Vertical farming has its roots in NASA programs and other scientific studies, and was being visualized as far back as 1909 when the idea was featured in Life Magazine. Since then the idea has made steady progress, right along with the agricultural concepts of hydroponics and aquaponics.
Back in 2000, then teacher Dickson Despommier, Ph.D., asked his students what they thought the world would look like in the year 2050. Their main concern was how to feed the billions of people who would reside in urban areas and places where farmland is scarce. The students calculated what it would take to turn all of New Jersey’s rooftops into gardens, and found that even if all of it was cultivated, it would only provide enough food for about two percent of the predicted population of 2050. Despommier continued to encourage his students to find answers, giving them examples such as the indoor agricultural methods that were pioneered by NASA to grow food on other planets. This is part of the story of how vertical farming became a reality.
In 2010 Despommier wrote a book, and by 2011 there were already farms being cultivated in England, Holland, Korea, and Japan.One of the very first vertical farm grow towers was built in an elementary school in Newark and is still in operation today. The kids love growing their own baby greens and learning all about biology, chemistry, math, and farming in general. It’s a small-scale version of a program now run by AeroFarms, that will someday hopefully help feed the world. AeroFarms is housed in four buildings in Newark, and the primary location was a former paintball and laser-tag amusement center. Now the space is full of row after row of eight-level vertical towers and technicians in white coats. The company is run by David Rosenberg, Marc Oshima, and Ed Harwood.
Harwood is considered by many to be the original evangelist of vertical farming. With Harwood’s patented mesh fabric and a proprietary spray nozzle, AeroFarms grows and ships more than a thousand tons of greens annually. Vertical farming relies heavily on technology. AeroFarms’ seventy thousand square feet of structure contains grow tables that are stacked twelve layers tall and stocked with bok choy, watercress, red-leaf lettuce, and other baby greens. The whole process is monitored and maintained by algorithm-driven computers and sensors that take the seedlings all the way through the sprouting process to maturation within eighteen days. This is a yield that is 350 times greater than traditional farming techniques and uses only one percent of the water needed to irrigate most land farms.
This kind of farming also has the benefit of freeing up depleted farmlands and giving them a much-needed rest, and hopefully reversing some of the despoliation of the earth. These farms can be housed in shipping containers, warehouses or any other enclosed structure that can provide a controlled environment. Vertical farming, along with hydroponic or aeroponic systems, can consume less water, and create less ocean pollution from agricultural runoff, and be used to encourage independence from the restrictions of seasonal growing. Seattle, Houston, Brooklyn, Detroit, Queens, and Chicago are just a few of the cities that are working with the idea of vertical farming in a variety of different forms.
With the possibility of creating local homegrown healthy food in any neighborhood, vertical farming shows the greatest promise for solving many environmental, economic, and food shortage crises. Vertical farming will probably never replace traditional farming completely, but the technology is a very viable alternative, and a complementary method of growing the food we need, at a cost that doesn’t break us or the environment.