We’ve all seen farms before. They usually span acres of land, with some spanning as far as our eyes can see. That was when farmers had lots of space to work with, though. Let’s face it, we no longer see as many farms nor know as many farmers today.
In fact, from 4.88 billion hectares of land dedicated to agriculture in 2000, that figure has dropped to 4.74 billion hectares in 2020, according to OurWorldInData.org. But while those numbers may not seem too big a cause for concern, we must consider that the global population has grown from 6.15 billion in 2000 to 7.98 billion in 2020 based on Worldometer data.
It’s a good thing then that vertical farming systems entered the picture, right? But what exactly are vertical farming systems, and how do they work?
What Are Vertical Farming Systems?
Vertical farming systems are innovative agricultural practices where crops are grown vertically stacked layers or racks, often within controlled environments, such as indoor facilities, greenhouses, or even repurposed buildings. Its aim? To maximize space, resources, and technologies to produce high-quality crops more efficiently and sustainably.
What Are the Key Features of Vertical Farming Systems?
Vertical farming systems are typically characterized by:
- Vertical growth: Unlike traditional farming, where crops are grown in large fields, it utilizes vertical space. Crops are grown in stacked layers, shelves, or racks, efficiently using available space and potentially increasing crop yield per unit area.
- Controlled environment: Vertical farms are typically grown indoors or within controlled environments like greenhouses, allowing growers to have precise control over factors like temperature, humidity, light intensity, and nutrient levels. This control helps optimize plant growth and can lead to consistent and predictable yields.
- Artificial lighting: Due to limited natural sunlight in indoor environments, vertical farms often rely on artificial lighting systems like light-emitting diode (LED) lights that provide specific light wavelengths optimized for plant growth. These lights can be adjusted based on crop type, growth stage, and other environmental factors.
- Hydroponics or aeroponics: Vertical farming often employs soilless growing techniques like hydroponics (plants are grown in nutrient-rich water) or aeroponics (plants are grown in a misty, nutrient-rich environment). These techniques enhance water and nutrient efficiency, reduce the need for pesticides, and accelerate growth rates.
- Reduced water usage: Vertical farming systems can be designed to use significantly less water compared to traditional farming. Closed-loop hydroponic systems recirculate water, minimizing wastage. In addition, water can be targeted directly to plants’ root zones, reducing evaporation.
- Year-round production: Vertical farming allows year-round crop production regardless of external weather conditions, meeting the demand for fresh produce even during off-seasons.
- Local production: Vertical farms can be established in urban areas or near population centers, reducing the need for long-distance produce transportation. That can lead to fresher products and decreased carbon emissions associated with food transportation.
- Reduced land use: By growing crops vertically, the need for large expanses of farmland gets reduced, potentially mitigating deforestation and habitat destruction.
- Energy efficiency: While vertical farming systems require energy for lighting, ventilation, and climate control, using efficient LED lighting and advanced environmental management systems can help optimize energy consumption.
- Crop diversity: Vertical farming is not limited to specific crop types and can be adapted to grow various plants, from leafy greens and herbs to fruits and vegetables.
How Do Vertical Farming Systems Work?
Vertical farming systems create controlled environments where crops are grown vertically in stacked layers or shelves. These systems aim to optimize factors like light, temperature, humidity, nutrient levels, and water distribution to promote efficient and high-yield crop growth.
Here are the things you need to make vertical farming systems work.
- Structural setup: You can set up vertical farms in repurposed buildings, shipping containers, or purpose-built structures like greenhouses. Design the interior to accommodate multiple levels of growing platforms or shelves.
- Growing medium: Use soilless growing techniques like hydroponics or aeroponics to maximize water and nutrient efficiency.
- Artificial lighting: Position LED lights strategically above the growing shelves to provide the optimal light spectrum for photosynthesis. You can adjust the light intensity, duration, and spectrum based on crop type and growth stage.
- Climate control: Utilize advanced climate control systems to regulate temperature and humidity levels to ensure plants have optimal conditions for growth. The controlled environment minimizes the impact of external weather conditions, allowing for year-round production.
- Nutrient management: Deliver the nutrients the plants need through water or mist systems. Carefully monitor nutrient levels and adjust them to meet the crops’ specific needs at different growth stages.
- Water management: Employ closed-loop water circulation systems to minimize wastage.
- Automation and monitoring: Automated using sensors and monitoring systems. They can measure environmental parameters like temperature, humidity, pH, and nutrient levels. They can also control lighting, irrigation, and nutrient delivery, ensuring optimal conditions for plant growth.
- Crop selection: Crop selection often depends on your vertical farm’s design, available resources, and market demand.
- Data analysis: Use the data collected by sensors and monitoring systems to analyze plant health, growth rates, and resource usage. This data-driven approach helps fine-tune your cultivation practices for better yields and resource efficiency.
- Harvesting: Once your crops mature, harvest them from the shelves. Harvesting methods differ by crop type.
What Benefits Do Vertical Farming Systems Provide?
Vertical farming systems offer a wide range of benefits, making them an attractive and innovative approach to agriculture. These benefits include:
- Maximized space utilization: Vertical farming enables the efficient use of vertical space, enabling more crop growth despite a smaller footprint than traditional horizontal farming methods. That is especially valuable in urban areas where land is limited and expensive.
- Year-round production: Controlled indoor environments in vertical farms provide consistent and stable conditions for plant growth. That allows year-round cultivation regardless of external weather conditions, leading to a continuous and reliable supply of fresh produce.
- Reduced water usage: Vertical farming systems, particularly hydroponic and aeroponic setups, use water more efficiently than conventional soil-based farming. They recycle and recirculate water, minimizing waste and reducing overall water consumption.
- Less pesticide use: The controlled environments in vertical farms reduce the risk of pests and diseases, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Integrated pest management techniques can be employed to address any issue that arises.
- Shorter transportation distances: Vertical farms can be located closer to urban centers, reducing the distance food needs to travel from farms to consumers. That decreases transportation-related emissions and supports local food production.
- Energy efficiency: While vertical farms require energy for artificial lighting and climate control, advances in LED technology and energy-efficient systems can make them relatively energy-efficient compared to traditional farming methods.
- Customized growing conditions: Vertical farms can tailor environmental conditions, including light intensity, spectrum, temperature, and humidity, to specific crop requirements, optimizing growth and crop quality.
- Reduced land degradation: Vertical farming helps preserve natural ecosystems by reducing the need for extensive land conversion and the associated deforestation or habitat destruction often seen in conventional agriculture.
- Crop diversity: Vertical farming is versatile and can accommodate a wide variety of crops, from leafy greens and herbs to small fruits and even root vegetables, allowing for diversification of agricultural production.
- Food security: By enabling local production and reducing dependence on long supply chains, vertical farming contributes to increased food security and resilience to external disruptions.
- Educational and research opportunities: Vertical farming systems provide a platform for research and education in agriculture, sustainability, and technology, fostering innovation and knowledge exchange.
- Reduced chemical runoff: Since vertical farming typically uses closed-loop water systems, it minimizes nutrient runoff and contamination of surrounding ecosystems, which can occur with traditional farming practices.
- Arable land conservation: Vertical farming can help protect arable land from urban development, preserving valuable agricultural resources.
Despite the potential advantages vertical farming systems offer, they also face challenges like initial setup costs, energy consumption, and technical expertise. As technologies advance and economies of scale are realized, vertical farming has the potential to play a significant role in sustainable agriculture and food production.