Reaching the Vertical Limits
The Vertical Farm by Dr Dickson Despommier was a game changer. Published in 2011, this book made the bold suggestion that vertical farming would overtake traditional farming methods to help feed the growing worldwide population.
Dickson postulates that by 2050, additional cropland the size of Brazil will be needed to feed the world’s population, particularly as demand from developing countries increases. The question is: where do you find the space to build these crops? Vertical farming is one innovative solution. Put simply, vertical farming is the cultivation of plant (or more controversially, animal) life within a skyscraper-sized greenhouse. It’s like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but a 21st century version.
Since 2011, much progress has been made in the field of vertical farming. In suburban Chicago, local business FarmedHere recently became the world’s largest farm of its kind with 27,500sqm of space under its roof. The company is run by CEO Jolanta Hardej, who has grown the facility from 371.6sqm, to 929sqm and now to its current size. So I guess the answer to the question above is: space will be found indoors.
Dickson knew it. And according to the doctor, Australia provides the perfect environment to build these farms.
“You take a high-tech greenhouse – and I know Australia has a lot of those – and stack them on top of each other with each floor growing something different,” Dickson says.
There are other countries involved as well.
“In Japan there are about 50 of these buildings.
“There’s another commercial one going up in Sweden that’s 14 stories tall, but it’s not finished yet, so I can’t actually tell you how viable it is,” says Dickson.
The other question that begs asking is: how do you grow crops with little natural light and conservative use of water?
Hardej’s farm integrates aquaponics into the agricultural flow, using tanks of tilapia fish to clean water and provide fertiliser for the soilless aeroponic crops. Aquaponics is a sustainable food production system that combines conventional aquaculture, in a symbiotic environment. In aquaculture, effluents accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity for the fish. This water is led to a hydroponic system where the by-products from the aquaculture are broken down by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, then filtered out by the plants as nutrients, after which the cleaned water is recirculated back to the animals.
Hardej expects that FarmedHere will eventually pump out one million pounds a year of organic greens while providing hundreds of local jobs.
Closer to home, Vertical Farm Systems is a Queensland business with a versatile range of multi-growing systems for year-round commercial production of leafy green crops and herbs in any geographical location or climate with minimal inputs of water, labour or land area.
Using organic nutrients and live-microbe bioponic farming techniques, Vertical Farm Systems technology is designed to meet many of the challenges faced by traditional farmers including climate change and reduced water availability.
Ashley Thomson is the Managing Director of Vertical Farm Systems. He says the business was created in response to a worldwide trend in degradation of land and ability to feed populations. It is a new company, but has big expectations.
“We’ve been going for about five years, but we’ve really just hit commercialisation stage,” Ashley says.
During those five years the team has been working on technology, patents and prototypes. And it hasn’t been easy.
“All vertical farming is a hard game. Success has a lot to do with your internal energy use; if electricity use is high you will struggle to be commercially viable, if the input costs are low you are more commercially viable.”
The aim is to fit somewhere between a company solving water and food scarcity issues as well as providing commercial solutions, including warehouse farming and relocatable farming.
They use bioponic systems rather than hydroponics which Ashley says is more nutrient balanced. Through use of lighting and climate management systems; crops can be ready within 21 days.
“We can conduct our own light mixes and regulate the times for specific crops and nutrients and we can manage ideal temperatures.”
Through the system, one commercial machine can produce approximately six tonnes of crop per year.
There is plumbing involved, but as the industry is new it’s not something that plumbers need to be rushing out to learn. However there is the usual mix of poly, pumps and gauges and as the industry grows, there will be more opportunity. In fact, Vertical Farm Systems has a patented flood and drain system.
There are several ways in which the vertical farms work: we have touched on aquaponics and bioponics, but there are also hydroponics and aeroponics.
Hydroponics involves growing plants in water with mineral nutrient solutions – without soil, while aeroponics consists of growing plants without soil or water. Plants are grown in an environment where a mist contains the nutrients required to sustain plant growth.
In essence vertical farms will allow us to:
– Grow food 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
– Protect crops from unpredictable and harmful weather
– Re-use water collected from the indoor environment
– Provide jobs for residents
– Eliminate use of pesticides, fertilisers, or herbicides
– Drastically reduce dependence on fossil fuels
– Black and grey water could be converted into energy and potable water.
The vertical farm movement is growing. Recently at the University of Maryland campus in Hyattsville, Maryland, a conference was held by the National Science Foundation entitled ‘Challenges in Vertical Farming’. All disciplines were discussed including LED grow lighting, robotics, aeroponics and hydroponics, rooftop greenhouse crop production and agricultural economics.
The theme of the conference was to identify issues that needed to be addressed before commercially viable vertical farms could be contemplated.
Dickson wrote recently in his blog, “As the conference progressed, it became obvious that many of the perceived impracticalities of vertical farming were already being addressed, and remarkably some had even been resolved. Everyone who spoke identified numerous technological solutions to bottleneck issues such as efficiency of LED grow lights. Current LEDs are commercially available at only 28% efficiency, but they need to be around 50-60% efficient when considering the economics of operating an indoor farm. One participant offered that he had attended a conference the week before on LED lighting and a physicist attending that same meeting announced that the theoretical efficiency for LED lights is an astounding 100%! We learned also that at least one large internationally recognised leader in LED lighting technology had already invented an LED system that was 50% efficient, but the company was not yet willing to make it commercially available. If true, this would greatly alter the perception on the part of some skeptics of vertical farming that it’s the excessively expensive energy needed by any indoor farm that is standing in the way of commercial development.”
The advantages are unquestionable; re-use of grey water, waste plants and water material; allowing further farming practices to be incorporated.
We have moved out of the design stage and this move has come quickly. It is time for all in the water management industry to include vertical farms in serious discussions about sustainability practices.
Vertical Farm Systems