Up, Up, & Away: Vertical Farms, The Pros & Cons

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Living green walls overflowing with leafy lettuces, tender cilantro, rainbow chard, hardy parsley, feathery dill, and microgreens. Sustainable food, year-round. Consistent supplies for stores and restaurants. A tool to decentralize our food system. While versions of vertical farms existed before, it wasn’t until 2015 when a drop in price in LED lights made this type of agriculture practical. The vertical farming market now is expected to expand from $3.1 billion in 2021 to $9.7 billion by 2026 with a compound annual growth rate of 25.0% during the forecast period.

However, as with any growth industry, there are also obstacles to viable, large scale vertical farms.

When I was on a Royal Caribbean cruise last autumn, I toured the ship’s vertical gardens with its lead horticulturalist. I learned that the plants are stacked in vertical rows reaching up to 3 stories high. A hidden irrigation system assures proper watering, and access to plants exists behind the containers outside of guests’ view. The effect is an oasis of green that soothes the stark surrounding vista of the towering cruise ship. Thousands of plants, flower gardens, and green thumbs go into making Allure of the Seas’ expansive Central Park come to life.

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This is one approach. However, there are no common metrics or industry standards to vertical growth design, especially when the goal is more specifically to provide food production from indoor sources.

We find ourselves at a moment in time when consumer access to food abundance is inhibited by supply chain disruptions. Vertical farming offers an alternative to traditional farming, as it reduces the amount of land required for agricultural production. To many, it is a very promising method of agricultural production. With the ability to precisely control both environmental and cultural factors to produce crops consistently at any time of the year, vertical farms have great potential.

Additionally, the demand for nutritive and organic vegetables has increased significantly in the last few years due to the growing health consciousness among consumers, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com. They say that the high yield over conventional farming signals an increasing marketplace interest associated with vertical farming, as do advancements in light-emitting diode (LED) technology and year-round crop production — irrespective of weather conditions.

Vertical Farms: 3 Examples

Vertical farms can take disparate approaches to agricultural production.

FreightFarms uses a container farm approach, which they say is much more cost-effective than other options. Growing inside widely available shipping containers allows farms to exist in areas that couldn’t support traditional agriculture. “Not only is it smaller and lower in cost, but produce can really be packed inside of a vertical farm, making the most of every square inch of space,” the company states on its website. “Our container farms can host up to 13,000 plants at one time!”

Founded in 2010 by a team of scientists and engineers who were looking into ways to drive sustainability forward in an urban context, Kalera describes itself as the “global leader in vertical community farms.” It now has working vertical farms in Orlando, Atlanta, and Houston, with additional vertical farms under construction in Denver, Seattle, Columbus, Honolulu, St. Paul, and abroad. As long as the building being used as a vertical farm meets height criteria and avoids high utility costs, “there’s no limit where I can put a farm,” Austin Martin, Kalera’s chief operating officer, told the New York Times. The factory for leafy greens and micro greens production is comparable to a semiconductor factory: it requires a controlled environment to predictably manufacture on an automated basis its products. The company describes its advantages:

  • higher nutrient value — rich flavor and 50% or more increase in proteins, vitamins, and minerals
  • no washing needed — clean and free from added harmful chemicals, stays fresh longer
  • zero pesticides — greens are 100% free of pesticides and bio-pesticides
  • locally grown — raised in the communities served, harvested on demand at peak freshness

Puerto Rico-based startup Fusion Farms develops advanced, sustainable methods of producing seafood and produce, in a closed-loop indoor vertical farm, creating a natural nutrient solution delivered through water. Its system provides fresh, healthy, nutrient-rich produce all year long, with daily harvests. The company manages modern, sustainable, and hurricane-protected indoor aquaponics farming solutions for any community facing environmental, climate, and economic challenges.

It has been argued that vertical farms promote sustainable agricultural practices more than conventional farming. The latter tends toward large scale, outdoor agriculture that engages in heavy irrigation, intensive tillage, and excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. But is vertical agriculture really that much better than traditional farming? Indoor farms rely on the artificial light of tens of thousands of LED lights. Add to that the energy needed for climate control, water circulation, and other operations, and a vertical farm can consume massive amounts of energy.

The Pros of Vertical Gardens

More and more agricultural production is looking to go indoors where the climate can be controlled and the crops can grow without the need for soil. Hydroponics makes vertical farms possible, so that plants can be raised with water and nutrient solutions.

Cutting edge technology: High-tech advances in greenhouse technologies such as robotics, hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics have provided a promising future to the vertical farm concept.

Sustainable agriculture: Vertical farms reduce water consumption for food production and recycling. Many vertical farms have now turned to renewable energy sources to mitigate GHG emissions from fossil fuels. As the price of renewable energy continues to fall, proponents of vertical farming say it can become a more accessible, greener way to put food on the table.

Adapts agriculture to climate change: Vertical farms can assist in the battle to combat abnormalities consistent with climate change. As urban density increases, vertical farms can become a way to reduce food transportation emissions. Crop productivity can increase with vertical farms due to protection from weather related variations. They help to maintain ecosystem balance.

Feeds more people than ever: As arable land is diminishing rapidly across the globe, vertical gardens hold great promise for food security. Lettuce, for example, is extensively cultivated in vertical farming. It is quick and easy to grow, has a steady demand throughout the year, and is available in several varieties, allowing farmers to switch products without changing to a whole new crop.

Convenience across the supply chain: Local production brings leafy greens closer to the retailer and the consumer.

Expands produce selection: Vertical farms produce year-round crop production so that short summers aren’t an issue any longer. Vertical farms can offer boutique plant selections, organic guarantees, and consistent pricing.

Organic assurances: Individuals who are concerned about chemical fertilizers and toxic poisons welcome vertical farms that offer assurances about health protections.

Green jobs: Vertical farms create jobs in agriculture in areas that never before offered them.

Educate the masses: A vertical garden can be a fine environmental education tool, enhancing knowledge about proper crop management and respecting the environment.

The Cons of Vertical Farming

Significant energy consumption, high overall startup costs: The biggest obstacle is the high operation cost due to use of energy. As iFarm outlines, every vertical farm needs LED lamps to illuminate the farm and create optimal growing conditions. Air conditioning systems circulate and cool the air. An osmotic system purifies water. A dispensation system prepares a nutrient-rich solution for plants, and pumps deliver fertilizers to plants. Air humidifiers are required during the first few months of operation. Air dryers are used on larger farms where mature plants process more water. Controllers and automation systems maintain a stable microclimate, control mixing solutions, and facilitate plant growth with minimal human input. Lamps are used to illuminate the farm and to navigate workspaces. A computer and modem are used to manage the farm remotely. Webcams allow plants to be monitored and to detect growth deviations or diseases using computer vision technology. All of these consume energy and require significant startup costs.

Needs a specific location: The basic requirements for vertical farm warehouses include access to major highways and a one-day drive to major population centers. It is a location-specific endeavor.

Built structure: The need to acquire an appropriate amount of land and building space may be prohibitive.

Questions about diversification: Some people doubt that the vertical farming industry can scale and diversify, given the limitations of current technology. Tomatoes take 60% more electricity to grow than lettuce, and strawberries take twice that amount.

Specialized workers: Vertical farming requires an educated work force who understand automation and plant science.

Controversy driven by industrial agriculture industry: Resentment from the traditional farming sector slows acceptance of vertical farming.

Organic certification difficulties: With the desire to provide organic produce comes need for adherence to USDA organic certification, if doing business in the US.

Final Thoughts

Vertical farms aim to minimize water use and maximize productivity by growing crops hydroponically. But the increased productivity of indoor vertical farming comes at the cost of higher energy usage due to the need for artificial lighting and climate control systems. There is little question that vertical farms will play a big role in urban farming and agriculture in the future. Renewable energy access will be imperative for vertical farms to thrive.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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