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Natasha Post, Author
Vertical farming is a novel farming method that has grown in popularity over recent years. Its concept has been attributed to Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University, who, along with his students, created a skyscraper farm design that could potentially feed 50,000 people. There are multiple proposed benefits to vertical farms, including increased crop yield per acreage, ability to grow concurrent crops of numerous varieties, reduction of plants lost due to extreme weather, lower water requirements, and less disruption to the local environment. Vertical farming requires delicate transport for the farm machinery.
Types of Vertical Farming Structures
When it comes to the placement of vertical farms, most vertical farms repurpose building-based structures. Unused plants and warehouses have been reused as vertical farming locations in multiple cases, including at The Plant in Chicago, IL, and the global headquarters of AeroFarms in Newark, NJ.
Ex-shipping containers fitted with LED lighting and monitoring systems have become increasingly popular because they serve as standardized chambers capable of growing a variety of plants using vertically stacked hydroponics. Additionally, by stacking shipping containers, vertical farmers can easily increase the crop yield per square foot and save more space. Multiple organizations produce ex-shipping container vertical farm set-ups, including Freight Farms, CropBox, Growtainer, and Local Roots.
Disused tunnels and abandoned mineshafts are also considered viable options for vertical farms, and this practice is also referred to as deep farming. This can make oversize load transport tricky, but the professionals get it done right. Underground temperature and humidity are generally consistent, and temperate, reducing the heating requirements. These vertical farming locations can also use nearby groundwater, eliminating the need to install a local water source. Coupled with robotic harvesting equipment, deep farms can be completely self-sufficient, making them one of the most attractive options, especially as their yield can be up to nine times more than above-ground plots of the same size.
According to the U.S. Forestry Service, there are approximately 38,991 abandoned mine sites in America, making vertical farming a potentially useful method of repurposing this unused land. An idea that some organizations, such as Reclaim Appalachia in Virginia, are working on making a reality.
Some companies, such as Vertical Harvest in Jackson, utilize new structures to house vertical farms in easily accessible urban locations, reducing the length of the supply chain to the inner city.
Most Common Vertical Farming Techniques
Multiple techniques may be employed to guarantee high crop yield in vertical farming.
Hydroponics is the technique used to grow plants without any soil. In these systems, plant roots are submerged in liquid solutions filled with macronutrients, including essential components such as nitrogen, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and trace elements. Additionally, gravel, sand, or sawdust may be used to support root systems in the absence of soil. Compared to conventional farming methods, hydroponics farming involves reduced water usage and offers an increased yield per area, making them the most popular growing method used in vertical farms.
Aquaponics is a hybrid vertical farming method that combines fish farming and hydroponics to grow crops in the absence of soil. It integrates terrestrial plant production with that of aquatic organisms, such as catfish, in a closed-loop system that most closely mimics nature. The nutrient-rich water from fish tanks is filtered out using a solid removal unit that feeds wastewater through a biofilter which converts the toxic ammonia to nitrate. The plants absorb these nutrients, purifying the waste, and then it gets recycled back to the fish tank.
Unlike previous farming methods, aeroponics does not require any liquid or solid medium to grow plants in. Instead, water filled with nutrients is misted in air chambers that hold suspended plants. It’s the most sustainable form of soil-less growing that uses 90-percent less water than hydroponic systems and requires fewer components.
Vertical Farming Equipment
When it comes to vertical farming in a controlled environment, there are often numerous components used to extend crop seasons or increase yield. Controls are typically imposed to provide the right temperature, water level, humidity, light, nutrition, and more. Vertical farming equipment often used include:
- Mobile racking systems
- NFT systems
- Multi-level ebb and flow benches
- Full spectrum LED lighting panels
- Automated produce pickers
- Automated fodder systems
- Control rooms