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The best vertical farming crops are high value, difficult to grow crops that have a strong local market. Have recent events and their ongoing impact created a new contender for the top spot?
- The market
- The need
- How to grow hydroponically
We’ve covered niche spice crops for hydroponics, as well as rare plants before, but we’ve never looked at this issue in light of current events. This March, Cyclone Enawo, the strongest tropical storm to hit Madagascar since 2004, tore through the country, killing more than 80 people and doing millions of dollars in damage to one of the country’s premier exports: vanilla.
In 2015, Madagascar was estimated to have produced 3,914 tonnes out of a global total of 8,294 tonnes, projected U.N. data showed.
As a result of the cyclone, global vanilla prices have jumped 300%, cresting $600/kg – and it was already the world’s second most expensive price after saffron.
Extreme weather events like Enawo are becoming increasingly common, especially if hurricane season in the United States was any indicator this year. Yet, vertical farms, which can be situated in more mellow outdoor climates while dialing in the perfect conditions for indoor growing, might be uniquely positioned to produce these crops in spite of those weather events.
So, is there an opportunity for vertical farmers and hydroponic growers to step in?
Growing Vanilla Hydroponically
Vanilla is a member of the orchid family (Orchidaceae) and much of the knowledge for growing those is applicable here. It can be grown hydroponically with the right media – inert, sterilized, coarse, free draining – such as expanded clay, pumice, etc. It needs less nutrients than other vegetable crops though there isn’t a real consensus about what ppms/EC is best. I’ve seen recommendations for EC .5.
Among the challenges of growing vanilla hydroponically (besides the lack of good information), vanilla is a climbing plant climbing plant, so you will need to provide supports for the aerial roots to attach to. It is also reliant on hand pollination if you aren’t growing in its natural habitat, an extremely labor intensive practice.
Finally, it’s a long term investment as you won’t even start seeing the plants reduce until their third year of growth:
Take a look at the video below to get a glance inside a an existing vanilla farm and the amount of hand labor farming this crop takes (hand pollination! *buzzers won’t work).
So now that we have an idea of what growing vanilla looks like, let’s take a look at some instructions from a popular online growing forum:
“Here’s Vanilla 101. Aside from being trees, coffee and cacao are pretty ” easy ” to grow.
I start vanilla as a 2 foot vine cutting tied onto a 6 foot bamboo tripod tucked into a 1 gallon nursery pot filled with orchid bark/peat/perlite media in bright shade ( 1500 – 3000 fc ) . If going from a bare vine cutting, trim 1-2 leaves off the lower end and insert into media past the last trim point. ( No need for rooting compound. )
Depending on your humidity, mist the entire vine ( up to ) a few times daily with water for a month or so. ( In the 80s with an RH at 90% here, I mist once a day. ) Mist with a weak nutrient solution every week. The media should be kept very lightly moist. ( I just let the overspray from misting the vine take care of it. ) The cutting will put out roots into the media and you should see new leaf growth in a few weeks. If you have a growing tip ( uncut end ) on your cutting, it will start to grow out. Otherwise, the plant will initiate a new tip. This causes the vine section above that point ( usually the last before the end of the cutting ) to dry out and drop off, allowing the new tip to begin growing out. Startling but normal.
The orchid starts in media but predominantly uses the aerial roots to feed as it matures. A 300 ft long, 3/4″ diameter vine can grow out of a 3 gallon pot full of moist pine bark. Aeroponic / nutrient misting systems are essentially how commercial orchid nurseries grow millions of plants per acre and work quite well for vanilla. An ebb flow tank is likely to be too wet for the media bound roots and does not readily address the majority of the plant’s root system.
At about 3 years, the vine is capable of flowering. If it does, vanilla pod production requires hand pollination within a 6-8 hour window of the flower opening ( and they only open once ) .
If pollination is successful, the pod will fully form in about 2 months. It takes another 6 – 9 months to cure/age the pod to produce those chemicals we associate with vanilla. The orchid typically lives about 15 years.”
While hard to grow, vanilla is a highly profitable crop with some of the key characteristics that make it valuable for vertical farming cultivation. If more people experiment with this type of cultivation, it’s fair to assume that knowledge will increase and costs will come down, making it even more competitive.
Like saffron, because of the high labor costs, it is unlikely that cultivation of this crop will move primarily to the countries that are leading the way in vertical farming any time soon.
However, as changing weather patterns affect agriculture around the world, the adaptability of vertical farming may prove beneficial for continuing to produce vanilla and other expensive plants.