Vertical Farming is the agricultural practice of utilizing vertically stacked layers to grow crops. Unlike traditional farming, vertical farming does not rely on soil or natural sunlight. As a result, it allows for flexibility in farming landscapes, lighting, and growing medium. Vertical farming is mainly utilized in underground structures, buildings, or shipping containers. As the world’s population increases and the demand for food reaches new heights, vertical farming aims to offer a more sustainable, efficient, and fruitful alternative to traditional farming.
Vertical farming centers around controlled-environment agriculture (CEA), the modification of the natural environment to extend the growing season or increase crop yields. CEA systems succeed by controlling environmental temperature, light source and intensity, air quality, and sources of plant nutrition. All vertical farms utilize one of three soilless farming techniques: hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics.
Hydroponics is the most predominantly used growing system and involves submerging the roots of plants in a liquid, nutrient-rich solution. Plant roots are additionally supported by a soil alternative such as sand or sawdust. This process significantly reduces the amount of water required for crop production.
Aquaponics expands on the system of hydroponics by combining the ecosystems of plants and fish. Fish are kept in a pond, or similar water-filled structure, and produce nutrient-rich liquid waste that is then used to submerge plant roots. The plants purify the liquid waste, which is then recycled back into the pond.
Alternatively, aeroponics is rarely implemented and involves growing plants in an air/mist environment with no soil and minimal water. Of the three techniques, aeroponics conserves the most water and produces healthier crops by increasing the plants’ mineral and vitamin intake.
Vertical farming promotes water conservation and year-round crop production. Additionally, vertical farming systems operate independent of external weather conditions and require less space than traditional farming systems. However, vertical farms generally have greater upfront construction costs and use more energy than traditional farms. Furthermore, vertical farms are limited in the variety of crops they can produce and have difficulty acquiring organic certification.
The modern concept of vertical farming was founded in 1999 by Dickson Despommier, a professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University. Despommier asked students to calculate how much food they could grow on New York rooftops. Unsatisfied with the results of the exercise, Despommier and his students designed a 30-story, indoor vertical farm that utilized artificial lighting, hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. While Despommier never created this building, his exercise popularized the idea of vertical farms. Throughout the 20th century, numerous companies have implemented vertical farming techniques for sustainable food production. Vertical farming offers a solution to the crisis created by the world’s growing population and diminishing land and water supply.
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Vertical Farming | ATTRA | Sustainable Agriculture Program