If you are looking for a way to grow more food in less space, look no further than vertical farming. This method has several advantages over traditional farming and gardening. However, vertical farming also has some serious drawbacks to consider.
So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of vertical farming? The advantages of vertical farming are:
- it saves space
- it conserves resources (water, fertilizer, labor)
- it prevents pests and diseases
- it reduces transportation costs
- it can produce food year round
The disadvantages of vertical farming are:
- it requires lots of energy for light
- it requires more skilled labor
- it has high startup costs
Let’s take a closer look at vertical farming and all of its advantages for modern agriculture.
Advantages of Vertical Farming
According to Wikipedia, “vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers.” Many vertical gardens use indoor environments to control the climate (temperature and humidity) and plant resources (amount and frequency of light, water, and nutrients).
Often, vertical farms will use hydroponic, aquaponics, or aeroponic systems. These systems do not use soil. Instead, the plant roots grow in a water or air environment, sometimes with a soil substitute such as perlite or sand.
For more information, check out my article on growing plants without soil.
Vertical farming is also poised to take advantage of technological innovation and automation.
For example, cameras, sensors, and algorithms can monitor plant growth and optimize resources to maximize yield. This reduces waste and provides fresh produce at lower cost while using a smaller area.
This ability to save space is one of the biggest advantages of vertical farming – let’s look into it now.
Vertical Farming Saves Space
The idea of modern vertical farming was proposed in 1999 by Professor Dickson Despommier of Columbia University. The idea was to build a skyscraper farm that could feed 50,000 people.
Recent advances such as efficient lighting, soilless growing, and systems automation have increased vertical farming crop yields to 10 times that of traditional farming!
As a result, it takes a much smaller plot of land to grow the same amount of food as a traditional farm. This is important in and around large cities, where land and buildings are expensive and open space is rare.
Taking up less space for growing also means that vertical farming has a lower impact on plants and animals in local ecosystems.
In addition to vertical farms in buildings, we are also seeing vertical farms in shipping containers. These containers can be recycled after use in shipping, and they can be stacked up since they are modular.
A company called Local Roots launched the “TerraFarm” in 2016. This vertical farming system is based in a 40-foot shipping container.
The TerraFarm uses cameras and sensors, computer vision, and an artificial neural network (artificial intelligence or machine learning) to monitor plants. This system can produce as much food as 3 to 5 acres of farmland at the same cost, using 3% as much water.
Another type of vertical farming is deep farming. A deep farm uses underground tunnels or abandoned mine shafts to grow plants.
This setup requires less energy for heat than other methods of vertical farming. However, it requires more energy to provide light for plants, so there is a tradeoff to consider.
Vertical Farming Conserves Resources
Vertical farms that use hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponics conserve water when compared to traditional soil farming methods. For example, hydroponics uses 13 times less water than traditional soil farming, while aquaponics uses 90% less water than traditional farming.
Vertical farming also uses less fertilizer than traditional farming.
For one thing, there is no need to worry about runoff of soil and nutrients due to flooding. As a result, no fertilizer will be lost due to leaching or erosion.
Also, computer systems can predict the precise amount of nutrients that plants need and when they will need them. This further reduces waste due to inefficient irrigation or fertilization.
In addition, vertical farms can save on labor and machine costs. Since there is no soil involved with many of these systems, there is no need to till the earth or transport compost, manure, and other soil amendments.
The work of raising and harvesting plants in vertical farms is fairly repetitive. As a result, this work is ripe for automation by machines in the near future.
Vertical Farming Prevents Pests and Diseases
Vertical farming makes pest infestations much less likely. As long as there are strict controls on what is allowed into a vertical farm, pests can be avoided.
Fewer pests and easier control means that growers can also avoid using pesticides. This makes it easier to produce organic fruits and vegetables with vertical farming. Costs for organic produce should decrease as vertical farming takes hold.
Since many vertical farms use soilless growing techniques, there is also much less chance of diseases spreading through the soil.
Many plant diseases survive in soil over the winter and infect the next year’s crops. However, this problem is eliminated in vertical farms that use hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponics.
Vertical Farming Reduces Transportation Costs
Since vertical farming takes up less space than traditional farming, it is becoming more feasible to build vertical farms in or near large cities. This reduces the time it takes to transport produce from farms to grocery stores.
Traveling shorter distances to transport produce will also save energy (fuel costs) and labor costs (drivers). In addition, it will prevent food waste, since less produce will be damaged or spoiled during transport.
Of course, short distances from vertical farms to cities means that self-driving trucks will have a much easier time navigating shipping routes. This will further decrease labor costs for these vertical farms.
Vertical Farming Allows Growing Year Round
There are several problems with traditional farming techniques. First of all, traditional farming is very vulnerable to flooding. An entire season’s crops can be lost in a few days of flooding.
Even worse, flooding can wash away topsoil and nutrients, which are difficult to replace. When weather disrupts farming, crops are lost and food prices go up for everyone.
Vertical farming largely avoids disruptions due to weather. Vertical gardens in tall buildings or shipping containers are protected from extreme weather, such as rain, monsoons, hailstorms, tornadoes, floods, drought, and wildfires.
Indoor vertical farming also protects plants from extreme heat and cold. This means that vertical farmers are not limited by frost dates or other weather events when planting their crops.
The indoor temperature can be adjusted to fit any stage of plant development, from seed germination to ripening of fruit. Humidity can also be controlled, which ensures successful seed germination and productive pollination.
Light levels can also be controlled with automated artificial lighting or shading devices. This is helpful with certain crops that are sensitive to day length, such as some types of onions.
Water levels are also easy to control, making irrigation much simpler. As a result, flooding or drought outside has no effect on plants inside a vertical garden.
Disadvantages of Vertical Farming
For all of its advantages, vertical farming still has some disadvantages. Let’s go over those now.
Vertical Farming Requires Lots of Energy for Light
Artificial light is a source of both strength and weakness for vertical farms. Artificial light allows vertical farms to grow crops without regard to day length or time of year.
However, this artificial light may need to be on for hours each day. The result is often soaring energy costs. This also leaves vertical farms vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of electricity.
Even solar panels installed on the roof of a vertical farm can only provide so much electricity, and even then, only when there is enough light.
Furthermore, any interruption in the power supply (such as blackouts or brownouts) or even a system failure could result in the loss of the crops in a vertical garden.
Instead of being subject to weather, vertical farms are subject to a steady supply of electricity, which is not a given in all areas.
Vertical Farming Requires More Skilled Labor
Vertical farming makes use of many advanced technologies: cameras and sensors, automated systems, artificial intelligence, and hydroponic, aquaponic, or aeroponic systems. All of this requires knowledgeable people to oversee the advanced systems.
Even with automation by machines and computers, people will still be needed to maintain these systems. Hardware will need to be repaired or replaced, and software will need to be adjusted or upgraded to keep pace with advancements in technology.
To remain competitive in the market, vertical farms will need to pay well for jobs that require technical knowledge of advanced computer systems.
Vertical Farming Has High Startup Costs
Vertical farming may be more efficient than traditional soil farming in some ways. However, the startup costs are prohibitive in some areas.
These high startup costs mean that it takes a long time to see a return on investment. This makes it difficult to find investors to back a vertical farming project. This is especially true at an early stage when the idea is still unproven in a given area.
Now you have a good idea of what vertical farming is and the advantages of this method.
If space is holding you back from gardening, check out my article on how to start a garden without a yard.
You can get some ideas for vertical gardening here.
You might be interested to learn about food forests here.
You might also be interested to learn more about living walls (and their benefits) in my article here.
You can find out more about aspects of biophilic design here.
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