Old Macdonald Had A … Vertical Farm?

Vertical farming has its roots in space. Here's what a vertical farm is, how it works and what it could mean for the future of farming.

by Shelly Wutke
PHOTO: courtesy of Square Roots Farms

What do you picture when you think about farming? For most of us, farming brings to mind a red barn, tractor, crops in the field, or livestock grazing in the grass. Farming has been that way for hundreds of years, but farm technology is evolving to the point where the concept of what a farm is or could be is changing pretty quickly.

Case in point? Vertical farms.

Vertical farming has only been around for a few years. But it’s been so successful it’s clear this is a new method of farming that’s not going anywhere.

What is vertical farming?

Vertical farming, also known as controlled environment agriculture, is the process of growing food indoors in stacks.

If you walked into a vertical farm you’d see a hallway with stacks upon stacks of greens in rows stretching from floor to ceiling. At first glance, you’d think it looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.

And you’d be right about the science part (though the tech is anything but fictional). This type of technology was first developed by NASA in an attempt to grow food in space.

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Not long after NASA started experimenting with this type of farming, Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal launched a farming operation called Square Roots. What started in 2016 as a way to grow produce in a major metropolitan area has branched out into a commercial business with vertical farms in New York, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Read more: We tried 3 indoor smart gardens. Here are the results.

How does vertical farming work?

More often than not, vertical farming takes place in a shipping container or another type of indoor space. People are employed to oversee plant health, but everything is completely monitored using automated farm technology that takes over every part of the growth cycle.

You can grow everything from herbs to salad greens to strawberries on a vertical farm.

Benefits of vertical farming

If you grow your own crops, you know the work that goes into every part of the growth process. You also know all of the things that can go wrong when you’re farming.

For starters, there is there only one growing season per year. And your crop could be destroyed by everything from floods to volatile weather to insects. That crop won’t pay off until it’s harvested and sold—and there are no guarantees in farming,

That’s why people find a lot of benefits in vertical farming. Vertical farms can grow 365 days a year for a growing season that never ends. And because they are climate controlled, you don’t have to worry about a weather system moving in.

Hail or rain don’t destroy indoor crops. And it’s always a sunny day in indoor farming. The sun that shines down on a vertical farm is entirely man-made in the form of grow lights.

Furthermore, there are no insects inside vertical farms. Nothing will eat your produce before you can.

Read more: Learn all about integrated pest management to control insects in the garden!

Drawbacks to vertical farming

It’s easy to get excited about vertical farming. But there are a few drawbacks you may want to think about before you jump in with both feet.

For starters, vertical farming start-up is expensive. Shipping containers have jumped in price since the pandemic. Setting up the indoor space to grow could cost you an average of $5.00 or more per square foot.

Vertical farming also requires the use of farm technology to monitor your growth. You’ll need to be plenty tech-savvy to grow indoors.

And you’ll need to pay high energy costs for heating and cooling, too. Vertical farms are completely climate-controlled.

Is vertical farming the way of the future?

With vertical farms popping up all over the USA, it’s clear this new method of farming isn’t going anywhere. As farm technology progresses, it could become less expensive to grow indoors, too.

It’s exciting how people are finding innovative ways to grow food. But fear not—traditional farms aren’t going anywhere either. As long as people want to farm and grow food, nothing will replace the time-honored process of planting and harvesting crops outdoors.

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