Vertical Farming Equipment: 5 Important Components

The chief goal of vertical farming is to deliver more food produce to local consumers more sustainably. Produce is grown indoors year-round in a soilless, pesticide-free controlled environment in previously impossible regions. To achieve these aims, it’s imperative to choose the most suitable equipment.

Vertical farming equipment used is dependent on the type of farming and techniques used. Geoponic, hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic are the 4 types of vertical farming. High-tech automated systems such as Controlled Environment Agriculture technology (CEA) and AI are used.

Vertical farming equipment such as CEA technology makes it easier to control variables such as light, temperature, water, and carbon dioxide levels, enabling farm yields to increase by 75% compared to horizontal farming. The following videos show how some of these elements are controlled.  

Vertical Farming Equipment

Vertical farming is a very smart and high-tech activity. Special equipment is needed to control environmental inputs left to nature in traditional farming. The following 5 pieces of vertical farming equipment are required for success. 

Lighting In Vertical Farms

Lighting is one of the biggest expenses for a vertical farm because each layer requires its own LED Lights. Approximately 10 LEDs per square meter are needed, according to Gordon-Smith’s software, Agritecture Designer. LEDs operate for 12 – 18 hours a day on many farms, so power usage from LEDs will account for 50 – 65% of the electricity bill. The exact amount depends on the efficiency of the LED and the light requirement of an individual crop.

While the initial investment can be high compared to HPS lighting, the LED option has lower installation costs. Continuous energy-saving lowers your production cost/gram. Most farms recover their upfront cost within several harvests.

When selecting your lights, ensure the light spectrum, intensity, and layout meet your needs (should be around 750 – 1500 PPFD). Ideally, flex-wiring or daisy chain functionality allows for lower installation costs. Also, lights should be rated IP65 or IP66 for wet environments, easily dimmable, and provide an even distribution of PPFD across the system.

Mike Zelkind, CEO of 80 Acres Farms, uses LEDs to compose artificial-light recipes to grow tomatoes and other produce better.  

Air Pumps Used In Hydroponic Systems

Plants cultivated in deep-water culture set-ups can suffocate if they don’t receive enough oxygen. Since the roots of plants in hydroponic systems are submerged in the nutrient reservoir at all times, this may be a problem. The oxygen delivery process in most hydroponics systems consists of 3 pieces of vertical farming equipment: air stones, air pumps, and airline tubing

Air pumps are mostly put outside the nutrient-water reservoir, pushing air from the room and into an air stone device placed at the bottom of the reservoir. The air pump and the air stone are linked by airline tubing. Tiny oxygen bubbles are made in the reservoir when air is forced through the air stone, oxygenating the water.

Air must be available on each plant level, and pumps must supply consistent conditioned air to the canopy and sub-canopy across the entire run, with minimal variation. Some airflow systems like Vertical Air Solutions provide additional capabilities, including air sanitization and Co2 enrichment.

Image showing vertical farming towers.
An aeroponic vertical farm tower.

Air pumps must be part of a comprehensive Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system. HVAC pumps in the fresh air and drains stale air through the ventilation system, keeping the air clean, moving, and within the right temperature and humidity settings. Keeping the HVAC clean prevents the growth of mildew, mold, bacteria, and other pathogens in the air. 

When choosing a HVAC system as vertical farming equipment, it’s essential to determine your farm’s cooling and heating load requirements. Also, you should consider the irrigation rates and dehumidification need to remove excess transpiration. Many farmers choose redundancy in HVAC equipment to ensure continuous operations if one or more systems are down for service or malfunctioning.

Mobile Vertical Plant Grow Racks

Vertical grow racks enable growers to use space in the vertical direction by stacking multiple layers of high-value plants. When renting ground space, one pays only for the horizontal area used. Therefore, growing plants on top of each other is a far more efficient way to farm than traditional horizontal farming. 

Vertical grow racks also add flexibility by enabling you to scale-up production while reducing the total square feet one is billed for. Due to capacity constraints, expensive relocation costs can be bypassed, and flexible tiered expansion can be undertaken free from expensive construction and permits.

Image showing large-scale vertical farming racks.

To remain strong and durable in a high-humidity environment, the racking and mobile carriage should be made from high-strength steel and be lightweight for easy mobility. The racks provide structure, and besides the plants, they must further accommodate fans, lights, trays, and irrigation.

Collecting Crop Data Using Smart Sensors

Vertical farming equipment and automation relies on information. By acting on a continuous data stream of critical input variables captured by smart sensors, farmers can achieve yields significantly surpassing that of even the most advanced greenhouses. The most critical variables to be captured and measured are:

  • Climate: humidity, air temperature, airspeed, and CO2
  • Plant temperature
  • Irrigation water nutrition composition
  • Light levels and spectrum from the point of view of the plants themselves
  • Phenotyping: Plant morphology, growth, and deficiencies 

Differences between air temperature and plant temperature indicate whether the leaves’ stomata are open. If not, the plant cannot absorb CO2 and convert it into biomass. In the case of irrigation water monitoring, pH (acidity), EC (electrical conductivity), and iron and magnesium levels of the water can be measured to ensure maximal crop yields.

Plant growth rates can be monitored and controlled from data collected on plant size, height, weight, and color. Cameras take images of the plants to track their development and compare them to data captured in previous growth cycles under similar conditions. Cameras can also help prevent future problems by detecting early-stage growth deficiencies (such as tip-burn) and diseases.

Sensors can be put anywhere within a growth layer, and data is sent wirelessly for processing. Cloud applications retrieve this data and visualize the most useful information for specialists and farmers. The sensor platform development is part of Horizon 2020 Internet of Food (H2020 IoF), a European Commission (EC) innovation project closely collaborating with Staay Food Group.

Piping For Your Vertical Farming Equipment

Pipes link the nutrient reservoir to the growing trays in which the plants grow. Water and nutrients flow through these pipes from the reservoir to the growing tray and back. PVC piping is usually used since it is white and hence does not retain heat. Here’s how to build a PVC pipe network for a Hydroponic farm. 

What Is The Best Vertical Farming System

Deciding on the best vertical farming system can be done according to the following criteria: 

  • Commercial viability
  • Ratio of crop yield to inputs
  • Ease and cost of start-up 
  • Technical know-how required
  • Access to specialist vertical farming equipment

Aquaponics has an advantage in commercial viability since it delivers both fish and crop yields. In terms of crop yield ratio to inputs, aeroponics is the winner. Since crop roots using the aeroponics method are suspended in air and not in a water-nutrient medium such as in hydroponics, they receive more oxygen. Hence crops grow faster and bigger, resulting in higher crop yields than hydroponics.

Aeroponic systems also use up to 25% less water and space than hydroponics. Also, since crop roots are not continuously immersed in a nutrient-water solution, they are not as vulnerable to bacterial diseases. The downside to Aeroponics systems is that they have higher start-up costs and require more technical know-how to set up and run than Hydroponic systems.

Vertical Farming Automation

Most environmental inputs such as lighting, temperature, nutrients, and water are left to nature and chance in traditional farming. Vertical farming equipment, in contrast, allows for high-tech monitoring that seeks to finely tune and control these inputs and conditions. To understand VF automation better, take a look at GP solutions, a site devoted to enthusiasts wishing to build their own growth pod or mobile farm.

Vertical farming practices Controlled Environmental Agriculture (CEA) is an enclosed farming method that enables weather-independent food production and ensures maximal crop growth all year round, controlling inputs and the environment via vertical farming equipment. 

You can learn more about CEA on this online platform for vertical farming enthusiasts, organized by The Association for Vertical Farming (AFV), a German registered NGO promoting international exchange and cooperation to develop the indoor/vertical farming industry. Cambridge Consultants provides further info on CEA tech.

Because input parameters may be too exacting to be done manually, achieving the required degree of fine and control requires automation. Some vertical farms are 30 feet high, so manually adjusting the lighting, fertigation, and irrigation for all plants will be costly, inefficient, and impractical. Automation is the only practical solution.

Automated systems should alert you when there’s a problem and allow you to access and manage everything remotely.

What Vertical Farming Equipment Should You Automate?

To have the required fine control over all the salient inputs and environmental conditions in your vertical farm, you should automate the following: Light, Humidity, Airflow, Air and root zone temperature, Nutrient levels, pH, and EC.

Using Automated-Dosing Systems To Deliver Nutrients

In vertical farming equipment, automatic-dosing systems are commonly used to continuously assess the reservoir’s nutrient concentrations, pH, EC levels, and water temperature. Usually, the dosing machine is linked to the nutrient source by peristaltic pumps that pump the needed dose of nutrients and dispense them into the reservoir. 

Probes placed in the reservoir measure EC and pH levels in real-time and restart the dosing cycle if necessary. Automated dosing enables growers to control the nutrient solution without spending a lot of time fixing pH, EC, nutrients, and temperature. Also, the high level of precision in nutrient supply avoids plant shock and stunted growth, which are often consequences of unbalanced growth conditions.

The Need For Automated Light Control

Intuitively, the plants’ light level and spectrum should be deducible from the type and number of LED lighting used. However, research has found that from the plant’s point of view, light levels can deviate as much as 2x from the objectively measured light level installed between and above the plants. This value difference mainly depends on the plant density in the growing area. To ensure optimal growth conditions, this difference needs to be continuously tracked using vertical farming equipment.

AI Applications In Vertical Farming

AI researchers are currently developing mathematical models to couple ideal growth conditions with realized growth results in a process known as ‘supervised learning.’ This will enable farmers to predict the precise growth conditions needed to achieve optimal growth and meet specific grower needs. AI techniques like machine learning can analyze images of plant growth to detect unexpected deviations or growth deficiencies immediately.

Vertical Farming Equipment and Sustainability

Vertical farming is the 21st-century solution to the negative impact traditional farming has on the environment. By clearing away forests and woodland in favor of growing large-scale commercial monocultures, conventional commercial farming is guilty of soil erosion, groundwater contamination through pesticide and chemical fertilizer use, and biodiversity reduction. By radically reducing the land space and water required and eliminating the need for soil and pesticides, vertical farming is far more environmentally friendly. 

By producing food directly in cities, supply lines and transport costs can be radically reduced. Since global food shortages are more a problem of distribution than insufficient amounts grown, Vertical farming could also be a solution to the food insecurity experienced in many parts of the world.

Many traditionally farmed crops are eaten by insects and animals, resulting in damaged crops being discarded. In VF, they are protected from this. Water and nutrients can also be measured precisely, so there is no waste. Vegetables and exotic fruit can be grown anywhere instead of being farmed in suitable climates and then expensively transported to customers.

Many vertical farms worldwide display a staggering resource use efficiency compared to traditional outdoor farms. For example, the New Jersey, USA-based Aerofarms covers a horizontal area of 14,164m2and provides 2million pounds of leafy greens annually. If it were to unstack its crops along a single flat plane, it would cover 139,931m2. 

In the US, Bowery Farms uses 95% less water than outdoor farms. Per ft2 of farmland, it is 100 x more productive and uses no pesticides or chemicals.

The French vertical farm, AgriCool, has farms placed in recycled shipping containers throughout Paris, where coriander and strawberries are grown, less than 15 km away from their customer. They are also powered by 100% renewable energy

Emirates Flight Catering partnered with CropOne in 2018 to build the biggest vertical farm in the world. This aligns with the UAE’s aim for agricultural self-sufficiency, according to His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman and CEO of Emirates Airline and Group. 

Forbes shares insight into how VF is busy disrupting the traditional food industry.  You can also check out this video for more information on the future of sustainability.

What Can You Grow With Vertical Farming Equipment?

In theory, vertical farming equipment allows the cultivation of all kinds of vegetables and herbs, medicinal plants, and fruit. However, not every crop is commercially viable. Leafy greens and herbs have always been popular with indoor farmers. A 2017 WWF report on indoor agriculture showed that 57% of indoor and vertical farms grow leafy greens. The most common are basil, lettuce, chards, chives, kale, collard greens, mint, and bok choy.

Image showing leafy greens growing in vertical trays.
Leafy greens are one of the most efficient crops in vertical farming.

Greens such as kale, lettuce, spinach, and swiss chard are easy to produce on vertical farms, as they need little space and can be harvested in weeks. To make the best use of space, farmers usually stack leafy greens on top of one another. Also, these vegetables can renew their leaves, allowing for a second and a third harvest. This lowers additional costs, in fewer seed purchases, and allows farmers to sell high-quality produce all year round.

Tomatoes and eggplants are grown only for their fruits. The remaining larger parts of the plant are discarded. With leafy greens, vertical growers can sell a huge part of the plant, so not a lot of it gets wasted. This eliminates extra energy costs and time-consuming tasks such as the proper disposal of plants or composting.

Eggplants and pumpkins grow heavy fruits that can be damaged in vertical systems. This can be solved by using support platforms and grow cages.  

Another problem is pollination. Vine crops require insect pollination to produce fruits, which is impossible in indoor agriculture. As a result, vertical farmers have to hand-pollinate these plants or apply blossom set sprays.

Final Thoughts on Vertical Farming Equipment

Vertical farming practices CEA and is inevitably a high-tech business requiring sophisticated automation. Smart equipment such as HVAC and automated dosing systems enables farmers to grow food in urban centers, shortening supply lines and utilizing less land and resources for higher crop yields.

New AI techniques such as machine learning coupled with Big Data and the burgeoning Internet of Things progressively make vertical farming equipment more smart and efficient, contributing to a more food secure and more agriculturally sustainable environment.  

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