How Does Vertical Farming Work? (For Beginners)

This is a great guest post by Pat Flynn from Urban Vine. We love featuring people here and on our free mailing list!

We’ve all heard about “vertical farming.” But you’re probably wondering: “What is vertical farming, and how does it work?”

How Does Vertical Farming 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’spopulation, 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” [check it and some other great books out here]

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 onto current examples of vertical farms…

Current Examples of Vertical Farms

Plantogon – Linköping, Sweden

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.

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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