Turning crops on their side could flip the future of agriculture, at least according to proponents of a system known as vertical farming. By growing crops in a formation that resembles towering library stacks or warehouse shelves rather than sprawling fields, it may be possible to increase crop yields, reduce land requirements, and broaden access to fresh, locally grown food. Will this approach change the future of farming?


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Towering Indoor Farms

Vertical farming consists of walls or racks that are lined with plant-holding cells. Instead of using soil, plant roots are held in a substrate like coconut fiber or special fabric. They’re watered and fertilized through a system that regularly mists the plants. Alternatively, plants may be grown in hydroponic pods, which maintain root systems directly in nutrient-infused water. Natural sunlight can be substituted or supplemented with LED grow lights. All of this is meant to be maintained indoors, where weather and temperature changes, pests, pollution, and other open-air factors that otherwise impact outdoor crops are entirely avoided.

Vertical farm Hydroponics, Finland. Credit: ifarm.fi

Such a setup does require a great deal of technology and special equipment. It also poses complications that still have to be addressed in order for this approach to be viable on a large scale. But even as vertical farming has current limitations, the future sustainability of conventional agriculture also poses many concerns. There is a pressing demand to feed more and more people in increasingly unpredictable climates and in a future where water insecurity, habitat depletion, and soil erosion are predicted to worsen. Due to these and other issues, an agricultural revolution may not be an option but a requirement for survival.

Higher Yield For Growing Demand

Proponents of vertical farming have cited benefits that include a 95% reduction in irrigation demands, greater ability to efficiently recapture and recirculate lost moisture, and urban-based vertical farms that repurpose defunct industrial spaces and shorten supply lines to markets that serve the most people. One of the most notable proposed benefits is a major increase in crop yield. Citing indoor vertical farming’s potential to grow produce year-round under highly contained and controlled circumstances, it’s been reported that outputs could be greater than seven times that of conventional farming.

A hydroponic (aquaponic) vertical farm houses hundreds of ZipGrow Towers to grow crops for a Minnesota community. Credit: Bright Agrotech

With small breakout vertical farming companies already distributing their produce, does this mean a literal upward shift in agriculture is already underway? Will vertical farming become a solution for feeding a crowded world in tighter, technology-driven spaces? Comment with your thoughts.

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