By Doug Graves
Major vendors in the U.S. vertical farming market are quickly sprouting, if you will, to help alleviate this problem by bringing their vertical farming facilities and technical know-how to urban areas that are in dire need of fresh produce. Vertical farming is the growing method whereby plants are grown vertically at great heights under a controlled environment.
“The country is running out of land where it is economical to produce crops, so we aim to bring this capacity around the world with the fraction of resources to do so,” said Matt Barnard, CEO and co-founder of Plenty, a vertical farming company out of San Francisco, Calif. “We’re growing crops not only indoors where they’re protected from unpredictable weather changes, but vertically, so they take up a fraction of the space of traditional farming.”
The modern concept of vertical farming was proposed in 1999 by Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University. In the 20 years since, vertical farming is flourishing quickly.
The four major players in this developing industry are Plenty, AeroFarm (Newark, N.J.), Green Spirit Farms (New Buffalo, Mich.) and Bowery Farming (New York, N.Y.).
“Our goal is to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to communities around the world,” said Barnard, who was raised on a cherry and apple farm in Wisconsin. “When people walk into a Plenty farm what they’ll be doing is walking into a farm that’s the size of two soccer fields. That small farm can produce as much as a thousand acres of food per field capacity. Walk into any of our vertical farms and you’ll see walls of plants growing sideways. We call them a ‘cathedral’ for happy plants, 20 feet tall and taller.”
For as far as the eye can see one will see dense walls of plants, all growing upwards in each of Plenty’s facilities.
“Each of these farms offer up the smell of fresh and clean growing food that’s cleaner, fresher and healthier, all without the use of pesticides. It’s all far more efficient than how it’s being done outside,” Barnard said.
According to the USDA, the vertical farming sector is growing rapidly in the United States, at a compound annual growth rate of more than 24 percent between 2018-2024, when it is expected to reach $3 billion annually. By comparison, the total U.S. fruit and vegetable industry is currently worth more than $104 billion.
Other prominent vertical farm vendors emerging across the county include Acre In A Box, Altius Farms, Crop One Holdings, American Hydroponics, Dream Harvest Farming Company, Edenworks, Farm One, Freight Farms, Green Girl Produce, Green Living Technologies International, Green TechAgro, LA Urban Farms, Living Greens Farm, Moonflower Farms, Plant Chicago, Square Roots, Urban Crop Solutions, Urban Organics and Oasis Biotech.
Crop One Holdings is located in San Mateo, Calif., and is also building a giant vertical farm in Dubai. Such farms are springing up all over the world, including Japan, the Netherlands and Antarctica. Plenty has farms in Washington and Wyoming, and plans to open farms all over the world thanks to receiving $226 million in funding.
“One of the great things about vertical farms is you can place them where the people are,” Barnard said. “The problem we have today is the thousands of miles and weeks that perishable foods spend in trucks and warehouses on the way to the consumer. We are working to put our farms into communities around the globe.”
Vertical farms are not to be confused with modern-day greenhouses, or even aquaponics, aeroponics or hydroponics.
“There are actually some similarities but many differences in the other two growing environments,” said Marc Oshimo, co-founder of AeroFarms. “Vertical farming is the next generation and it has to do with a precise environment for the plant and giving it only what it needs. It’s different than hydroponics because we’re misting the root system rather than soaking them in water. This means 95 percent less water and no pesticides, and you’ll find the latter even in greenhouses.”
The main advantage of utilizing vertical farming technologies is the increased crop yield that comes with a smaller unit area of land requirement. The increased ability to cultivate a larger variety of crops at once because crops do not share the same plots of land while growing is another sought-after advantage. By being indoors under a controlled environment the plants are not subjected to weather disruptions, meaning less crop loss.
Vertical farming technologies face economic challenges with large start-up costs compared to traditional farms. Vertical farms also face large energy demands due to the use of supplementary light like LEDs. And if non-renewable energy is used to meet these energy demands, vertical farms could produce more pollution than traditional farms or greenhouses.
The heads of these companies all say that vertical farms can be a solution at a time when labor shortages, drought and climate change threaten outdoor agriculture as well as bring fresh produce to regions that lack arable land.
According to officials at Plenty, a new farm can grow one million plants at a time in a facility the size of a basketball court and process 200 plants per minute, thanks to strides in automation.
With vertical farming, plants get precisely the amount of water they need. LED lights provide light in the ideal spectrums and amounts for photosynthesis. Air inside these farms is filtered and kept at ideal temperature and humidity.
“We’re using 20th century technology to bring agriculture back to where it was a century ago,” Barnard said, “when perishable fruits and vegetables were always local and always fresh. With vertical farming we’re growing fresh produce all the time.”