Vertical farming on the rise: a glimpse into the future of agriculture

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Vertical farming appears to be a promising long-term solution for an ever-shrinking world, but the price tag is still too high to catch on just yet.

Vertical farming—the practice of stacking plant beds to maximize growth potential in confined spaces—is beginning to gain traction in today’s competitive agricultural industry.

Similar to a greenhouse, this method uses a controlled environment to facilitate a variety of precise growing conditions, but unlike the former, vertical farming isn’t dependent on fickle natural resources—like sunlight.

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The current state of vertical farming

Skeptics of vertical farming have raised criticism about its costly energy demand, in particular, whether it can become a viable replacement for traditional farming methods.

Advocates of vertical farming, however, believe that pursuing this approach on a broad scale will push existing technologies to evolve along with it—especially in areas where fertile real-estate is limited.

On the consumer level, the self-contained vertical farming system has the potential to usher in some new and exciting benefits:

Year-around produce

Vertical farming’s unique ability to grow crops without natural light allow climate-specific plants to grow in otherwise incompatible regions. As vertical farms become increasingly popular, consumers will have access to their favorites seasonal produce anywhere, any time of the year.

Chemical-free

Because vertical farming is an isolated system, a farmer’s livelihood is not at the mercy of the elements or possible infestations. The sterile environment alleviates the need for excessive use of pesticides to protect valuable crops.

Greener footprint

Vertical farming also provides eco-friendly solutions by offering consumers the opportunity to buy more locally grown produce, therefore drastically reducing fossil fuel usage in transportation operations.

Vertical farms in the past

The term ‘vertical farming’ was coined in 1915 by a geologist named Gilbert Ellis Bailey, but its unique methods were known to be used by indigenous tribes in South Africa and East Asia. Vertically layered crops have been experimented with in farmhouses around the world ever since, though with less attention until recently.

The first modern vertical farm was opened inside the densely populated city of Singapore in 2012. Conceptualized and built by Sky Greens with the purpose of alleviating Singapore’s dependence on imported food, it consists of over one hundred 30-foot aluminum towers and can produce over 1,000 pounds of vegetables per day. Each tower consists of 22 to 26 mechanically rotating layers of crops, ensuring equal exposure to light, water, and air.

Their project proved to be successful; according to Sky Green’s chairman, Dr. Ngiam Tong Tau, “…productivity [was] increased by up to 10 times, which means we only need one hectare of land to produce the same quantity of vegetables on 10 hectares of land for Singapore.”

The technology behind vertical farms

Vertical farming is achieved through a combination of IoT sensor integration, data collection/analysis processes, and advanced robotics. This intricate system requires precise calibration to maintain optimal light levels and air temperatures, as well as allocate water, minerals, and other crucial nutrients to maximize plant growth.

Artificial lighting

One of the most significant hurdles of vertical farming is effectively utilizing artificial light sources. Manipulating the light spectrum to influence varying species of plant growth isn’t an easy task; the energy required to power even a moderately-sized farm can often result in daunting expenses.

To address this costly issue, many operations are transitioning to LED lighting since they provide a higher efficiency output and consume roughly 60 percent less power than fluorescent light bulbs.

Data collection and IoT equipment

A creeping shift to “big data” is occurring in a number of different industries, and the agricultural community is no exception.

Smart sensors can gather data from a designated environment and relay vital information to a remote computer, enabling farmers to track notable changes from the comfort of their home. IoT technology also allows feedback to be gathered directly from specialized equipment, which can provide crucial insight into soil quality, crop yields, air moisture, pesticide levels, and harvest windows.

As director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT, Caleb Harper, expressed, “We’ve never had the ability to gather or process so much data cheaply. Now, with advancements in robotics, sensors technology, and data processing, we can start to get at some basic science that we haven’t been able to do before.”

Robotics

IoT devices already rely heavily on robotics and data that are monitored by artificial intelligence, but the attempts at further distancing human elements from vertical farming are nonetheless remarkable.

SPREAD, a Japanese agriculture technology company, is working on an initiative called Techno Farm that predominantly consists of robots and drones. The Techno Farm will use conveyor-belt style machines that autonomously maintain plants, plant seeds, and harvest crops. Drones are being used to reduce the number of human operators required to monitor production as well.

Ultimately, the goal of SPREAD is to cut labor costs by 50 percent, as well as reduce human-generated energy costs. The company justifies this approach with a practical look to the future, stating “It will only become increasingly difficult for agriculture to steadily secure food by only using production methods dependent on soil conditions and climate.”

A long road (still) ahead…

Our population continues to grow at an explosive rate, and as a result, farmable space is becoming more and more limited. Henry Aykroyd, chief executive of Intelligent Growth Solutions, addressed the fear of future food shortages by steering public focus to vertical farming, reaffirming that finding a year-round solution is critical.

However, with start-up investments for vertical farms reaching upwards of $200 million, like the San Francisco based setup headed by Plenty, there remains hesitance for a complete industry shift. After all, with Greenhouse construction costing roughly $25 thousand per commercial structure, that same $200 million could fund hundreds of fully-operational greenhouses.

Traditional farming practices may be more affordable in the short-term, but it fails to address the larger picture. On the other hand, vertical farms are burdened by daunting price tags, but arguably, they provide a solution that is both eco-friendly and more sustainable down the road.

The rise of vertical farming

At the very least, the trend of vertical farming is raising eyebrows and bringing about some exciting possibilities.

While the technology behind it is still relatively young, many determined companies are now seriously exploring the possibilities of vertical farming. Like with any advancing technology, initial costs are high, but as key production aspects are standardized, they will likely decrease over time.

Whether vertical farming becomes the industry standard or not, we’re bound to see plenty more interesting interpretations of how to make it a viable solution.

Do you believe that vertical farming is the future of agriculture? Will it entirely replace traditional farming methods, or is it merely a passing craze?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.