Vertical Farming: Enter the Urban Farmer

22 January 2017

Farming techniques have been around for thousands of years and are as vital to our daily lives as ever, from providing food to supplying industries with much-needed resources including cotton, hemp and lumber. But with the global population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs), new ways of farming need to be found to cater for the masses. Fortunately, a couple of forward-thinking farmers have already done exactly that - by looking up.

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Vertical farming is an agricultural technique using hydroponics* and aeroponics* to grow crops throughout the year. Usually situated in large buildings, these crops are stacked on top of each other to create an agricultural skyscraper.

*Hydroponics: the collective term for all plant-growing methods that don’t use soil and require a nutrient rich liquid to feed the plants. The plants can be grown in anything from simple containers to sand to just hanging in the air.

**Aeroponics: this entails the use of specialised UV lights and a misting system to grow plants. The plants also gain nutrients from the air around them, so their roots are usually exposed as they hang from a specially-built frame.

The Pros 

1.       You don’t need a multi-hectare farm

The great thing about vertical farming is that it takes up far less space. In fact, these farms are currently being run inside buildings in the middle of major cities. With irrigable land fast running out as urbanisation speeds up, being able to grow entire crops in the city could help stave off future food shortages.

2.       It’s good for the environment

Several abandoned buildings can be upgraded for farming purposes, saving large patches of natural landscape from being irrigated. Some of the most recent vertical farms situated in the United States are also recycling waste material from the cities’ inhabitants to create a unique topsoil high in nutrients. Water is also recycled in these farming buildings, ensuring very little is wasted. In the case of aeroponics, farmers use up to 95% less water than traditional farmers. Instead, the plants’ roots are simply given a light mist to keep the roots damp. 

3.       No more chemicals

Due to the plants not being exposed to insects and severe weather patterns, crops are completely free from pesticides, fungicides and insecticides.

4.       A stable food source

With floods, rain and drought no longer an issue, a healthy crop is almost guaranteed year-round, eliminating the possibility of shortages. Season-specific produce such as citrus, berries and avocados can also be grown throughout the year regardless of weather conditions.

5.       It’s quick

Aeroponic farming has enabled growers to harvest and propagate tomatoes within 10 days. Normal farming methods would take between 6 to 8 weeks to produce a full-grown plant.

6.       We can use it in space

Since the plants don’t require any sunlight or soil, you can grow any produce imaginable in space. Scientists have already started testing aeroponics on various seeds to determine the best way to grow produce in outer space.

7.       It’s cost effective

In the long-run vertical farms cost far less to maintain than a full-fledged traditional set-up.

8.       You get more nutrients

In some cases, vertical farmers add more nutrients to the water or mist being sprayed on the plants. The plants absorb these nutrients, making them more rich in vitamins and minerals than many mass produced products.

9.       It could lead to more jobs

Instead of the overall belief that vertical farming could lead to job losses, the opposite can be true. Since these plants need to be pollinated by hand in many cases, more workers may be needed.

The Cons 

1.       Initial outlay is not cheap

Besides having to purchase a sizeable building to farm in, the overall infrastructure and equipment needed is expensive.

2.       High electricity use

Due to the plants requiring specialised lights running at all hours of the day, electricity is an ongoing cost.

3.       It is not entirely environment friendly

Despite downscaling land, water and chemical usage, the overall environmental impact of actually constructing and powering a vertical farm can be high.

4.       Not all plants will grow

Despite being able to grow most plants via vertical farming, there are still a few edible plant species that have proven to be tricky to grow in these conditions. Most notably, grain variants have been especially difficult to produce under hydroponic circumstances. Vertical farmers are currently working on finding new technologies to make growing these plants possible.

5.       It can be labour intensive

For those looking to downscale on their staff numbers, vertical farming won’t be the go-to option for a few more years. For now, technology needed to propagate the plants is not yet available, so hard labour is still necessary.

6.       Specialised training

Vertical farming is truly a science. Employees will need to undergo specific training to grasp both the process and technologies.

Sources: University of Mississippi, NASA, United Nations