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Grow Up with Hydroponic Vertical Farming

Petr Magera

Hydroponic vertical farming is changing the lay of the land for farmers across America. This controlled environmental agriculture technique allows farmers to grow crops in vertically-stacked rows, which use 90 percent less water and 75 to 90 percent less land than traditional soil farming. The technique is becoming more and more popular as farmers realize the savings and the fact that it gives them total control over the growing cycle of the crop. With their small environmental footprint, hydroponic vertical farming systems are also proving to be more sustainable, with far less greenhouse gas emissions.

This type of farming is an excellent solution for the growing world food demand, supply chain issues, and water and land shortages.

Photo Courtesy Markus Spiske

Across the country, hydroponic vertical farming systems are showing up in creative spaces, including empty strip malls and abandoned grocery stores. Inside, farmers can turn an acre of space into 10 acres by growing “up” vertically. Since these farms are indoors, farmers are not limited by changing seasons and unpredictable weather. Instead, they can easily control water, light, nutrients, and temperature in the space, shortening the growing season down to as little as six weeks. These vertical farms also relieve pressure on the supply chain by delivering food just up the road instead of thousands of miles away.

“[With] controlled environmental agriculture, you can produce year-round because you artificially manage the ideal environmental conditions for plants,” explained Krishna Nemali, an Assistant Professor of Controlled Agriculture at Purdue University. “A grower can purchase an old warehouse, 10,000 square feet or a quarter of an acre. But then they can grow 10 or 11 levels vertically, and in doing so, that’s a quarter of acre times 10. So they are producing crops that would normally require two-and-a-half acres of land on this quarter of an acre simply by going vertically.”

Cincinnati-based 80 Acres is working on an easily-replicated model that ships produce no more than 100 miles from a vertical farm. Bowery Farming is advancing NASA techniques to optimize growing on Earth, and Green Sense is working with other growers to develop vertical farms. The company believes the technique is spurring a renewed interest in agriculture in younger generations.  

“It’s a great way to get young people re-involved in agriculture,” said former Green Sense Operations Director Piper Halpin. “It’s been a cool bridge between old agriculture and new agriculture. I think it’s going to jumpstart a whole new interest level in agriculture that was kind of dying off before.”

With the world’s population growing exponentially and more than 40 percent of produce going to waste every day, experts indicate agriculture will need to focus on waste reduction and scale up production by 70 percent to meet the demand by 2050. Though it is unlikely vertical will ever fully replace soil-based farming, the two working in tandem is good for business and the environment.

“We are not here to put field farms or greenhouses out of business,” Nemali continued. “I think as the population grows, we really have to look at what crops grow best outdoors and what crops grow best indoors and just rethink agriculture based on water and soil conservation. When we approach it that way, everyone feels comfortable with vertical farming.”

Photo Courtesy Markus Spiske

There’s hope that vertical farming could help feed the world across the industry. Tristan Fischer, CEO of Fischer Farms in the United Kingdom, believes it holds the key.

“I always look at the present through a lens of where we’ve come from historically and where we’re going scientifically to give the best view of where we could end up,” he said. “If I do that and look at what’s going on in the energy and food sectors, I can see that if we don’t make these kinds of decisions with things like vertical farming, there is a real-world of pain ahead of us. I want to help make the world a happier place rather than ending up in a dystopian future of hunger, poverty, climate refugees, and war.”

The good news is that major grocery chains such as The Kroger Co., Publix, Albertsons Cos. and Whole Foods are beginning to buy locally from vertical farms. Other grocers are seeing an increased customer demand for produce raised in a sustainable way.“There is now a trend – not a fad – of consumers who appreciate the benefit of getting produce soon after it’s harvested,” says David Rosenberg, CEO of vertical-farming leader AeroFarms, “More and more customers are realizing that they want [sustainable, healthy] products.”

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