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Agriculture is going vertical. Why? Because it saves water, increases efficiency and provides us with fresh, local produce.
Vertical farming is the practice of producing food on upright surfaces. Instead of farming in a field, vertical farming grows plants stacked in layers, in structures like shipping containers or warehouses.
If this seems like an insignificant shift, unlikely to produce much effect, consider this: by 2050 the world's population is expected to grow by another 2 billion people.
Feeding everyone will be challenging. Vertical farming could be a solution.
What is vertical farming?
Assembled layer by layer under candy-colored lights, vertical farming has become an increasingly popular way for food producers to reduce costs related to space and energy consumption while increasing growth rates and nutrient values.
Of the many companies that are testing out this innovative farming method, Urban Crops uses a conveyor-like system to hold baby plants under LED ultraviolet lights. Their system is automated and relies on technology to program lighting and growing conditions specific to each species. And because they don't heat up, the bulbs can be placed closer to the leaves to encourage optimal light absorption.
In addition to not having to maintain an entire plot of land, Urban Crops boasts that vertical farming yields more crops per square meter than traditional farming or greenhouses. It also grows plants faster and can be used year-round. In theory, vertical farming can be practiced anywhere, which means that water-restricted locations can still harvest produce. Vertical farming uses up to 95% less water than traditional methods.
“Basically… every day is a summer's day without a cloud in the sky."
While vertical farming could be the future of large-scale agriculture, companies like Urban Crops are also hoping that non-farming folk like yourself will be interested in investing in DIY versions. Because, while it makes sense to grow salad greens and edible flowers, trying to grow other foods like wheat for bread isn't yet an option: “At 10 cents a kilowatt hour, the amount of energy it would take to produce wheat would [translate to] something like $11 for a loaf of bread," states, Vandecruys. Nonetheless, vertical farming could mean big changes to the way you think about “local" produce.
Vertical farming helps reduce the amount of questions for the consumer including its provenance, growing conditions and harvest date.
Around the world, data-driven technologies are being used to keep indoor farming afloat. Detailed, real-time data collected via artificial intelligence, location services and IoT technology is used to analyze and produce better feeding models and optimal configurations, i.e. the concentration and scheduling of light and ratio of nutrients. Most recent is IoT company n.thing's Planty Cube, launched at this year's CES 2020.
Leo Kim, n.thing's CEO, came up with the idea for Planty Cube after creating an IoT-enabled smart pot called “Planty Square."
Planty Cube is a smart hydroponic vertical farm that relies on data from farming logs, which are fed back into a database called the “Cube Cloud" and analyzed with AI to help farmers determine optimal growing conditions. As the user adds more Planty Cubes to the vertical farm, this real time, cloud-based system makes it easier for the grower to manage the overall farm, even remotely.
But even prior to sowing seeds, technology can help vertical farmers and consumers alike.
Automation, tracking and AI technology also opens up the potential to locate farms in urban, industrial and even domestic spaces which can produce crops all year round.
This has the possibility to truly change the way cities source food. Most urban supermarkets are supplied from distributors around the world. Local indoor farms could decrease reliance on imports and reduce carbon emissions from transportation.
In the future, I hope to see supermarkets filled with vertical farms of their own.
The vertical farming industry is booming. However, there are realities to consider before growing on a professional scale:
What are you growing and for whom?
Before you invest, do some market research. Get a sense of who your customers will be and your price point. Basically, if you can't sell it, you shouldn't grow it.
What is your distribution plan?
How will you physically get your produce to your customers? Find out who your end customers are and keep your farm as close to them as possible. Being local is an integral component to your success but this may present further challenges such as high cost of land, poor soil quality, and resource restrictions.
Will your building meet your needs?
Remember, indoor farming requires substantial amounts of power: lighting, pumps, HVAC, automation equipment, fans, computers etc. Not all buildings are equipped with the type of electricity you require. And if you're serious about getting into the vertical farming industry, you need to plan for future expansions.
Fortunately, vertical farming is being supported by more than just salad-starved individuals like me; location services and tracking technology are helping farmers retain high yields and prepare for the future.