Greg Epp

Building Better Manufacturers

Introduction to vertical farming

Vertical farming and the rise of the machines

The ancient Chinese experimented with vertical farming through what is known as terrace agriculture. Flat steps could be cut into mountain sides to produce workable fields, and farming was able to leave the valley floor. This was significant in mountainous locations in which flat, farmable land was not available. This also aided in irrigation, as water flowing from the upper terraces could flow down to the next. Not vertical farming in today’s sense of the word, but the same principle, that of maximizing the available space, is applied.

The essential elements of farming are water, good soil, sunlight, and land. Without these, many nations are forced to import some or all of their food. This has produced a major problem: the reliance on fossil fuels and other resources to transport goods globally is contributing to climate change and high food prices.   

To solve such a problem, companies are trying to take existing spaces currently unsuitable for food production and make them viable for agriculture. Affinor Growers is one example of a company developing a mechanical means of supporting soil in the vertical dimension, reducing the issue of land constraints. All modern vertical farming systems use some kind of mechanical means to support, house, light, or irrigate crops.

Outdoor vs indoor farming    

Tomato plants

Some companies exclusively work indoors, targeting urban environments where either no farming is currently taking place or outdoor environmental conditions are not favorable for food production. The complex problem of replicating the outdoor environment indoors means the modern vertical farmer needs to control all aspects of the operation, leaving very little up to Mother Nature. However, letting Mother Nature do some of the work is still preferable from a financial perspective. Green houses are a very expensive operation, and controlling temperature, humidity levels, ventilation, etc. is a challenging undertaking.

Island nations close to the equator can provide ideal climates for growing, as consistent sunlight and optimal temperatures offer an extraordinary environment for certain plants. However, the potable soil formed in rich floodplains, which is ideal for plant growth, does not exist in many of these places. Aruba, for example, is a wonderful climate for growing, except for the fact that the island is composed of limestone rock.  With only 10 x 30 km of land in the entire island, physical space is at a premium.

Vertical farming offers a dramatic increase in yield per square foot.  Depending on the type of crop, it could be as much as 20 times better. With proper implementation of the technology, these island nations could start farming their own food. This leads to local job creation, as well as reduced import costs and dependency on other nations. Food liberation, if you will.

What are the obstacles? 

We have not seen widespread adoption of vertical farming yet. But the first company that can truly make vertical farming an affordable alternative to importing food will be well on it’s way to securing first-mover advantage in this new sector.

One of the major obstacles of indoor vertical farming is the cost associated with lighting and heating. The sun produces a vast amount of energy that plants use to grow through photosynthesis; duplicating this indoors comes at a high cost. However, as LED technology is constantly improving, we could see an ultra-efficient light hit the market soon, which would greatly reduce the energy costs of indoor vertical farming.

Supporting large masses of soil and plants offers its own mechanical challenges. Affinor Growers, for example, has designed an innovative tree that can support the weight, and additionally provides rotation to ensure even lighting of the plants. Some companies have moved away from soil altogether and have gone to hydroponic growing, which replaces traditional soil with a nutrient-rich water stream, thus reducing the structural load-capacity requirements of the system. However, there are many disadvantages to this system of growing, such as plant disease and organic certification, which we will touch on in later articles.

For now, vertical farming is still a growing industry with many obstacles to overcome.  But as the need for fresh, locally grown food increases around the world, and the ever-present threat of climate change makes itself felt, vertical farming could provide an answer.

Written by Greg Epp   

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