If your vision of a farm is acres of bucolic fields spread across miles of land, turn your eyes skyward to find the farmland of the future. Vertical farming in skyscraper-high greenhouses is becoming the future of agriculture.
The idea of vertical gardening dates back to the early 1900s but the modern vision is as recent as 1999 when a course at Columbia looked into whether all of Manhattan could be fed by rooftop gardens. When they calculated that only a tiny fraction would be fed that way, they looked into vertical indoor gardening instead.
Some compare the idea of vertical gardens to a sealed spacecraft, and in many ways they’re envisioned at the same high-tech level. Much of the technology is already used in hydroponics and aeroponics. The gardens need many sensors, maybe even one for every plant, to monitor water and nutrient levels. There might be air monitors to check for pathogens. Other technology could determine the exact right moment to pick the plant based on a flavor profile.
Vertical gardens offer several benefits. Because they are climate-controlled, they are not at the mercy of the weather and can produce crops year-round. They are also protected from crop-destroying insects– vertical farmers don’t have nightmares of swarms of locusts. This also means that fewer insecticides or pesticides are needed; vertical gardening naturally lends itself to organic gardening.
There are other environmental benefits. Vertical gardens would be located near the consumer, reducing if not eliminating the cost of transporting produce to the chef, though the farms’ significant energy costs might offset this. (The major energy cost is supplemental lighting, as vertically grown plants receive less sunlight than traditionally grown plants). Vertical farms reuse their water, rather than sending runoff into streams. With farming done on a small urban footprint, less farmland is needed– rather than cutting down forests to create farmland, farmland could be allowed to revert to its natural state. Or recovered land could become home to the world’s growing population.
Vertical gardening is still being developed as a concept, but real-world examples of its practicality exist on more than one continent.
In Japan, Nuvege grows lettuce in a windowless structure, relying on LED lighting in colors tuned to chlorophyll.
A more ambitious product is underway on Singapore, where 5 million people squeeze onto a densely populated island that imports almost all its food. In 2012, a farm just outside the central business district began producing 1 ton of vegetables every other day. The company, SkyGreens, didn’t build skyscrapers; its vertical farms are only three stories tall. The energy powering each agricultural frame is roughly that of a 60-watt light bulb, and the yield is 5-10 times higher than traditional farming techniques in Singapore. However, while the produce proved popular with consumers for its freshness, it costs 10% more than imported greens. The actual cost may be even higher, as the farm receives government support.
Green Spirit Farms in Michigan sells vertically-grown greens and fruits to groceries and restaurants, with a small market selling directly to consumers. They’ve been so successful that they’re expanding to an additional location in Pennsylvania.
At Chicago O’Hare’s Airport, a vertical garden between two of the terminals gives airport restaurants aeroponically-grown greens with almost no transportation needed. Travelers can visit the garden, which has posters explaining the benefits of the project.
Maybe those travelers will take inspiration with them to their destination and start a sustainable vertical gardening project in another location.