Week 6 - What I Needed to Know About Vertical Gardening and Farming
Randomly throughout Facebook, I've seen posts and videos about entire warehouses that are being converted into gardens that grow up, not out.
Since then, I've always wanted to learn more about how they work and their effects on the agriculture industry, and now I finally have a reason to look into it.
So, in this week's post, I looked at 6 articles that range from small-scale vertical farming in your backyard to warehouse farms. I'll also look at how they work and what it means for the farming industry.
Table of Contents
Vertical gardens are a trendy and ancient way to both decorate and improve your surroundings. Where traditional gardens and farms take up lots of space on the x-axis, vertical gardens work on the y-axis.
Because of its advantage vertically, vertical gardens are better for places with smaller amounts of land to work, like cities, backyards, and inside your house. Having an indoor vertical garden has basic benefits, like improved air quality and increasing humidity in the dry winter months.
Green or "living walls" were brought into the mainstream spotlight by French botanist Patrick Blanc. His first work appeared on the walls of the Museum of Science and Industry in 1988. Since then, he has completed and begun projects all over the world.
The idea of creating a vertical garden is relatively straightforward. To get started, you'll need three basic materials, of which will change depending on the scale of your project:
Metal framing - the backbone of the structure
Some sort of rigid plastic - making the wall waterproof
Felt material - an artificial soil to distribute water and nutrients to the plants
These gardens still require the usual maintenance, since they are still plants. So, make sure to water and weed them when needed. These green walls can also pack on weight pretty quickly, so make sure your surrounding infrastructure can handle the added stress.
Vertical Plants (vines)
Since vertical gardens are built in the vertical space, vines are the preferred type of plant. You'll also need to make sure that these vines are lightweight so that you avoid any unnecessary stress on the vertical structure. This article suggests the following vines to use, separated into categories:
Annual Flowering - "black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata), cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida), cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit), moonflower (Ipomoea alba), scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus), and hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab)."
Perennial - "clematis hybrids, American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), and ivy (Hedera selections)."
Shade-heavy - "hardy kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta), chocolate vine (Akebia quinata), Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla), and climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)."
Edibles - "kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa), Siberian gooseberries (Actinidia arguta), edible flowers such as vining nasturtiums, and vegetables such as peas, squash, tomatoes, and pole beans."
Vertical garden structures take a variety of names, but the main purpose is always the same. The structure needs to provide support to plants, both ones in pots and those that wrap around supports and allow them access to the same (or better) nutrients needed by the horizontal counter-parts.
Common vertical structures used for vertical garden would be fences and trellises. And if you just hang a plant in a basket, then you are at least breaking out of the horizontal plane.
Vertical gardening has a variety of benefits associated with it, which is part of the reason why they have become increasingly popular in the past few years. These are 8 benefits of starting your own vertical garden.
1. More Space Up vs. Out
A common reason for having a vertical garden over a traditional one is because you might not have the physical real estate to grow a good traditional one. For those living in cities or apartments, you tend to not have much of a yard.
What do you have though, are walls and maybe some fence. Placing your garden on the fence or walls helps you maximize the space that you are already limited to.
2. Scrappy Materials
With vertical gardening, your imagination is the limit.
What I mean by the above extremely cliched saying is that you are no longer bound by the traditional rules of gardening. Yes, you could go with a trellis or fence to support your plants, you could also find some empty plastic bottles or old mason jars and hang those up as well. You could even create some sort of modular system that allows you to dynamically change the location of your plants, since you might want to change the amount of sunlight certain plants get.
3. Plant Variety
Even though you are moving away from the traditional garden setup, you aren't totally sacrificing the types of plants that you're allowed to grow. Though I would caution you against growing a watermelon or pumpkin six feet above the ground. In this article, like the first one, it breaks down the best vertical plants into four categories:
Foliage - Mondo grass, Common Ivy, and Boxwood
Flowers - Lily of the Nile/Valley, Lavender, Geranium, Clivia, Mandevilla, Hydrangeas
Succulents - Agave, Cassula, Hen and Chicks, Cacti
Edibles - Lettuce, Spinach, Onions, Garlic, and any herb
Each plant is going to need a different amount of sunlight, so make sure your setup can provide that. Again, investigate making some sort of modular system that lets you easily swap the locations of various plants.
4. Quick Setup and Deployment
Since you can setup each plant in a vertical garden in its own pod/module, you can build out your entire garden in sprints, instead of doing it all at once. What I mean by this is that with a vertical garden, each plant is in its own ecosystem, and doesn't have to worry about the wellbeing of its neighbors.
Plus, each of these ecosystems could be built out of anything, if it's a somewhat durable container. This includes empty two-liter soda bottles, milk jugs, mason jars, mugs, etc. You just need to put some soil and fertilizer in the container, put in the plant and attach it to the wall. Then maintain it like you would normally do, with the knowledge that these plants might need to be watered more often due to higher exposure levels to wind and sun.
5. Easier Management
When I think of traditional gardeners, I tend to think of someone who has a little more years on them. While this is clearly a stereotype I have, I'll still use it to make a point.
Traditional gardening generally requires you to be working on your hands and knees. As a 21-year-old, I can barely walk after kneeling for more than half an hour. Even though that's probably just me being weak, it really makes me wonder about the toll it takes on someone who let's say is 63 years old.
With vertical gardens, you have access to plants that are at your eye level or around it, thus reducing the strain on your back, knees and joints from all the bending over.
6. Improved Plant Health
When it comes to plant health, having them at a higher elevation can also be good for them. Giving them access to better air circulation and sunlight just makes them healthier plants overall, and you won't have to deal with as many weeds or pests like deer or rabbits (squirrels will probably still be a pain though).
Visually, vertical gardens add some flair to your surroundings. It can be used as a screen or separator in certain areas and is just a nice way to liven up your surroundings.
8. Improved Quality of Life
Putting your plants in a vertical garden doesn't magically make them better for your health. It's all about location, location, location. When it comes to traditional horizontal gardens, you generally can't place them inside your home. But with a vertical garden, your location options suddenly open up. This means that you can now have a variety of plants all over your house, which does improve air quality and insulation.
French botanist Patrick Blanc has been working with architect Jean Nouvel to build a green residential tower in Sydney at One Central Park (unfortunately, all the units are sold out). The vision of this green living space is to cover 50% of the building with native and non-native species of plants, that both improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and cut costs for the building.
The idea is to have the nearby park extend into the building's plant life, thus creating a verdant district. It's like every post-apocalyptic city you've seen in movies with plants growing all over them, but without the apocalypse.
The building is designed to redirect sunlight to needed parts of the building, using a specially designed cantilever (i.e., a long projecting beam or girder fixed at only one end). When the sun sets, it is then used as a light display.
Patrick Blanc is also moving to other cities around the world trying to build green skyscrapers that leverage the natural abilities of plants. Not only is it nice when the buildings themselves clean the air around you in a city, but it's also a nice change of scenery than the usual "concrete jungle".
I may be wrong in categorizing this as vertical farming, but I am fascinated with the practice of container farming. I put container farming in the vertical farming category because it allows farmers to grow produce in smaller spaces and is made to be stacked.
This article was written by the Co-Founder of agrotech company, Bright Agrotech, that specializes in vertical farming equipment. In it, he dives into what they have seen to be the good and bad sides of container farming as seen by their own clients. They've learned that it all starts with expectations, and how many new vertical farmers think that container farming is going to work on its own through technology.
This article uses a simple pros and cons list, as you probably assumed from the name, so let's dive into it.
Pros of Container Farms
Even though putting all your crops into metal boxes isn't a magical cure-all, there are some substantial benefits to doing it if you do it right. Here are four big ones:
1. Ease of Transportation
As you probably inferred, since these farming containers are just reused shipping containers, they are literally built to be transported. Why does this matter though? Well, look at it this way - where you buy and outfit the farming container is probably not the place where it's going to be set up.
Companies that specialize in repurposing shipping containers into farming containers need to have access to their usual tools and supplies. Once they do their job, it's now a matter of placing that container near a city or in a desert area that traditionally couldn't support food growth.
I will note, however, that it shouldn't be moved often. Move it at the beginning when setting up, and then stick with your location.
2. Compact and Contained
Again, because it is a repurposed shipping container, it was built to be compact and be fitted with others like it. Sure, it might not be the prettiest sight to behold, but it is practical. For example, you could put in behind a school and begin a school farm, or even behind a restaurant and get your produce from 50 feet away.
Just make sure that where you place your container has level ground, since that will affect drainage levels. This might require some sort of cement pad or MacGyver-like additions to your container.
3. Cheap and Available
We've been using metal shipping containers since 1956, and you see them everywhere you go, from semi-trucks to freight ships. Since they are so popular and widely-used, the price of each one, when retired, can be pretty low. Many shipping companies would rather sell broken or retired containers than scrap them, and many container farmers will gladly pick them up.
You can actually buy a standard 40-foot container for a little over $2k, though you'll want to inspect it first since it is being retired for a reason.
4. Prices Continue to Decrease
If you know anything about economics, you'll know that as competition increases, prices go down. For those who are confused by that, let's quickly explain it.
Let's say that there are two companies in the world who are selling their shipping containers to farmers to use. Well, since there are just two of them, they can keep prices high since those farmers can't buy from anyone else. But, let's say 10 other companies decide to sell their old shipping containers a year later. Well, with 12 companies all trying to sell their containers to those farmers, they're going to keep reducing their prices to outsell the other 11 companies.
Cons of Container Farms
With any trend, it's easy to see all the pros and be dazzled by all its fancy features and potential. Let's take a step back though and see why container farming can be a real pain in the ass.
One key point that this article makes is that intent informs design. When it comes to shipping containers, their intent is to transport goods, not grow produce. So, right off the bat, you're fighting the model of the entire structure and bending to its will.
1. Difficult Environmental Control
When it comes to container farming, you could grow food 365 days/year. That is if you control the environment and stabilize it, which can be extremely difficult. Think of it as a city. Yes, when humans moved into cities economies thrived and society progressed, but we also get decimated by disease because we were so close together.
Plants run the same risk when they are in such a dense place. Since there's no sun, all those lights are generating heat, all those plants are making gas, water still evaporates, and crop population still fluctuates.
Environmental control needs to be your first priority when it comes to adapting the container, since having not enough heat or too much humidity is a surefire to lose all your money in a few years when nothing is growing.
2. Structural Integrity
As briefly mentioned earlier, these containers are being retired for a reason. They've gone around the world a few times and were exposed to very harsh elements like salt water and storms. So, when you find a cheap container, make sure to inspect it first and look for obvious signs of damage. Since you'll be growing food in these containers, it's important that these containers are of high-standard, or else run the risk of being shut down by the government.
3. Heat vs. Light
Since I assume all of us took 4th-grade biology, we should all know that plants need light to survive (because photosynthesis). The problem with using lots of lights in a dense container is that the temperature goes up with it, which can seriously hamper plant growth if handled poorly.
Since these containers weren't built to be environmentally controlled, it can be quite difficult to outfit it with something that is effective. So many container farmers are constantly fighting the battle of light vs. heat and where to find the balance between the two that still makes profit (or just breaks even).
Referencing intent informed design again, containers weren't built to have people working in them for hours each day. Because of this, you need to know how the inside can be setup to maximize human efficiency, since that will save you money and mental sanity.
Before seriously committing, go check out current (profitable) container farms and see how they are set up. Try to picture yourself working in those conditions for hours each day, and if you see yourself going insane after a week, you now know that you wouldn't want that setup.
While looking at already existing container farms, ask these questions:
Can I access all my crops easily?
Could I work in these situations for X hours each day?
How many people can work in this container comfortably?
Once you go to various other container farms and have answer the above questions for each of them, figure out which one you think will work best for you.
5. CAPEX vs. OPEX (pay a lot of money upfront or later)
Have you calculated the balance between your capital expenses and operating expenses?
What many new business owners like to do is to see how much money they can save upfront (CAPEX). What usually ends up happening is that you pay a lot later when you run the business (OPEX). Mostly because you skimped on getting quality equipment in the beginning and spend more time and money later trying to fix it or work with its inefficiencies.
When it comes to starting your farming container business, going cheap is actually expensive.
6. Plant Sites vs. Biomass
When it comes to metrics and seeing how much produce your growing, make sure you base your success off produce weight, not number of plants. Buyers want to know what your price per pound/ounce is, not how many you're selling.
"Remember, vertical farming is not about how much production you can possibly cram into a space. It’s about growing better food closer to market and maximizing your production as a function of the resources you invest, such as capital, light, water, energy, and labor."
The amount of produce you're able to sell each year is how you'll be profitable over time. Vertical farming isn't some get rich quick scheme, so don't expect to be rolling in the green after a year or two. Play the long game and maximize produce weight, not number of plants.
This article focuses on agrotech company Urban Crops. Their approach to the vertical farming industry is not to do the farming, but to sell the technology that makes it possible. Their systems are completely autonomous, from light levels to irrigation.
According to Urban Crops, their technology and setup decreases the chance of disease and increases growth rate, since each plant is in a closed environment tailored to its own nutrient needs.
As we've seen with other vertical farming situations, Urban Crops states that their technology and methods use "less water, grows plants faster, and can be used year-round – not just in certain seasons. The facilities also can, in theory, be built anywhere." The idea is to have an optimal growing environment year-round.
This method is best for every type of crop though. When it comes to vertical farming, you want to be able to scale up, so something like corn, which needs lots of vertical space, would just be too inefficient. To be the most profitable, vertical farming takes advantage of leafy-greens and herbs, since they go for higher price-per-pound than tradition root crops.
As we learned in the last article too, lights generate lots of heat. Urban Crops remedies this using red and blue LED's that give plenty of light with little heat. These lights can also be adjusted as you see fit.
When it comes to watering your vertical farm, you have three options:
Hydroponics - soaking the plant roots in nutrient-rich water, without soil
Aeroponics - spraying the roots with nutrient-rich water, without soil
Aquaponics - running used water into fish tanks that then get run back to the plants in a symbiotic system
In Urban Crops' case, they use hydroponics to grow their plants, with the recycled water going through various levels of cleaning before it returns into circulation. They've found that their methods use far less water than traditional farming practices.
AeroFarms, a vertical farming company based in New Jersey, decided to take the Aeroponics approach. Aquaponics uses less water, but there was always an issue of making sure that the nozzles that sprayed the nutrient-rich water stayed clean. AeroFarms went with the aeroponics approach because they figured out how to solve the problem, courtesy of inventor and agricultural expert Ed Harwood. Besides their aeroponics approach, AeroFarms also uses cloth to be the base for their plants and LED lights.
Like Urban Farms, AeroFarms is also focusing on leafy-greens.
Skeptics and Concerns
With any sort of technology, there is going to be two sides to the coin. While vertical farming sounds great and all, one thing to realize is that you're going to need to somehow power all these lights, since you've removed the sun from the equation. This power is most likely coming from burning fossil fuels. That is unless you decide to set up shop in the desert where you have lots of sun, access to solar power technology, and no arable soil.
Each state is going to have different costs on power consumption, and as Michael Hamm (a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University) put it, you'd essentially by paying for an $11 loaf of bread after you factor in the electricity bill to grow the wheat.
Even if vertical farming doesn't take off on a large scale, some companies are already looking at what you can put in your house. It would be like those little pots people have for their herbs but would look more like a fridge that you're growing vegetables in year-round in your kitchen. At least, that's what NeoFarms is trying to do.
The idea is to make a fridge-like appliance that you can use to grow what you need. While also costing around $2 a week in electricity.
We might even reach the point where some supermarkets, say Whole Foods or Wegmans, have vertical farms in the back that are growing food every day. That way, when you go and buy some kale, it was picked less than 20 minutes ago. Not only is this a great marketing tactic, but it also helps the produce keep vital nutrients that get lost over time when transported or frozen.
As food prices continue to rise, and the global population with it, the earth is facing a drastic need for increased food production in the next few decades. And even though vertical farming doesn't provide a magical solution to the world's problems, it at least gets farmers to begin growing healthy (although) expensive crops in a potentially more sustainable way.
Problems with Traditional Farming
When it comes to traditional farming, we've been working the fields for thousands of years. Many farmers know that struggles that come with it, like drought, floods, disease, pests, levels of sunshine, physical labor, etc. We need to find a way to either adapt our existing strategies to ones that can produce 70% more food by 2050 or come up with some new method that can work alongside traditional farming. Many people argue that the answer lies in GMOs, while others are looking at vertical farming.
When it comes to farmable land, you need to balance the scales carefully. Not only do you need more land to house the growing population, you also need more land to grow enough food. In America, farming accounts for around 80% of the national water consumption.
And as much as we want to go out and buy cage-free eggs, grass-fed and free-range beef, and GMO-free tomatoes, many people can't afford the added price. Anything organic is automatically more expensive, meaning people with less means are stuck consuming fatty and sugary foods. Case in point, the obesity issue in America.
Traditional farming is also heavily influenced by the environment, both weather and other organisms. Increased global temperatures are causing accelerated spreading of pests and general damage to crops. Plus, government subsidies are constantly changing prices, specifically when it comes to corn (even though it's remained pretty low for the past few years).
Benefits of Vertical Farming
All these issues can be addressed to some degree through vertical farming. Just to recap on what it actually is, here is a quick elevator pitch.
Vertical farming is an innovative way the flips traditional farming on its side. Instead of growing out, we grow up, using layers of crops. Each plant is provided nutrients through aquaponics or aeroponics and receive consistent nutrients year-round in a climate-controlled environment. "The benefits include independence from arable land, year-round growing capacities, less water consumption, and improved crop predictability."
What I appreciate about this article is that it explains some of the issues that come with vertical farming, and not just boosting the hype train. For example, even though these farms are designed to use less water, "they are not carbon neutral." As renewable energy becomes more widely adopted, vertical farming's footprint will shrink. The article also specifies that vertical farming isn't going to be a way to reduce food prices, since the main crops grown will be leafy greens.
Vertical farming is not built for crops that have substantial inedible pieces, like fruits and roots. Traditional farming will continue to be the best way to grow those types of crops, while vertical farms thrive in the leafy green department.
Traditional farming hasn't always been the most exciting practice either. I haven't met a kid who said they wanted to be a farmer when they grow up, and I don't really see that changing anytime soon. I am always happy to be wrong though, since vertical farming brings cool and innovative tech into a usually boring (though critical) industry. It can easily be a way to attract young professionals, since it involves lots of different technologies and sciences.
If you go read the article, I would also encourage you to scroll to the end and read the comment by Sean Peters. In my opinion, he did a very good job dissecting the points made in the article and pointing out flaws in the whole method, while still being respectful.
For those who don't want to go there to read it, I've quoted it here:
"Vertical farming is a great way to produce low-calorie, high value crops for a wealthy consumer base in Western countries. It is not a very useful way increase food security, solve water scarcity in agriculture, or protect the environment.
I’d go so far as to say that there is very little that is currently socially beneficial about vertical farming.
The authors of this article outline the multiple problems with food systems today, including:
Rising food prices
Food insecurity causing hunger and malnutrition in emerging markets
Shrinking arable land
Generational turnover limiting the labour force of farmers in the future
Risks of volatility, including pests, weather events, and climate change
The authors then position vertical farming as an answer to these problems within food systems. Is vertical farming the answer?
Let's explore two of the most prominent vertical farms: Aerofarms and Plenty.
Aerofarms (referenced in the article above) is a large indoor vertical farm company based in New Jersey. They produce a brand called Dream Greens, where they produce non-GMO kale, arugula, lettuce and watercress. They sell locally in NJ and NY, mainly in Whole Foods and ShopRite. At whole foods, a quick online check tells us that Dream Greens are $3.99 for a 4.5oz container – the most expensive greens mix that Whole Foods offers (for comparison, a 16 oz organic container of Whole Foods brand greens is $5.99 – around 1/3 of the price per oz.). The nutrition information on the package tells us that 4.5oz is equal to two servings of 15 calories each – about $3.99 for 30 calories total.
The average adult should be consuming around 2,500 calories a day.
Plenty is based in San Francisco and has vertical farms in SF and Seattle. They grow Celtic crunch lettuce, red oak kale, sweet summer basil, and other leafy crops. As far as I can tell, they have not yet sold any product and public pricing is not currently available.
Aerofarms has raised over $140m thus far. Plenty has raised over $226m. Together they have raised over $366m.
One thing you’ll notice between the two companies: nobody's growing potatoes. No rice or legumes here. You won’t find any yams or dwarf wheat. Dense, cheap, high-caloric staples that are at the heart of food security worldwide are nowhere to be found amongst vertical farming companies.
Horticulture and agriculture crops grow by absorbing energy from light – usually in the form of sunlight. If you replace the sun with LED lighting, you need to convert KWh pricing to calories in your crop. At the maximum possible physical efficiency of LED lighting, you would need a KWh pricing of $0.005- $0.02 / KWh to start to achieve financial models that could properly compete with sunlight-based field growing. We are currently not at the maximum possible physical efficiency of LED lighting, and so these prices would need to be even lower to make food security growing economically viable.
The KWh pricing of electricity in both New Jersey and San Francisco is currently $.20/KWh. In both cases, the price is over 20x higher than it would need to be for vertical farming to be a useful tool for food security.
The solution to this problem is simple – look at what crops produce the highest value per calorie, position your brand as super-premium, and the financial model makes sense. The investors into Aerofarms and Plenty aren’t stupid. There is good business to be made in targeting a wealthy audience for premium produce they can feel good about buying.
The problem here isn’t in the financial model – the problem is in the social claims being made. Lets once more look at the social problems raised by the article above:
Is vertical farming useful for reducing rising food prices? No, as they necessarily must position themselves as super-premium.
Will vertical farming solve food insecurity in emerging markets? No, as the economic limitations on electricity mean that only low-calorie high-cost crops are worth producing.
Will vertical farming reduce pressure on shrinking arable land? To reduce pressure on arable land you would need to produce crops that currently take up the majority of arable land production. This includes wheat, rice, soy, and other staples. Vertical farming will have only a fractional impact on the scarcity of arable land.
Will the automation implied by vertical farming reduce the pressure of generational turnover limiting the labour force of farmers in the future? Again, the majority of this pressure is felt within agriculture and horticulture staples that vertical farming can not economically produce.
Will vertical farming improve issues of water scarcity? The replacement value of low-calorie crops is quite low, and water efficiency at small scale will have little effect on global food systems.
Will vertical farming improve inequality related to food? The super-premium positioning doesn’t tend to improve the circumstances of the global poor.
What about the risks of volatility, including pests, weather events, and climate change? These all still exist. Vertical farming solves these issues for those who want to live off of expensive salad. It doesn’t solve these problems for the rest of us. In fact, vertical farming production is usually worse from a carbon perspective than field growing – even when field-grown food needs to travel moderate distances. This is because field-grown food doesn’t require electricity for its growth, while LED-grown food does.
One possible rebuttal here is that renewable energy pricing is constantly falling. Premium pricing right now will allow vertical farms to improve their tech, and once electricity prices fall, the tech will be mature enough to solve food security problems worldwide.
This is unconvincing when we begin to look at other uses of cheap electricity. Most of the problems of growing on arid and semi-arid land fade away if you have cheap electricity. If electricity is only a cent per KWh, desalination and long-distance transport of freshwater are much more cost-effective ways to increase food security.
I’m not proposing a Luddite solution here. Technology is part of the answer. We need better ways to be more efficient with the land we’re currently using, and new ways to open up land that is currently not economically viable to grow on. We need better climate change mitigation strategies. We need support for farmers to improve crop yields. We need training to better use fertilisers, pesticides and crop rotation. We need to structure our economies in ways that make farming a tool for economic mobility between generations. The issues the authors bring up - rising food prices, impending food insecurity, water scarcity, climate change risks and inequality – are all critically important. We need real, focused attempts to solve these problems.
What we’re getting in the vertical farming hype is obfuscation."
Too Long; Didn't Read
Vertical gardening can take a variety of shapes, from a few plants hanging on a wall in your backyard, to entire apartment buildings. They can be both aesthetic and practical, used for hiding barren spaces or increasing air quality.
Vertical gardening is great for people with limited space and can be accomplished in a variety of methods since you're no longer bound by the requirements of traditional gardening. Each plant is in its own ecosystem and can even be easier to maintain.
Vertical farming is an increasingly popular way to innovate in the traditional farming sector, help assist the growing need for healthy food, and make farming a more attractive profession for younger generations. While it's not some magical bullet that will end world hunger, it's an important innovation in the agriculture sector that is helping the world move in a better direction.