Steve Maxwell from Vancouver, BC
What is Vertical Farming?
The evolution of agriculture has taken a creative turn in recent years as experts cultivate new ways to produce crops more effectively and efficiently amidst a growing human population. Among them is vertical farming or, less ambiguously, “stacking’”. When you think of stacking, the images in your mind likely include, chips, chairs, housing, or money—everything except plants, right? Vertical farming, though, does just that—it is the practice of producing food on vertically inclined surfaces. The object of growing crops this way is to maximize food production using smaller land area. A method that targets the optimization of city and urban agriculture, vertical farming is actually not a totally novice concept. According to Urban Vine, the practice dates back thousands of years. “The earliest history of vertical farming dates back to the Hanging Towers of the ancient city of Babylon. These vertically oriented towers of crops allowed citizens to generate food locally and efficiently.” What remains the same about the ancient and modern versions, however, is the fundamental objective: grow crops efficiently given space requirements and do so on a vertical plane.
Presently, there are over 100 commercial vertical farms thriving across the globe and these farms primarily use hydroponic methods to thrive. Because soil is very heavy, the structural demand of a vertical farm would require more equipment and logistics, materially increasing the cost of production. Cost, while material, is not the only reason why vertical farms have steered away from soil. Water-based growing mediums often produce a higher yield per unit area than the same crops grown in soil. Consequently, there are two primary techniques that agriculturalists implement for vertical farming: Hydroponic nutrient film (NFT), also known as vertical plane technique (VPT) and Hydroponic deep-water culture (DWT). Both work to maximize the success of crop yields.
How does vertical farming technology work?
Vertical farming consists of the cultivation of crops from a tower or panels that grows crops sideways or perpendicular to the ground. The engineering of this method allows for efficient spacing between the aisles to aid in successful harvest. The vertical rows also contribute to better air circulation and temperature control for the crops. In addition, it creates more opportunity for light to reach plant surfaces on both sides. It is interesting to note that some commercial vertical farms implement the horizontal conventional plane growing method, which stacks crops in makeshift pallet racks or similar systems. This process is not the industry standard however, because it poses too many challenges, such as inconsistent temperature and heat regulation and it becomes difficult to reduce the risk of disease, ultimately threatening the success of crop yields.
There are four primary factors that contribute to the success of vertical farms. They include: space-use, environment and plant health, labour costs, and profitability.
As mentioned above, vertical plane production optimizes the success of crop yields due to its structural component. Vertical planes capitalize on both the surface area and volume of the plane to curate the best environment for plants to thrive. Vertical production combines growing space and access space into one to quantify and qualify plant production.
With respect to the environment and plant health in vertical farming, the circulation of heat and airflow are important to plant growth. Fortunately, heat moves easily through vertical spaces; however the orientation of light can hurt or harm the growth as it has a direct impact on airflow. The old practice was to attach the lights to the growing pane. Farmers observed quickly, however, that doing so limited the flow of air. Now it is more common to place in the light in the centre of a chimney, for example, so that air can move more freely.
Labour cost has a little less to do with the vertical farm itself, but according to the Vertical Farming Guide by Urban Vine, there are still things a farmer can do to reduce labour costs. Specifically, a farmer should “maximize both the ease with which workers can access crops and the number of workers that are able to access a layout simultaneously, in order to decrease waiting time and increases efficiency.”
The fourth factor in determining the success of vertical farming is profitability. There is a misleading assumption that more volume breeds more profit, but the reality is that there isn’t always a positive correlation between plane volumes and production. Farmers say that how you fill the space will have a direct impact on the labour costs; thus, it is important to be intentional about how you use a volume of space.
Taking all factors together, vertical farming has produced more good than harm in remedying some of the environmental concerns for life on earth.
Do we really need vertical farming?
There is no doubt that there is a general shift, agriculturally, towards vertical farming, but some people, perhaps traditionalists, wonder whether it really makes a difference. The truth is there is a global urgency to increase crop yield amidst a concerning population growth. Space is also limited and if food supply can increase by rerouting some aspects of farming to city and urban areas, then there is the potential to make a real difference in the industry. While not all crops can grow in this manner (it is a resource for more nutritional options like green crops), it is an initiative that has been and continues to make the future of agriculture a little less daunting and more manageable.
The future of vertical farming is bright, but it heavily rests on agricultural technology. Initiatives to convert buildings and similar spaces into fully thriving plant environments will be critical to the objective. There is also the factor of energy production. Plants are still plants no matter the host. Therefore, light is important. Presently, LED lights are the go-to for photosynthesis in vertical farming and while they are efficient in getting plants enough light to grow, it takes a lot of energy to fulfill such a tall order. Ultimately then, agricultural technologists are the captains of the ship and shift in modern vertical farming.