Also known as indoor farming, vertical farming has in recent years gained recognition as a solid method of sustainability. The system was born out of the challenges affecting the 21st century, specifically issues like food shortage, resource depletion, and overpopulation.
Feeding the future: vertical farming
Vertical farming is the practice of food production that takes the form of vertically stacked layers and vertically inclined surfaces. The method is executed inside a controlled environment building, usually without soil or natural light.
The method of growing the crops in a vertical farm involves the following elements.
• Temperature control
• Humidity control
• Artificial lighting
• Control and monitoring of nutrients and fertiliser
When undertaking vertical agriculture as a small to medium business, planning is essential. You need to ensure that you can sell what you grow, and that your production costs are not too high. The first step to ensuring this, therefore, is picking the right crops.
The aspiring vertical farmer needs to conduct a feasibility study and come up with a profitable and sustainable plan. This is because each species you plan to grow will have a growing method tailored to its needs. Determining the daily nutrient and light uptake each crop requires is crucial.
The indoor farm represents significant benefits to the consumer as it increases food accessibility. Because farms can be located anywhere, more people can start growing their own crops. Production then moves closer to the consumer, and farms are able to produce consistent value and volume year-wide. Currently, building-based and shipping container vertical farms are the most common.
How does indoor farming work?
There are several key factors that determine the viability of a vertical farm.
1. Physical layout
The objective of indoor farming is to maximise volume. This is achieved by maximising the output efficiency per square meter, which is where the vertical tower structure comes from.
Optimising light for crop growth in vertical agriculture usually involves a mixture of grow lights and natural light. Specialised technologies like rotating beds increase the efficiency of the light sources and can fulfil different crop requirements.
3. Growing medium
There are three different models for the indoor agriculture system.
In hydroponics, crops grow in the nutrient-rich water basin and water is recirculated, creating better efficiency and lower water consumption. Scalable in size and cost, hydroponic farming is highly adaptable to its farmers’ production goals and needs. It includes methods like Drip Irrigation, Deep Water Culture, Ebb and Flow, Nutrient Film Technique, and the Wick System.
Aeroponic farming involves frequently spraying crops with a nutrient-based mist, using a periodic timer (no soil, sunlight, or water). Aeroponics delivers nutrients directly to the plant roots to conserve water and reduce intensive labour. Scalability is another massive benefit with this method, and crops are easily harvested without soil.
A closed-loop food production system, aquaponics is the practice of cultivating both fish and plants. The fish provide nutrients and beneficial bacteria to the plants, which in turn filter the water for the fish. Aquaponic farming creates a highly productive and balanced ecosystem with many benefits, including its water-conservative approach.
4. Sustainability features
Many built-in sustainable features like rainwater tanks, wind turbines, and multipurpose spaces can offset energy costs in a vertical farm. Indoor farming uses less water than conventional farming practices and is not season-dependent for seed growth, which maximises revenue year-round.
What can you grow in your vertical farm?
With the right hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic farm set-up, you can grow almost anything. Just because you can do so, however, doesn’t mean you should. Consider the following aspects when choosing the best crops for your vertical farm.
1. Economic viability
Especially if you’re growing for profit, study the economics of the species you have shortlisted for your indoor farm.
What is the demand for this crop within your area or within the market you choose to serve? You may decide that your project will provide for your family as well as for your local community.
B. Growing technique
Though vertical farming methods mean lower overheads on average, the size and particular system you use dictates your short and long-term production costs. You’ll want to keep these figures as minimal as possible.
Different systems have climate requirements (heating, cooling, and lighting) that may necessitate another sectioned-off space. Consider if you have the room and operations budget for your chosen system design.
As a grower, striking a balance between these elements ensures maximum yield and value out of your indoor farm.
2. Timing and liability
All good things take time—patience is a necessary element of indoor agriculture. This truth is embodied in what is called in farming as a ‘turn.’ A turn is the total amount of time it takes to introduce a seed or seedling into the farm system, grow it, and harvest it as a mature plant, for sale at the market or serving on your plate.
There are two types of crops you can choose to grow: fast turn crops and slow turn crops. Dependent on your growing reason, needs, and requirements, you can pick either one or both for your vertical farm.
Fast turn crops include lettuce, cabbage, chard, collard greens, mustard greens, parsley, cilantro, mint, chives, basil, and various microgreens. They usually take up to six weeks to produce.
Slow turn crops are typically harder to grow, but have a higher revenue margin compared to leafy greens. This includes ‘woody’ herbs like oregano and rosemary, and fruiting crops like strawberry and tomato. A good guide to follow for a beginner grower is to plant 80 percent greens, and 20 percent herbs.
Vertical agriculture: from farm to fork, all under one roof
Vertical farming can be as small or as large in scale—it all depends on the farmer’s goals and requirements! A vertical farm can benefit both your home and business, providing your community with reliable access to fresh produce.
While the traditional block of land enabled families to grow their own food, block sizes have gotten increasingly smaller throughout the decades.
Luckily, indoor farming lets us grow crops with a fraction of the space, sun, soil, and water conventional farming uses. What’s more, vertical farms are protected from the harsh weather brought about by climate change. The result? Robust and resilient crops turning up whenever needed, grown in soil and water-conservative, stable crop systems.
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