Our population, and in particular our urban population, is growing at an alarming rate. According to United Nations statistics, the global populace will increase by 2.2 billion by 2050, by which point 68% will be living in urban areas.
This prompts questions about the sustainability of our food supplies. Enter vertical farming.
Sustainable urban development is the key to success, and as newer and more sophisticated technologies emerge, vertical farming is under the spotlight as a promising way to produce large quantities of food economically.
Join us as we discuss vertical farming, pros and cons, and best practices to maximize your yield.
What is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming, also known as vertical gardening, is the practice of indoor farming where plants and crops are grown on an inclined surface or in vertical stacks and layers. This uses much less space than conventional farming methods that utilize single-level horizontal surfaces like fields and growhouse benches.
Vertical farming benefits urban areas, as growing platforms can be integrated into existing structures like warehouses, shipping containers, and skyscrapers. Vertical farmers leverage Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology to maximize yields by controlling variables that remain unpredictable in outdoor farming, such as:
- Exposure to gases
Various soils can be tested, and CEA methods also include aeroponic, aquaponic, and hydroponic techniques. In layman’s terms, vertical farming is the new generation of greenhouse farming, with the added benefit of maximizing crop output using only a limited space.
The Pros and Cons of Vertical Farming
Vertical farming pros and cons encompass a wide range of issues, including efficiency, environmental impacts, operational costs, technology, and human factors. Here’s a comprehensive list of the benefits of vertical farming, followed by an overview of some of the most common problems.
Advantages of Vertical Farming
While the main vertical farming advantages are based on increased crop output over a smaller cultivation area, there are several other aspects to consider within the model as a whole.
Better Use of Land
Vertical farming allows land to be used much more efficiently because layers of different growth systems can be planted on top of one another. In fact, for vine crops like tomatoes and greens, indoor vertical farming can achieve ten times the yield of conventional farming methods. Also, by decreasing the surface area needed to grow food outdoors, the territories of natural plant and animal life can be preserved and expanded, meaning populations can recover and endangered species face a reduced threat of extinction.
Predictable and Stable Yields
When the variables needed to optimize output can be controlled, farmers can grow and harvest throughout the year rather than cede to seasonal trends and variances. This means crop production is more consistent and can be planned in advance to meet the needs of the demand chain. Potential food shortages can be averted, farmers can enter into contracts with suppliers without fear of defaulting on agreed volumes, and their income stream remains consistent.
One of the major vertical farming advantages is the ability to protect plants. With conventional outdoor farming, there is a significant risk of crop damage or loss due to:
- Adverse weather like droughts, floods and storms
- Invasive plant species
- Animal foraging
- Pests like insects, caterpillars, and worms
Without these unpredictable variables, vertical indoor farming guarantees maximum crop protection and a healthy harvest.
Because lighting, temperature, and humidity levels can be modified, vertical farming makes it possible to emulate a range of different climates. This increases the variety of plants that can be grown, giving farmers the flexibility to meet demand for novelty and out-of-season produce. Also, because there are no pests to combat, no chemical pesticides are required, making it easier and more viable to meet the ever-increasing demand for organic food supplies.
The primary environmental benefits of vertical farming include:
Water Conservation– Columbia University Earth Institute research indicates that vertical farming uses 70-95% less water than conventional farming methods.
Reduced carbon emissions – By producing more fruit and vegetables domestically, the need to import from overseas is negated.
Energy generation – It’s possible that methane produced by composting plant remains could be used to generate energy.
The more scientific the processes become, the easier it is for farmers to maximize their profits. Optimal growth strategies lead to a bigger harvest, meaning more produce to sell and a larger income. Plus, because vertically farmed plants are organic and healthier than their counterparts, it’s possible farmers can leverage this to charge higher prices per unit.
Disadvantages of Vertical Farming
The advantages of vertical farming are undeniable. However, there are a few drawbacks to consider too. To help you gain a clear overall view, here’s a short list of the most common problems with vertical farming.
Because both the original setup and ongoing monitoring are complex, finding properly qualified staff is one of the most significant vertical farming disadvantages. The technology is relatively new, and there are a limited number of experts. In addition, the mechanisms needed to constantly cycle, remove, and replace plants in the stacking system tend to come with a high price tag. Ongoing maintenance can also be expensive, as energy bills are likely to be high, and the devices that control humidity, temperature, and light levels are typically costly to service and repair.
Vertical farming technology is still very much in development. So while early investment could see you reap benefits, the technology could become outdated fairly quickly as later-stage competitors come up with more advanced solutions. Also, there is still work to be done on crop processing infrastructure to handle large-scale harvests effectively on a local level. At the moment, many vertical farmers transport their crops several miles offsite to be processed and packaged. You’ll also need to check your state legislation and regulations. Some regions prohibit the development of vertical farming systems without proof of adequate qualifications, and some require permission from state officials.
Indoor farming necessitates the need for manual pollination because the growing environment is devoid of bees and insects. This could potentially lead to lower crop yields if not done correctly. Another factor influencing plant health includes the breakdown or malfunction of the technology that sustains optimum growth conditions. There’s also an argument that when plants are cultivated in an artificial environment, they may lack some of the nutrients found in plants that are grown outdoors.
Vertical Farming: Best Practices to Maximize Your Yield
Vertical farming pros and cons aside, development must progress. As the population level rises and food prices increase, conventional farming methods will be unable to keep up. So vertical farming solutions will be required by necessity.
Today’s vertical farmers are already under pressure to supply an ever-increasing variety of produce to the volume, quality, and nutritional standards expected by buyers. Navigating the cons of agriculture development to meet demand is not easy to do. To improve efficiency, these are the key elements to focus on.
Be prepared, and always expect the unexpected! Settle on a facility design and growing techniques that are as scalable and flexible as possible. In today’s consumer-driven climate, it’s not unrealistic that a buyer may suddenly increase their order volume, request a new line of produce, or change the specifications for aesthetic appeal, nutritional value, or weight, etc. There is no perfect formula, but by combining the right hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponics approaches, you can plan ahead for expansion into a more diverse product portfolio without the expense of renovations and refits.
In a vertical farm, there is no direct sunlight, so a well-designed lighting system is crucial. Light intensity can directly affect the shelf life, taste, and smell of your plants. So the more species you grow, the more you’ll need to adapt your strategy. Plants respond to varying optimum light settings throughout different stages of their growth, and the best lighting configurations allow proximity to the maximum number of plants during each phase. To manage lighting – and your lighting bill – efficiently, you’ll also need to maximize micromoles per watt to reduce energy waste.
Air Flow and CO2
Air flow is a primary factor in consistency, yield, and profitability. Best practices include having only one main access point to the warehouse and maintaining a maximum temperature difference of two degrees Fahrenheit between the top and bottom racks in your shelving system. Monitoring CO2 is an essential factor in photosynthesis. Advanced handheld devices are good investments that allow farmers to measure CO2 levels in the air and by rack, plant, and even individual leaf.
The Scynce LED Difference
Developing a thorough understanding of vertical farming pros and cons is paramount to operational success. At Scynce LED, we are committed to helping indoor farmers gain more control, and are passionate about making the future of vertical farming more efficient and productive. This is why our lights allow farmers to instantaneously adapt the light spectrum of their facility to achieve their goals. In fact, our innovative greenhouse lights help our customers to achieve better yields and savings on power.
Scynce LED’s mission is to empower growers to advance the potential of lights as a key influence and tool of the trade for vertical farming. Using our adaptive spectrum technology can unlock the hidden potential of all types of plants. Contact us today to learn more about the next generation of horticulture LED lights and adapt to the future of farming.