Five Vertical Farms that Capture the Imagination and Profit
May 17, 2015 | Rose Egelhoff
Vertical farms: the idea captures our imagination. We envision their upward-twisting frames nestled between the steel and chrome skyscrapers of the big city. Each floor overflows with fruits and vegetables brought to life by hydroponic or aquaponic growing systems, bringing local food and a breath of fresh air to cities with a footprint smaller than any “horizontal” farm.
While setup and electrical costs remain expensive, a wave of vertical farmers around the world has been finding new ways to cut costs and streamline systems to make vertical farming a reality. They may not be ‘farmscrapers’, but these five vertical farms achieve production rates up to 100 times more efficient per square foot than traditional farming while bringing year-round local produce to their communities.
FarmedHere’s huge, 90,000 square foot facility features an aquaponic setup lit by specially designed magenta and blue LEDs, developed through a partnership with the LED lighting manufacturer Illumitex, Inc. The lights emit only the frequencies of light that plants utilize, reducing energy costs. Roots dangle in trays of water fertilized with waste from tanks of tilapia and closed, soil-free systems minimize exposure to pests and disease, making their organic certification an easy achievement.
FarmedHere grows microgreens, basil and mint—staple crops for vertical farmers because they can be ready in as little as 14 days (that’s 26 harvests every year!). They sell to the big names, including more than 50 Whole Foods Markets and many other Chicago grocery stores.
This Singapore farming company exemplifies the potential for vertical farming to thrive in urban spaces. Real estate prices are sky-high on the densely-populated island, and access to fresh food is limited. Singapore imports most of its produce from China, Malaysia or the U.S.
Jack Ng saw the potential demand for fresh, local produce and created Sky Farms. He designed a growing system called A-Go-Gro. Thirty-foot A-frame towers rotate plant troughs up and down on a hydraulically powered belt to provide equal exposure to sunlight. Though Sky Greens grows hydroponically, these systems can also be adapted to soil growing.
Sky Greens currently produce ten varieties of greens including bok choi, lettuce, kang kong (water spinach) and bayam (amaranth). The product ends up costing about 10% more than imported greens but according to Permaculture News, Sky Greens’ extra- fresh veggies are “flying off the shelves.”
Another Chicago enterprise, the Plant describes itself as “part vertical farm, part food business incubator, part research and education space.”
Ten local food businesses, including several vertical farming operations, a sustainable prawn grower and a bakery, are located inside The Plant. The building is an abandoned pork packing facility in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, retrofitted by crews of volunteers to fit the needs of local food producers. One business uses the roof space for good old soil farming while indoor operations employ hydroponics and artificial light. Plans for a shared kitchen are in the works, and The Plant eventually hopes to achieve net-zero energy use by harvesting biogas from their anaerobic digester, eliminating the high electricity costs that plague vertical farmers.
In Japan, the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis left in its wake both abandoned buildings and farmland devastated by radioactive contamination. Vertical farms like Mirai (“future” in Japanese) helped replace the lost food production capacity. Shigeharu Shimamuru, plant physiologist and president of Mirai, collaborated with GE Japan to design a state-of-the-art LED hydroponic system with carefully controlled wavelengths and dark periods. This means plants can photosynthesize at maximum capacity during the day and rest or “breathe” at night.
The combination makes for both fast-growing plants, and efficient resource use. Compared to conventional farming, the setup cuts produce waste by 50 percent, reduces water use by 99 percent and is 100 times more productive per square foot. The system operates in 12 locations around Japan, including a 25,000 square foot farm in the Miyagi prefecture just north of Fukushima, which can produce 10,000 heads of lettuce a day at full capacity. Mirai has recently begun another project in Korea.
Instead of growing in water, Aerofarms takes things another step away from conventional soil farming and grows plants in the air. Seeds germinate in a reusable fabric layer and suspended in stacked trays. The roots are sprayed with water and nutrients and LED lights fuel photosynthesis. Ed Harwood, a former Cornell professor who founded Aerofarms with his partners Marc Oshima and David Rosenberg in 2004, designed the system.
Aerofarms started off producing greens and herbs for farmers’ markets in upstate New York, including the prestigious Ithaca Farmers’ Market. They also sell their technology to other indoor farmers. Though not yet profitable, they are planning to expand. The project: a 69,000 square foot custom-built vertical farm in Newark, NJ. The $39 million development project, which is scheduled for completion in 2016, is being financed primarily by Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group. Additional funds from Prudential Financial and the city of Newark supplement Goldman Sachs’ investment.