Long spires of steel and glass stretch up towards the sun. Within, teeming billions go about their busy lives, like ants in a kilometer tall nest. But every human in this vast metropolis needs to eat. And the solution is all around: towering vertical farms. Precise algorithms calibrate the exact amount of water and other nutrients required for optimal growth, and deliver it on a pre-determined schedule to ensure optimal growth.
That’s the sci-fi hive city dream, right? So how far are we from being able to produce that density of food production? And can you start producing enough food to feed your family in a regular suburban home?
We spoke with Dr. Joel Cuello, vice chair of the Association of Vertical Farming and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Arizona to find out.
What is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming is conceptually simple. Instead of spreading out a farm over the land, you stack it into the air using shelves and multi-storey buildings. That’s how a company like Bowery Farming is able to produce 100 times more food on the same footprint of land as conventional agriculture, according to its statistics.
But it’s not just about horizontal versus vertical. Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology allows farmers to measure every aspect of their plants physical surroundings. The type and level of light, the temperature, and humidity are tightly controlled. Furthermore, farmers can supply the exact amount of water and nutrients a plant needs at the right time. Complex data analysis programs and AI enable a farmer to track progress and further optimize efficiency.
Types of Vertical Farming
There are two main technologies underpinning indoor farming.
- Hydroponic: The plants are grown in a solution of water and nutrients.
- Aeroponic: The plants are grown in a nutrient-infused mist.
Subcategories like fogoponic, deep water hydroponics, or aquaponics where fish are added to create an entire ecosystem also exist.
When Cuello spoke with us he had a clear vision that this industry could be the future of agriculture. He identifies three primary types of vertical farms, depending on the buildings.
- Skyscrapers: This is probably what most people think of when they imagine a vertical farm. Although the technical capacity to construct them is there, Cuello says the economics don’t necessarily add up. Real estate is at such a premium in urban centers such as New York that it makes no sense to use it for agriculture, even if densely organized. Some architects such as Ken Yeang favor mixed-use skyscrapers which grow plants as part of a broader set of purposes.
- Warehouse: Cuello sees this as the most viable for large scale commercial operations. You either build a new warehouse and fill it with vertical farming equipment or buy an existing building and convert it.
- Modular: This is the most efficient and practical way to scale out vertical farming, according to Cuello. The beauty of modular farms is you can put them anywhere, in the desert, in Antarctica, it doesn’t matter.
The Japanese were among the first to commercialize this type of agriculture, perhaps due in part to the space restrictions in Japan. Cuello says the best use of vertical farming in terms of return on investment is to grow certain kinds of high-value fresh fruits and vegetables which require specific but not particularly complicated conditions for optimal growth. Grains and cash crops like wheat or rice still make much more sense to grow in fields in the traditional manner, while boutique crops like orchids or and other horticultural crops are already cost-effectively mass produced in large-scale greenhouses.
Cuello has high hopes for modular vertical farms in particular to extend the reach and community-adoptability of vertical farms from its current warehouse form. Although. Although vertical farming is energy intensive and therefore quite expensive, the costs plummet where a renewable energy source is readily available. This makes the desert a fantastic place to put modular vertical farms, as you can simply bolt solar panels onto the roof. The Gulf States are experimenting with this technique at the moment.
History of Vertical Farming
Sophisticated vertical farming techniques such as rice terraces have been used in South America and East Asia for centuries. As early as 1909, Life Magazine produced a sketch of vertical homesteads stacked on top of one another and in 1915, the American geologist Gilbert Ellis Bailey published his book Vertical Farming. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that technology caught up. Professor Joel Cuello did a postdoctoral internship at NASA in 1994, in the Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems division. That unit worked on creating methods of farming which could be used in space, with an eventual view to colonizing other planets. NASA developed efficient crop nutrient
systems based on hydroponics and aeroponics, which utilizing about 90% less water than the typical open-field cultivation.
Based on these and similar ideas of what was possible to do, Professor Dickson Despommier adopted the term vertical farming in 1999 while teaching a course at Columbia. Dr. Despommier wrote The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, which was published in 2010. In 2013 the Association of Vertical Farming was founded in Munich, Germany.
Feed The World
Ever since British economist Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798, a certain subset of demographers have worried the human population is going to grow and grow indefinitely. If this doesn’t stop, eventually we will consume the entire world, like fire ants in the jungle. The global population currently stands around 7.68 billion. “To feed those who are currently hungry—and the additional 2 billion-plus people who will live on the planet by 2050—our best projections are that crop production will need to increase between 60 and 100 percent,” the Food Matters report put out by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment says.
Others are more skeptical. “Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity,” Eric Holt-Gimenez, the Executive Director of Food First, wrote in the Huffington Post. Food First engages in research and action dedicated to helping people achieve control over their food systems. “For the past two decades,” Holt-Gimenez continues, “the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050.”
Historically, food production capacity has expanded as a result of technological innovations such as the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Much of our future increased crop yield per acreage is also likely to come from technological innovations such as vertical farming.
Regardless of whether enough food is produced, there is a secondary question of whether or not current methods of agricultural production are sustainable, in terms of land and energy use. An estimated 38.6% of available land is already devoted to agriculture, according to National Geographic. If we don’t want to chop down every last tree to make way for corn fields, something is going to have to be done about density.
Future of Vertical Farming
Market research firm Arizton projects that the US Vertical Farming market will grow to $3 billion by 2024, as reported by PR Newswire. The market is expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 24%. The report predicts that hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic business will triple their revenue in the next six years.
Surprisingly, the cannabis industry has been at the forefront of the commercialization and scaling of indoor farming technology. Because cannabis has been illegal for many years, manufacturers usually grow their product indoors, to avoid detection. However, since drug dealing is fundamentally a money making enterprise, they learned to optimize for quality and cost just as any legitimate business operation would do. These standard market pressures pushed producers to experiment with hydroponics/aeroponics. As legalization of recreational marijuana is rolled out, companies like California-based GrowX are maximizing their profits using vertical farming.
One exciting possibility brought about by modular farms is the option to deploy them rapidly where needed, eg. in conflict zones. That’s why Cuello is in talks with Dubai about using specially designed farming units in refugee camps to ease the burden on aid requirements. He is also currently working on a shipping container design which he expects to see operational in the Philippines by the end of the year.
Another way vertical farms can be used is to facilitate the return of nomadism. You can fit a small vertical farm in a roof compartment of a caravan and continue to be mobile while growing enough food to feed a couple. This empowers people to move around and remain self-sufficient in a way that hasn’t been possible for a long time.
The ultimate goal, of course, is space, the final frontier. While Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are competing to get to Mars, how humans will be able to eat once we get there is a vital question. Perfecting vertical farming on Earth could hold the key to a fully functional year-round lunar base, or the world’s first resource-independent Martian colony.
But enough about the outer reaches of interplanetary existence. Let’s take this right back down, to your zone of control, to an ordinary family home somewhere in America.
The Suburban Vertical Farm
Most suburban homes in America have garages. There is certainly enough space to produce food for your family inside, although Cuello thinks running a commercial operation out of your garage may not be cost effective. The technology is consumer accessible, just go to your local hydroponics shop.
So we called Brite Ideas Hydroponics, Aquaponics and Organics shop in Austin, Texas, to ask them how to rig your garage into an indoor farm.
Athena told us that the most expensive part would be the lights, which range from around $50 to $500. LED lights are best since they are low energy and low heat. They also offer a variety of light spectrums, leafy vegetables need more of a full spectrum, whereas fruit like strawberries needs more red light.
There are lots of different ways to set up a vertical or hydroponic indoor farm. You can use buckets, hang the plants in the air or put them on shelves in float tables.
To fill your whole garage with units with 4-5 shelves with float tables on each unit could run you between $1000-$2000, not including the $300 a year in costs for nutrients. Of course, as with all things, your mileage may vary depending on circumstances. Energy costs will add to the price, but securing a renewable power source is an entirely different conversation.
If you own land, it’s a different story. The company Freight Farms is already selling fully-functional ready to operate vertical farms in up-cycled shipping containers. You can buy one from their website right now if you want (average operating costs are around $13,000/year).
Vertical farming is a sustainably sourced locally grown solution to feeding urban populations. You can even start today and feed your family in a normal suburban home.