Vast vertical farms growing much, much more with less

SUBSCRIBE to our fortnightly e-newsletter to receive more stories like this. AeroFarms' futuristic new vertical-farming facility in Newark, New Jersey, is the world's largest.

If we’re to feed WHO’s forecast 9.7+ billion people by 2050, an estimated 70 percent of whom will live in urban areas, ‘producing more with less’ will be critical.

With urban populations continuing to grow, putting ever-increasing pressure on essential resources – land, water, energy and food– agribusiness innovators are looking beyond traditional farming systems.

One food-production system that ticks many of the boxes is vertical farming, an emerging horticultural trend that’s gaining strength as demand for fresh, sustainable local produce grows and city-fringe farmland dwindles; input costs (for water, chemicals, energy, fuel and labour) rise; and the likelihood of crop-damaging ‘extreme weather events’ (storms, hail, damaging winds, heatwaves and drought) increases.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen large-scale commercial vertical farming operations spring up in Japan, Singapore, the US, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, with interest also coming from wealthier Middle Eastern nations, Hong Kong and mainland China.

This informative VPRO documentary, first aired in April 2017, is a terrific introduction to the vertical farming concept and why it’s gaining traction around the world.

What are vertical farms?

Vertical farms are indoor growing operations that make effective use of limited space and resources, producing undercover crops in stacked layers under Rtart light.

Typically, vertical farming facilities are highly controlled environments in which inputs including air, temperature, light, water, humidity, nutrients and more – can be managed and measured precisely. In most such facilities, some or all these functions are automated.

Vertical farms are best suited to producing fast-growing short-stemmed crops such as leafy greens and herbs – but there’s potential to grow an array of other fruit and veg this way, and at least one commercial vertical farm has successfully combined hydroponically grown leafy greens with a fish-farming operation.

What are the benefits?

As crops are grown indoors, they’re protected from insect, bird and animal pests, weeds and airborne diseases – and from the elements, meaning tighter biosecurity, zero need for costly pesticides and herbicides, and far less likelihood of weather-related crop losses or damage, though human error, power failure and fire remain risks. 

And as vertical farms don’t require large tracts of arable land, they can be sited close to the populous urban centres in which the food they grow is consumed, saving on fuel and transportation costs, racking up far fewer ‘food miles’ and ensuring faster delivery and fresher produce.

Fresh leafy greens grown in AeroFarms' vast indoor facility in Newark can get from farm to fork in 48 hours,
Fresh leafy greens grown in AeroFarms' vast indoor facility in Newark can get from farm to fork in 48 hours,

What’s the downside?

Though this new wave of high-tech vertical farms saves on fertiliser, pesticide and water, soil improvement, land and transportation costs, the initial capital outlay is high and, depending on the energy source used, operating costs are, too.

Linking vertical farming operations to renewable energy sources such as solar PV and battery banks would reduce running costs significantly. Even so, however, the high capex makes vertical farming a not-so-viable option for poorer nations and communities.

Because crops are grown in stacked layers, certain crops are better suited vertical-farming facilities. The longer-term challenge will be adapting protected-cropping systems, including vertical farms, to enable the production of commercial quantities of staple food crops such as grains, oilseeds and pulses.

In the video below, Dickson Despommier, Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Public Health at Columbia University and viewed by many as the ‘father of urban vertical farming’ after conceiving the ‘urban farm skyscraper’, discusses the pros and possible cons of vertical farming.

Vertical farming around the world

Over the past decade, pioneering food-production firms across the globe have invested in high-tech vertical farms, banking on additional productivity to offset the high initial outlay.

The first commercial vertical farm launched in 2012, in space-hungry Singapore.

Japan established a high-tech indoor lettuce farm in a repurposed semiconductor factory following the meltdown of the nation’s Fukushima reactor in 2011, which resulted in long-term contamination of large tracts of farmland.

SPREAD Co, Inc, an indoor horticultural company with vertical farms scattered across the countryside near Kyoto, will soon boast the world’s first farm run almost entirely by robots. SPREAD is replacing human workers at its commercial vegetable-growing facilities with robots capable of harvesting 30,000 heads of lettuce a day, saving the company a cool 50 percent on labour costs. The farms’ high energy needs have been partially offset by the installation of new LED lighting with substantially reduced electricity consumption.

In the UK, Growing Underground recently converted a WWII-era bomb shelter in Clapham, London, into a vertical hydroponics facility producing pristine salad leaves and micro-herbs for local consumption. In this short video, British journalist Greg Foot visits the Growing Underground facility.

In the small town of Waregem in Belgium, former business-school student Maarten Vandecruys runs the test farm at Urban Crop Solutions, one of Europe’s largest indoor vertical farming labs. The lab grows eight layers of crops hydroponically under LED lights in a 30-square-metre room, producing up to 220 mature lettuce plants a day with no pesticides.

Urban Crop Solutions’ ‘Plant Factory’ system can be stacked as high as 25 layers. The company has also developed a shipping-container version, the Farm Pro: a 10-metre-long, fully automated freight container with a four-layer growing system for leafy greens inside. On vertical farming, “I see it as the next step,” says Vandecruys. “We went from open fields to greenhouse to indoor, and this will definitely not be applied for all crops, but it will be for more and more crops as technology increases.”

Meanwhile, in the US, at least half a dozen commercial vertical farms have been established since 2012, deploying an array of tightly controlled growing technologies to allow for year-round harvests of crops that would otherwise have short growing seasons, and more efficient water use, and greater productivity.

At California’s Ouroboros Farm, for example, the waste produced by fish raised on organic feed is used to nourish seedlings and plants that floating above the facility’s fish-ponds on raft-like beds.

In July 2017, San Francisco-based start-up Plenty secured US$200 million in investment from tech giants including Japan’s Softbank (parent company of Google, Alphabet and Amazon) to develop innovative vertical farming facilities on the sides of tall towers, using vertical lighting arrays to give plants maximum exposure.

The company claims its system will enable it to grow up to 350 times more produce than conventional farms in the same amount of space, while using less water. According to the BBC, Plenty’s indoor vertical farms will be up to five acres in size, and will be constructed close to big cities to minimise food miles and delivery times.

AeroFarms opens the world’s largest vertical farm

In the world’s largest urban vertical-farming operation in Newark, New Jersey, completed in late 2016, crops are grown without soil or sunlight, using zero pesticides, no fertiliser and 95 percent less water than an equivalent outdoor irrigated horticultural operation would require.

Inside a vast futuristic facility housed in a repurposed steel mill, AeroFarms is growing around 20 varieties of leafy green vegetables – from various lettuces to kale, rocket (arugula) and spinach – in shallow trays stacked 30 layers high, illuminated by high-tech LEDs, surrounded by automated equipment and tended to by white-gloved ‘lab-coated’ workers.

Rather than being rooted in soil, AeroFarms’ salad greens are grown in a reusable microfleece medium made from recycled plastic bottles. Beneath the microfleece, a specially-designed ‘root-misting’ system delivers precise amounts of water and nutrients directly to plants’ bare roots via a patented aeroponic process that uses just five percent of the water an irrigated outdoor horticultural operation would require.

In the absence of sunlight, plants are illuminated 24-7 by limited-spectrum LEDs that ensure healthy plant growth but consume less energy than conventional indoor-plant lighting systems.

Breaking it down: a diagram of AeroFarms' patented aeroponic growing system.
Breaking it down: a diagram of AeroFarms' patented aeroponic growing system.

AeroFarms claims that the yield of its 70,000-square-foot Newark facility is around 130 times that of a conventional farm occupying the same area (thanks only partly to the 30-fold planting space afforded by the vertical operation’s multiple layers).

The company’s latest facility, one of nine, is expected to grow around two million pounds – 907,185 kilograms – of leafy greens annually, most of it for sale locally, meaning fewer emissions from fuel used for transportation, faster delivery and fresher produce.

Some have raised doubts about the project’s profitability, especially in the short term, given its high capital outlay and substantial ongoing energy needs. Despite this, AeroFarm has attracted a healthy influx of private and public funding thanks to its local, eco-friendly and climate-change-proof credentials.

The pioneering enterprise, still in its early phase, promises to provide around 100 ongoing jobs and super-fresh, locally grown produce for around 25,000 people, helping to revive a struggling urban community.

Moreover, it is producing substantially more with less – and doing so with minimal environmental harm and, arguably, less risk than conventional horticultural operations.

The company plans to build similar facilities close to urban centres around the world.

Take a virtual walk through AeroFarms’ Newark facility.

More information

For further information on vertical farming, visit the Association for Vertical Farming’s website

The AVF, an international non-profit organisation of individuals, companies, research institutions and universities keen on “leading and advancing the sustainable growth and development of the vertical farming movement”.

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