Alternative farming methods have been growing rapidly recently, and this includes vertical farming. Where did this innovative way of crop production come from and what does it actually consist of?
The idea of multi-level farming originated back in the previous century. The term “vertical farming” was first used in 1915. Gilbert E. Bailey, in his book of the same name. In it, he described his idea, which involved blowing up existing farmland and using the walls of the blast funnels for multilayer farming. Although Bailey’s idea was not realized, the concept proved to be visionary. Over the following years, the idea of vertical cultivation was developed from the bottom up.
It wasn’t until 1999 that Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier became interested in using unusual spaces for growing plants. He was particularly interested in the possibility of using the roofs of buildings for this purpose. Working with students, he developed a concept for a thirty-story farm equipped with artificial lighting and hydroponic and aeroponic irrigation. This farm was to produce enough food for 50,000 people. Fruits and vegetables were to be grown there, but also chickens and fish. The farm project was not implemented in this form. However, it contributed to the popularization and development of the vertical farming industry.
In order to better understand the concept of vertical farming, it is useful to know what such a way of growing crops consists in. It is the business of growing vegetables, herbs or fruits on multiple levels, inside a building or underground, often in a specially controlled environment. The crops are equipped with an irrigation system that irrigates and nourishes the plants. Both artificial and natural light can be used for production.
Vertical crops can be grown both on a small scale, for personal use, and as large-scale, commercial vertical farms. Production can take place year-round and in virtually any location if combined with the right growing methods.
Much has changed since Professor Despommier’s idea. Modern technology is based on multi-level indoor cultivation. The processes on the farm are usually controlled by special management software. More high-tech farms also use automation and robotics. They even make it possible to fully automate operational processes on the crop. Such a solution greatly relieves the burden on workers and contributes to reducing production costs.
As the popularity of vertical farming intensifies, more and more creative ways of cultivation are being developed, such as in rotating cylinders or specially designed cultivation “refrigerators” for home use. Currently, the most popular forms of vertical farming are growing containers and specially designed vertical farms.
The main and integral element of vertical farming is the vertical arrangement of plants. Plants are placed on irrigated shelves, in columns or growing towers. Cultivation is most often carried out in a controlled atmosphere. This means that all environmental factors are adjusted to the requirements of specific plants. We are talking about temperature and humidity control, the intensity of gases in the air, monitoring and recirculation of metered nutrient solution, and artificial lighting. The multi-level arrangement of the plants, together with the ideally adjusted conditions, makes it possible to achieve large yields of high quality using less space. It is these elements that distinguish vertical farming from conventional agriculture.
Thanks to its versatility, vertical farms can be built inside old warehouses, factories, schools or even residential buildings, offering a chance to solve the problem of access to fresh and healthy food. In addition, plants in controlled conditions can be grown all year round, regardless of the prevailing climate and weather conditions.
There are three main cultivation methods in vertical farming. These are hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics. If used correctly, they can be used effectively for both home growing of plants and in commercial farms producing mass quantities of food.
In hydroponics, plants grow in a body of water that is rich in nutrients. A special nutrient solution goes straight to the roots, allowing the plant to grow quickly and healthily. The functions of the soil are performed by the growing medium. Most often perlite, coir, vermiculite or expanded clay are used. It is thanks to such a substrate that the roots of the plant receive the oxygen and moisture needed for growth. The water, along with the nutrient solution, is in a closed cycle, which determines a more efficient use of resources and great water savings. The cultivation is easily scalable in terms of size and cost. This is the method we use in our Smart Crop and Plantainer technology.
Aeroponic cultivation also does not require a growing medium. Unlike hydroponics, plants grow suspended in the air and are nourished by spraying a mist created under high pressure. Such a mist, composed of an aqueous solution with nutrient solution, nourishes the roots and allows the plant to grow healthily. With aeroponics, nutrients go directly to the plant which saves water and reduces labor.
Aquaponics is the practice of growing both plants and fish. Fish provide nutrients and beneficial bacteria to the plants, which in turn filter the water for the fish. Aquaponic farming creates a highly productive and sustainable ecosystem that is almost fully self-sustaining.
Vertical farming is gaining popularity for good reason. This pioneering method of cultivation can serve not only city residents, but the environment thanks to the low consumption of raw materials and the locality of production.
Vertical cultivation using hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics can use as much as 70 – 95% of water in crop production.
Vertical farming can be up to several times more efficient than conventional crops. Multi-level cultivation allows to achieve higher productivity per square meter of cultivation, using the same area.
Soilless closed-loop cultivation contributes to a significant reduction in fertilizer consumption. Dosing nutrient solution and irrigating plants directly to the roots of the plants allows precise application of fertilizers and thus significantly reduces the consumption and waste of raw materials.
Thanks to the vertical arrangement of the crop and the possibility of indoor production, vertical farming can find application even in the center of a city. Thus, the distance between producer and consumer is significantly reduced.
Much of the fresh food is imported from distant countries. Controlled-atmosphere indoor cultivation solves this problem. Production can take place in close proximity to consumers which significantly reduces the carbon footprint associated with importing and exporting food.
The ergonomics of vertical farming are very high. Using crop automation, operating costs and labor can be significantly reduced.
Depending on the method and equipment used, you can grow really anything . With properly set up automation, you can create optimal growth conditions for any species of plants. However, this does not mean that every cultivation is profitable…and makes sense.
Different plant species have different growth times. They are divided into fast-growing plants, i.e. sprouts, microleaves, lettuces, herbs, or slow-growing plants, i.e. fruiting plants, shrubs, etc. Fruit and vegetable species that are heavier and take up more space will be less profitable to produce than leafy vegetables, which are ready to harvest very quickly.
When planning your own adventure in vertical farming, it is worth answering the questions: for which plants there is a potential local market throughout the year. Information about the chosen species and the planned yield from the crop (e.g., per week/month) will allow you to ESTIMATE the profitability of the venture and calculate the payback time.
If you are interested in the topic of growing in a controlled atmosphere or wondering how you can set up your own vertical farm – contact us. Our specialists will advise you and offer a comprehensive solution tailored to your needs.