As the world’s population grows exponentially, our total supply of fruits and vegetables is falling 22% short of global nutritional needs. Traditional farming methods are having difficulties meeting this demand as it faces increasing problems such as water shortage, land scarcity, and an aging farming population with decreased interest from newer generations. In recent years, controlled environment agriculture has experienced a surge of popularity as it presents a compelling solution to all these problems and more. Indoor vertical farming can increase crop yields, overcome limited land area, and even reduce farming’s impact on the environment by cutting down distance traveled in the supply chain.
Currently, the United States imports 35% of produce and travels an average of 2,000 miles, taking roughly 2 weeks before hitting the grocery store shelves. Since indoor vertical farming is largely local, vegetables grown in these vertical farms are much more appealing and edible for a longer period of time. With an extensive list of benefits, indoor vertical farming has the potential to vastly improve the modern agricultural landscape.
(Source: New York Times)
What is Indoor Vertical Farming?
Indoor vertical farming can be defined as the practice of growing produce stacked one above another in a closed and controlled environment. By using growing shelves mounted vertically, it significantly reduces the amount of land space needed to grow plants compared to traditional farming methods. This type of growing is often associated with city and urban farming because of its ability to thrive in limited space. Vertical farms are unique in that some setups don’t require soil for plants to grow. Most are either hydroponic, where vegetables is grown in a nutrient-dense bowl of water, or aeroponic, where the plant roots are systematically sprayed with water and nutrients. In lieu of natural sunlight, artificial grow lights are used.
From sustainable urban growth to maximizing crop yield with reduced labor costs, the advantages of indoor vertical farming are apparent.
Reliable Harvests with Maximum Crop Yield
Recent technological advances in the agriculture space allow vertical farms to control every aspect of growing crops. Variables such as light, humidity, and water can all be precisely measured year round. Since crops are no longer reliant on weather patterns, temperatures, or daylight, this means produce can be reliably grown 24/7. As food production around the world will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed the world’s population, vertical farming’s ability to maximize crop yields will be crucial in the future.
Reduced Labor Costs
Labor has always been a pain point in agriculture -- it’s one of the most expensive aspects of farming and the industry is currently experiencing a labor shortage. A survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation found that 56% of farmers were unable to hire all the employees they needed at some point in the last 5 years. Vertical farming can significantly reduce labor needs, and therefore cost, by using robots to handle harvesting, planting, and logistics.
Optimized Energy Conservation
Vertical farms are built to optimize energy conservation by significantly reducing water and energy usage. Studies show that vertical farms use up to 70% less water than traditional farms, which is key in drought-prone zones.
By using cameras and sensors, the data collected can help vertical farmers optimize light, temperature, and humidity levels to find the perfect balance necessary in producing food. Experts in sensor technology regularly tweak the environment inside vertical farms to increase productivity and enhance the food’s taste.
Sustainable, Environmentally Friendly Growth
Indoor vertical farms take up significantly less land space than traditional methods, which makes it appealing in local urban farming centers. The structures can be easily built close to large city populations, cutting down the amount of time and travel it takes for produce to reach the consumer. With a reduced supply distribution chain, food gets to the consumer’s table faster and fresher while also reducing its carbon footprint on the planet.
No Pesticides or Herbicides
Since indoor vertical farms are completely sealed off from the outside environment, there are virtually no pests. As a result, there is virtually no need for pesticides or herbicides. Food grown is healthier, safer, and certified organic, making it even more appealing to consumers.
Vertical Farming Companies
It is obvious that vertical farming is a beneficial alternative to traditional farming.
The burgeoning industry is supported by leading venture capitalists, most famously seen in Softbank’s $200 million Series B investment in vertical farming startup Plenty. Plenty’s 52,000 square foot vertical farming facility paves the way for more vertical farming companies to bet on this industry.
This New Jersey based startup has developed an aeroponic growing system that can grow without soil or sun, in any location. Aerofarms has proven to use 95% less water, 390 times more land efficient, 30 crops per season, and even the produce flavor is better. Each plant is monitored on more than 130,000 data points that is reviewed and tested using predictive analytics to improve their growing systems. With remote monitoring and controls in place, they have minimized the typical risks associated with traditional agriculture.
Iron Ox is the first vertical farm to be run (almost) entirely by robots. The company has developed two robotic systems: one wheeled robot moves pallets of seeds around the warehouse and a robotic arm picks up individual plants and moves them from each pallet. Their hydroponic growing system uses 90% less water over traditional farming while growing 30 times the amount of crops per acre of land.
Babylon Micro-farms provides an on-demand indoor farming service to make sustainable indoor farming more accessible than ever before. Their farms grow fresh produce 2x faster using 90% less water than conventional agriculture, without the use of pesticides or harmful chemicals. Their business model drastically reduces the upfront costs and expertise associated with indoor agriculture, powered by a patented IoT platform that remotely operates the ecosystem of farms.
Smallhold provides retailers and restaurants with contained-environment vertical farm units that produce large amounts of mushrooms, herbs, and leafy greens with minimal labor. Their current product offering is with on-site mushroom production and can produce up to 120 lbs / week in the space of a bookcase. The mushrooms are certified organic and are competitive with conventional ways of growing.
Future of Vertical Farming
Vertical farming is a revolutionary and sustainable alternative to traditional agriculture. Although the AgTech technologies are new and still developing, it is a promising solution to many issues that plague the industry. New startups, backed by significant VC funding, are paving the way to deliver new solutions in efficiently delivering fresh and healthy food.
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY LINLY KU
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