The global food industry is being affected by numerous external factors, including climate change, decreased availability of arable land, and world population growth, among others. One farming technique that many believe can combat some of these problems is vertical farming. If you would like more information or are looking to set up a vertical farming platform, consider these fundamental tips on vertical farming for beginners.
Vertical farming is the technique whereby plant crops are grown vertically, one above the other, to maximize area output. There are three primary vertical farming methods: hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics. All employ soil-free growing mechanisms with reduced water consumption.
Vertical farming offers a range of new opportunities for the average person. You can practice this farming method on a home-based, small scale, and large scale platform. If you are looking to supplement your household’s greens or you are looking to supplement your income, vertical farming offers you an opportunity to do this.
Vertical Farming for Beginners: How-To
Vertical farming is a type of agriculture where crops are grown in vertically stacked layers in a controlled environment. Vertical farms can be built using artificial or natural light, and they often make use of hydroponic or aeroponic systems to minimize water usage. One advantage of vertical farming is that it allows growers to produce more food in a smaller space. Controlled environment agriculture maximises plant growth in conditions where lighting, temperature, and nutrient uptake can be managed and can lessen the need for pesticides and other dangerous chemicals.
When starting vertical farming at home, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. First, you’ll need to provide enough light for your plants. This can be done with artificial lighting such as LEDs, or by using natural light from windows or skylights. Second, you’ll need to design your vertical garden so that plants have enough space to grow. This means considering the height and width of each layer as well as the spacing between plants. Finally, you’ll need to make sure your vertical garden has adequate drainage so that excess water can drain away from the roots of your plants. With a little planning, vertical farming can be a great way to produce fresh, healthy food at home.
One of the great things about vertical farming is the option to set up your farm almost anywhere. If you are going for a small-scale system, you could set it up in your basement, spare room, attic, roof, or garden. Larger scale operations can utilize old buildings, warehouses, shipping containers, and areas where arable land is in short supply. Vertical farms can reach up to seven layers high, taking up far less space than your typical farm.
There is evidence of vertical farming throughout history, including the water gardens of the Aztecs and the hanging gardens of Babylon. The modern idea of vertical farming was introduced to society by Dickson Despommier in a concept he proposed in 1999 and later wrote about in his book, which he published in 2010. The initial design centered around a skyscraper that could feed around 50000 people. Although this plan has never seen fruition, it popularized the modern concept of vertical farming.
Vertical farming has the potential to produce crops year-round with the reduced use of pathogens, herbicides, and insecticides. Using less water and taking up less space, vertical farms are also an excellent way for households to produce some of their foods, saving money. Regarding the distance between crop and consumer, you can set up vertical farms in urban centers, reducing transportation costs and crop loss from traveling time.
Nearly all of the different vertical farming methods use soilless growing techniques. There are three primary methods: hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics.
Hydroponic vertical farming is the most widely used growing system. This method replaces the soil with a growing medium such as coco peat, perlite, coconut fibre, gravel, etc. You then place your plant so that its roots get submerged in a nutrient-rich liquid solution where they can absorb nutrients directly from the water.
You will need to keep the water circulating to prevent stagnation and algae and bacterial buildup. Monitoring the system is also essential to ensure that your plants receive the correct amounts of nutrients.
For those looking for more information about hydroponic farming, this video can help. The video explains why hydroponic systems work well, the six different hydroponic applications available, and some of the advantages and disadvantages of this farming method.
Aeroponics is a deviation from the hydroponics system that utilizes misting mechanisms to provide plant roots with the nutrients and minerals needed for optimum growth. This system does away with all growing substrates and uses hardly any water. Instead, you suspend the plants inside units where connecting pipes run underneath and spray mists of nutrient-rich water directly onto the roots.
Studies have shown that plants in this system absorb more nutrients than in your typical hydroponics system. The costs of installing this system are higher, but you can expect a reduction in the long-term costs because of the decreased water and fertilizer usage. When it comes to aeroponics, the technicalities involved are more advanced, and if you decide to use this type of system, you will need to ensure that you understand all of the factors involved.
Aquaponics creates an amalgamation between fish and crop farming, creating a symbiotic relationship. This form is the least practiced, so might not be suitable as vertical farming. In this system, fish are grown in large containers, and the waste they generate in their water becomes fertilizer for the plants. The water gets pumped from the fish tanks to the plants, allowing them to absorb the nutrients and purify the water before returning to the fish containers.
Many critics believe that this vertical farming method splits the farmers’ focus, resulting in neither the fish farm nor the crops receiving the attention they need. Although, some small-scale vertical farmers have found that this system best suits their needs and the demands of their local communities.
If you would like a better understanding of aquaponics, how it works, and what you would need to get started in your aquaponics farming system, then watching this video should help.
What Is Controlled Environmental Agriculture?
The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences describes controlled environment agriculture (CEA) as a variety of systems encompassing a technological approach to farming. These CEA systems can range from simple structures to greenhouses to full-scale vertical or indoor farms.
There is a range of different levels of CEA, with the most advanced controlling all aspects of the plants’ growth, including water, lighting, ventilation, and temperature. These advanced systems are fully automated closed-loop systems.
CEA is an important mechanism for combating crop growth disruption caused by climate change and reductions in available agricultural land. These CEA systems have a specific design that provides crops with optimal growing conditions tailored to their needs, preventing pest and disease damage. CEA’s are also great for saving water as they employ growing techniques that use less water.
How Does Small Scale Indoor Farming Work?
Small-scale indoor farmers fill a niche by supplying local communities with fresh food supply. It works by finding out what crops are in demand in the area or what crops are too expensive for the average person due to seasonality or traveling distance from farm to consumer. Once they know which crops are in demand, small-scale farmers can grow these crops and sell them in their surrounding areas. They can also reduce spoils by reducing the distance the crops have to travel from farm to consumer.
This farming method can employ vertically stacked growing layers, a great way to reduce growing space while optimizing output. Often small-scale indoor farms use environmentally controlled agriculture, which means that they control how much light, heat, water, and nutrients their crops get and when they get them. These indoor farm setups often use soilless growing techniques that require less water than an outdoor setup.
Every aspiring indoor farmer will need to map out a feasibility plan to ensure their success, considering several aspects before starting an indoor farming operation. Two primary elements include:
- Demand: Before deciding which crops you will grow, it would be best to do market research. Find out what is in need in your local area. Growing crops that are not in need might result in you landing up with large quantities of products that you cannot sell.
- Crops: Different crops have different nutrients, lighting, and heat requirements. Ensuring that you can provide them with what they need without the costs exceeding your income is essential. There is no point in growing crops that will cost a fortune to produce but not bring enough revenue to cover those costs.
Four Factors Of Vertical Farming
There are several critical aspects to consider when setting up a vertical farm. One of the most important factors is economics. If your crops are not in demand or labor costs are too high, your vertical farming setup may fail. Amy Storey of Maximum Yield breaks down the economic considerations of vertical farming into four sections, dubbed the four factors of vertical farming. We will summarize her findings here:
1. Efficiency and Productivity of Your Space
Before you begin vertical farming, you must decide what type of farming technique you will employ. Go for the options that will best suit your space and how much product you are looking to produce. There are two main types of vertical farming setups. These include the vertically stacked shelves and the vertical plane or tower system, both of these systems maximize space usage.
The stacked systems can only use one side as you cannot grow crops upside down. Vertical farmers that utilize this system have redeemed this wasted space by installing their lights underneath, but this does limit their growing area.
Vertical farmers that utilize the tower or plane system have found a way to combat space waste. In this system, you can grow your crops along the plane, allowing for better use of space. The following video briefly explains how the tower system works.
2. Labor Costs
A large percentage of production costs goes to the cost of labor. There are several ways to reduce labor costs, but the best way is to streamline or automate the production process. One way of doing this is to ensure that your crops are easily accessible. If your crops are accessible, it will reduce the risks of corner-cutting, people often skip inconvenient tasks, minimize inconvenience, and you will reduce costs.
To increase profitability, you should only grow as much produce as is necessary. The more you grow, the more labor you will need to employ. The best way to go about this would be to find out the demand and find a way to meet it. If the demand increases, you can look to improve as well. Start with less and build your way up, rather than starting with too much, suffering a loss in profit.
4. Plant Health And Environment
Ensuring that the system you have set up is the best for your plant’s health and the overall environment of your vertical farm is also essential. If you find that the position your lights are in is negatively affecting your plants, look to move them to a better place before you experience a loss of crops. Likewise, if there is insufficient airflow among your plants, they will also suffer.
The best practice is to try and go for an initial perfect system, but this doesn’t always work out, keep an eye on your crops initially, and change things up if need be.
What Can Be Grown On A Vertical Farm?
The Eco Warrior Princess explains that you can grow two crop types on your vertical farm: fast-growing crops and slow-growing crops. Depending on your requirements, you might wish to choose one or the other or plant both.
- Slow-growing crops: Include ‘woody’ herbs such as rosemary and oregano and fruiting crops such as tomatoes and strawberries. These crops might be tricky to grow with a long wait before seeing rewards, but they are often more lucrative.
- Fast-growing crops: These are your typical leafy greens, including kale, spinach, swiss chard, lettuce, cabbage, mustard greens, herbs such as mint, cilantro, basil, parsley, and various microgreens. These crops typically take around six weeks from the start to harvest.
Eco Warrior Princess suggests that a vertical farm should start with 80% greens and 20% herbs. Before deciding which crops to grow on your vertical farm, you should think about a few things. These include:
- The demand: If you are growing to sell, then you should first discover if there is a local demand for your chosen crop. You don’t want to produce a crop that you can’t sell because there is no demand.
- Growing technique: The costs involved in the method you have chosen to use on your vertical farm will impact which crop you use. You will want to keep your overhead costs to a minimum when you start.
- Climate: Different crops require different climatic conditions. Choose crops that have similar lighting and temperature requirements. This way, you can optimize your output.
- Harvesting times: It is also essential to know how long it will take from start to harvest. It would be best to select a mixture of slow-growing and fast-growing crops. This way, you know that you have a six-week wait for the first round, which can carry you over until your slow growers are ready to harvest.
The Pros Of Vertical Farming
Despommier listed several social and environmental benefits of vertical farming in his book. Benke & Tomkins later summarized these benefits in their 2017 paper on the future of food production systems. Let’s look at some of the authors’ pros regarding vertical farming.
- Maximizes growing space
- You can grow crops continuously throughout the year.
- Reduces the use of pathogens, eliminating the need for herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.
- Reduces transport costs
- Reduces fossil fuel emissions by eliminating the need for farm machinery.
- Utilizes water recycling and conservation, reducing the amount of water you need by up to 90% for crop growth.
The Cons Of Vertical Farming
As with most things, vertical farming comes with its issues. Many of these issues will hopefully find solutions in the future, but as it stands, they can cause some inconveniences for the beginner vertical farmer. Critics of this farming method worry if the cons will outweigh the overall benefits. The following are some of the cons of vertical farming.
- Building and land costs are much higher in urban areas.
- Infrastructure costs are very high. Buying all the equipment to start is a costly endeavor. You can also expect some hidden expenses, which you will probably only notice once you start your operation.
- Energy consumption is high. Vertical farming uses a lot of energy in artificial lighting, temperature control, water pumps, etc.
- There is a limited variety of growable fruits and vegetables.
- Lack of natural pollination, such as bees, necessitates hand pollination. Some vertical farmers combat this problem by introducing honey bees into their vertical farming environment. This way, the bees offer a means to pollinate the crops, but they also supply honey.
Final Thoughts on Vertical Farming for Beginners
Vertical farming can be done at the home-based level, or can be small- or large-scale, depending on the demand and the needs of those installing the systems and the surrounding areas. There are three primary types of vertical farming setups: hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics. These systems can either be run horizontally or on a tower system.
Before setting up your vertical farm, you need to create a feasibility plan. This plan should include if there is a demand for your product, the costs involved, which system you should use depending on your available space, and which crops you should grow. With the changing world, everyone should be looking into providing for themselves and, if they can, for others. Vertical farming is a way to do this, and if you can, you should do it for yourself.