Vertical farms: the next green revolution

Last week, I wrote about farmers markets and their potential to reduce the distance we ship our food, which effectively eliminates a lot of wasted fuel and energy. They are a great way for the local community to gather and feel a collective culture, as well. This week, however, I would like to talk about a new farming technology on the horizon: vertical farms. Vertical farms eliminate many of the impracticalities and inefficiencies in traditional farming. They are more widely applicable as a technology, too, and have the potential to change the production of food around the world.

Vertical farms reduce the land and water used to produce crops by adding another dimension to the layout of the farm. Water cascades from top to bottom, essentially recycling itself. Furthermore, vertical farms decrease the waste of resources and space because crops are grown in controlled conditions, eliminating the threat of weather patterns (such as droughts) and reducing the distance that produce is transported by growing it within urban regions.

With the implementation of vertical farms, the endless fields of farmland that many of us in the Midwest are familiar with would return to nature. Ideally, the pasture land would be eliminated too with a shift toward veganism, since factory farms and the excessive breeding of animals contribute to global warming. Red meat is not very healthy, anyway. Vertical farms account for fowl and pigs, though, for you omnivores. Vertical farms can accommodate crops that are normally specific to a certain region of the world and can grow crops yearly, even when those crops would be out of season. Insects are not an issue, either, because the crops in vertical farms in a controlled environment, eliminating the need for pesticides.

One current issue with vertical farms is the lack of widespread application. As far as I know, there are no vertical farms near Appleton. However, the company Plenty is working on building a business model that would apply vertical farms within every city of one million or more people around the world. Many upstarts have failed because of high costs, but Plenty is utilizing new technology to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Most companies use tall shelves littered with plants in their systems, but Plenty uses 20-foot vertical towers, in addition to computer learning. They utilize infrared camera systems to monitor moisture, plant growth and temperature, data which allows them to fine-tune the farms. Water and nutrients are dispersed from above, eliminating the need for pipes. Water is recycled, too. According to Plenty, they can get as much as 350 times the produce of a given acre of land, using one percent as much water. There are various articles about Plenty online published by companies like Vox and Bloomberg, that I would recommend for further reading.

In addition to Plenty, there are groups like FarmedHere (based in the Chicago area) and CityFARM (an MIT research project) that are also attempting to push the boundaries of vertical farming. The former is working on widening distribution to different retailors such as Target, Jewel and Whole Foods to establish consumer appeal and familiarity. According to an article by the Huffington Post, FarmedHere also recognizes the challenge of convincing consumers of the benefits of vertical farms and encourages visits by Chicago Public School students and their parents. CityFARM is attempting to develop an open source platform for vertical farming like Linux to facilitate cooperation and innovation throughout the industry. Vertical farming as a technology is still in the early stages so many companies are developing new technology and strategies independently. CityFARM hopes to eliminate this issue.

With the increasing use of technology, efficiency and innovation comes a decrease in human labor and therefore jobs. Obviously, this presents a problem. Human labor is costly, and so it is in companies like Plenty’s interests to reduce it as much as possible. With the viability of vertical farms, then, it seems that many farmers would become unemployed. In our capitalist system, this is problematic because losing one’s job means one less source of income and equity. It seems that, as vertical farms gain prominence, this will be an issue that must enter the conversation as well. Regardless, vertical farms are a fantastic way of reducing waste and damage to the environment. They allow us to grow our food more locally create a controlled environment for produce.

Nero Gallagher

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