Growing Up: The Technologies Making Vertical Farming a Reality

Update 11/19: This recent Huffington Post article made a terrific point about the way in which vertical farming may be a solution to two of the largest problems facing urban centers - high unemployment and little access to fresh food.

“Over the course of the last several decades, the US has experienced a process of deindustrialization, and while the jobs may have left, the factories and buildings remained...Artists have found a use for these ruins -- just take a look at the popularity of ruin photography in Detroit -- but perhaps there are more practical uses for these abandoned structures.”

As the article argues, none of this is to say that vertical farming would replace traditional farming - but rather they’d exist alongside each other.

For millennia, farming has relied on good weather, plenty of water, and a lack of crop-killing pests; anything other than that could result in a dearth of crops. As it turns out, farmers may no longer need access to dozens of acres of land or perfect weather for growing produce. Instead, vertical farming is growing as an alternative to traditional farming techniques. Pioneered by microbiology and public health professor Dickson Despommier, vertical farming takes advantage of abandoned buildings and other vertically inclined spaces to grow plants and crops through the use of hydroponic techniques.

The technologies enabling vertical farming,

Today, vertical farming uses tightly controlled indoor conditions to grow agricultural products like fruits and vegetables. By using environmental monitoring products like temperature monitors and humidity data loggers, indoor farmers can guarantee productive farms and regulated growing environments.

One of the biggest benefits of indoor farming is that it requires much less water and light when compared to growing crops outdoors. Watering is tightly regulated in indoor farming, and any extra water is usually collected and recycled for later use; however, the most important aspect of vertical farming is the exclusion of natural sunlight in favor of specific wavelengths of light emitted on an alternating schedule by LED lights. Since crops grown outdoors need different wavelengths to grow, traditionally grown crops require much higher energy input to grow properly.

Aside from needing fewer resources, another major benefit of vertical farming is that it cuts back on food waste. By having vertical farms in cities, food can be delivered to stores that are shorter distances away. This means that less food is wasted because there’s less time for it to spoil en route to the store; plus, new technologies (such as anaerobic digesters) will allow future vertical farms to use food waste as fuel for their electrical and heating systems.

Vertical farming also circumvents several of the disadvantages of outdoor farming. Food production can take place year-round, and without the risk of severe weather, plant diseases, and insect infestations, indoor farming has a much higher success rate than outdoor farming. In fact, Despommier estimates that a 30-story vertical farm could feed 50,000 people a 2,000 calorie per day diet for an entire year.

Of course, while vertical farming is an exciting idea, there are still challenges to overcome before it is widely adopted. For example, vertical farming requires copious amounts of lighting. That lighting consumes a lot of energy and partially negates the environmental benefits of increased water efficiency and recycling. Also, while vertical farming is convenient for cities near farms (where products can be delivered to stores without much environmental impact), farmers who live further away from cities will have a greater distance to drive in order to take advantage of these crops, decreasing their environmental friendliness even more.

Vertical farming also faces high start-up costs, usually in the form of real estate needed for farming operations. In the developing world, vertical farming is also hampered by the need for a reliable electrical grid and a strong telecommunications infrastructure. More specifically, much of the environmental monitoring in vertical farming operations is performed remotely, requiring steady internet and other telecommunications connections. Without the reliable telecommunications systems we take for granted in the developed world, and integrated devices (such as a remote temperature monitors), vertical farming is likely to fail, and developing a strong telecommunications infrastructure is a challenge to emerging markets.

Map of vertical farming operations in the USA and around the world

Currently, a number of indoor farming operations have been successful in selling fresh herbs and other produce to grocery stores in urban areas. These indoor farms often get their produce to store shelves no more than 24 hours after picking, which, until recently, had been an incredibly difficult task. These vertical farms only exist in a small handful of places, mostly in the Midwest; in fact, the largest and currently most successful vertical farm in the United States is FarmedHere, based in Chicago. FarmedHere sells its herbs to many grocery stores throughout Chicagoland, including all of the area’s Whole Foods Markets. Using the map above, you can see the nearest vertical farm to your home, as well as the stores near you that purchase produce from vertical farms.