#4 below), is a great start toward profitable vertical farming.

4) Invest in Environment and Plant Health

A couple key aspects of your vertical farm should be considered with regard to environment and plant health: 

1) How optimized is the system for heat dissipation? Grow lights will generate heat, regardless of what type, and optimizing airflow will be helpful.

2) How well does the system distribute excess moisture? 

3) How well do gases like CO2 circulate? 

All of the factors above are optimized generally speaking from employing vertical plane growth over stacked horizontal plane growth.

For further details, check out this article "How Vertical Farming Works To Maximize Crop Output

Did you like this article?

You now know the basic background information relating to vertical farming.

Why is that important?

Here's your real takeaway (if you forget everything else):

Vertical farming is growing at an incredibly fast pace (the market is pretty much exploding, and there's ample proof).

Getting to know the background of vertical farming, is just the start of your urban farming journey.

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