What is Vertical Farming?

As the world’s population is expected to reach 7 billion at the end of October, there is less and less room for this crowd of people, especially in the ‘developed world’. The value of space is increasing, and residential areas may take away precious agricultural land. A solution for this may be ‘vertical farming’.

Vertical farming means to grow plants and crops in tall buildings on various levels – like skyscrapers. It is a sustainable, closed ecosystem, and is most likely to be located in the middle of a city.

In these systems plants are grown hydroponically, thus roots are not in soil but in a nutrient-rich solution, while plants are suspended in a medium, like gravel, wool or perlite.

Existing trials and designs

One of the most well-known vertical farms is in Chicago, called The Plant.  The building accommodates sustainable food businesses (a beer brewery, a fermented tea brewery and a company rearing worms, amongst others), which run on each others’ waste; besides a shared kitchen, and an aquaponic growth system, which circulates nitrates between the fish and the plants. It is off-the-grid thanks to the combined heat and power system and an anaerobic digester running on food waste.

Columbia University’s Dr Dickson Despommier is one of the main advocates on the feasibility of vertical farming and even wrote a book covering his concept. According to Dr Despommier vertical farms are the future and benefits include the possibility of recycling grey and black water, the energy provided by methane, while there is no need for pesticides and plants are protected against weather events. It is also advantageous from a business perspective for cities as it not only creates new jobs but sustainable places and saves precious space.

Another vertical farm plan has been created by Chris Jacobs, an architect, whose design was the first to be published in a magazine. It is called the Circular Farm, and is planned to feature different crops and different animals on each storey.

Vertical Farm by Chris Jacobs

The company Valcent has launched its first similar farm in Devon, featuring the VertiCrop growth system, with suspended trays and a conveyor system. It uses less water than normal production but provides higher yield.

Challenges

The main challenge currently raised about vertical farms is how the sunlight may penetrate these tall buildings or how it would be evenly distributed, while artificial lights can cost a lot. It is not clear either how various large farm animals may fit into these systems. Also, vertical farms would need to keep a close eye on nutrients and temperature so crops will do well, which could be rather expensive.

Written for the Energy Saving Warehouse

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