Vertical Farming Pros and Cons: 8 mportant Facts

Image showing strawberries, a crop that shows vertical farming pros and cons.

If you are an urbanite and don’t have a garden, you might consider indoor vertical farming. Or, if you have a garden but feel that vertical farming indoors might offer you benefits, you need to consider the advantages and disadvantages of this farming method. Vertical gardening can be done in many ways, but whatever you choose, you can grow nutritious and fresh vegetables all year round in a small area or even upscale to produce for the market. 

Vertical farming uses less land and water, ensures consistency, and cuts transport costs and carbon emissions. The disadvantages are capital outlay, especially for commercially viable units, sophisticated technology requiring specialized expertise, and it uses lots of electricity.

As with anything new, indoor vertical farming can appear daunting. However, you can start on a small scale and expand as your need and expertise develops. You can try the organic route if you believe in the goodness of soil, compost, and worm casting tea, or you can invest in a hydroponic system under lights and aim for maximum all-year production. Whatever you choose, here are the main vertical farming pros and cons.

Vertical Farming Pros and Cons

As with everything else, there are pros and cons when it comes to Vertical farming. This is especially true if you are setting up indoors and have limited space. However, growing even the smallest area for your consumption and pleasure can be rewarding. And if needs be, as your expertise increases and you decide to turn your hobby into a commercial venture, it is always possible to find unused space, whether for hire or buy.

It is worth noting that the term vertical farming is a broad one. There are many ways in which you can do vertical farming. An online search will reveal everything from growing tomatoes in your garden and staking them on a tripod or trellis to industrial warehouses farming various vegetables hydroponically using the latest technology. Between these two extremes is an assortment of products you can attach to walls or scaffolding with pockets or holes for growing anything from strawberries to lettuce. 

Image showing lettuce growing in a vertical farm.
Vertical farms are perfectly suited to leafy greens.

The Advantages Of Vertical Farming 

There are many advantages to vertical farming in general and advantages to specific types of vertical farming. Vertical farming indoors with soil and compost is only viable on a small scale. Most commercial indoor vertical farming is done hydroponically.

Vertical Farming Uses Less Land

The main advantage of indoor vertical farming or gardening is that you can grow an incredible amount of produce in a smaller area than you would with conventional outdoor farming. As the environmental scientist Susan Miller says: “The main goal of this farming method is to maximize the output of crops in a small or cramped space.” It is estimated that with vertical farming — obviously depending on the type of crop and getting the science right — you can grow the equivalent of what a conventional farmer would grow on ten to twenty acres for every one acre. 

With increasing population pressure and encroachment of rural agricultural land for housing and industrial production, agricultural land is becoming more and more expensive. So, any method of growing edible crops more productively on less land will ensure the ongoing availability of food.

Indoor Vertical Farming Ensures Consistency

When you eliminate the vagaries of nature, it is much easier to produce good crops consistently. In the controlled environment of an indoor production unit, seasonal weather changes are eliminated, and the growing season is extended all year round. According to Robert Laing, the founder of Farm.One, a recently established vertical farm in NYC, you get: “Lower crop failure – indoor farming is far easier to control (with) regards to climate, soil variability, weather and pests. Allows more experimentation with hard-to-grow crops”. 

Being able to grow all year round, you can increase production. With plants like tomatoes, the fruit will ripen from the bottom up, so you can harvest and meet production targets consistently. Harvesting is also much more manageable in an indoor setting because it is not dependent on the weather.

Indoor Vertical Farming Uses Less Water

The most significant advantage of indoor vertical farming is that it uses much less water than conventional farming. Estimates vary as to exactly how much because it depends on the efficiency and type of vertical indoor farming. 

Students from Columbia University’s Master of Science in Sustainability Management program found that “compared to traditional agriculture, vertical farming uses 70 to 95 percent less water.” And in a BBC interview, the chief executive of Urban Crops in Belgium, Maarten Vandecruys, explains: “We made an estimation with oak leaf lettuce and there we are actually at, say 5% [water consumption], compared to traditional growing in fields”. 

The two biggest problems with water consumption in conventional outdoor farming are the amount of water that gets to the plant’s roots and evaporation. Both are addressed with indoor vertical farming. 

Whether your vertical indoor grow uses soil and compost, or you have opted for a sophisticated hydroponic system, the roots are contained in grow bags and are in direct contact with the water administered to them. And if you use inline drip irrigation (available from: drip irrigation kit), the problem of evaporation encountered with outside spray irrigators is eliminated.

The main reason vertical hydroponic farming uses less water is that it is recycled. Water is pumped into the plants, drains through, the nutrients extracted, and is collected and used again. Of course, some of the water is absorbed by the plants and evaporated through the leaves. However, the more sophisticated operations even recapture evaporation from the plants and moisture from the air conditioners!

Vertical Farming Cuts Transport Costs and Reduces Carbon Emissions

As the best-selling novelist and author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver shows, many of the foodstuffs on the shelf in the United States of America has been transported 1,500 miles. She adds: “The US consumes about 400 gallons of oil a year per person for agriculture, a rate of guzzling second only to the car”.

The advantages of producing fresh produce in an urban environment close to the people who will buy and eat the food are enormous. Eating local cuts out long-distance transport of fresh produce and its attendant costs – think of refrigeration, vehicle fuel and wear, the impact on roads, the greenhouse gasses. Buying fresh produce locally also obviates the necessity for the costly and unhealthy bag of tricks that industrial scientists have developed to preserve food and make it look appealing on the shelf. 

Disadvantages Of Vertical Farming

While the advantages of vertical indoor farming or gardening are many, there are some disadvantages you should consider. As the industry expands and becomes more sophisticated, some of these disadvantages may be overcome with scientific advancements, but others are more permanent.

The Capital Outlay For Indoor Vertical Farming Can Be Prohibitive

For small-scale indoor vertical farming, the costs may be manageable, but they will escalate dramatically as the size of the production increases to a commercially viable unit. The price may be minimal for a small home-based setup using grow bags filled with soil and compost and tomatoes or cucumbers trellised up a wall, with natural light on a balcony or windowed room. Even hangable or stackable planters with LED grow lights, and drip irrigation made from discarded plastic bottles is still an affordable option. (Watch this helpful video: How to Make Self Watering from Plastic Bottle and Tube PVC pipe

With the shift to a hydroponic unit using grow bags, growing medium, grow trays, grow stands, nutrient tanks, pumps, distribution equipment (drippers or channels), lights, plant nutrients, and electronic timers, the price makes a substantial jump. Upscale that to a factory size operation that requires temperature regulation (air conditioners/heaters), trained staff, a packaging and marketing arm, and most importantly, suitable premises, and the capital outlay becomes considerable.

Vertical Indoor Farming inhibits Natural Pollination

One of the pros of indoor vertical farming is that it cuts down on insect damage to crops because it is a closed environment. This may be good for harmful insects; it also eliminates the good ones, such as bees and butterflies responsible for pollination under natural conditions.

In a small greenhouse, or if you are growing your vegetables on your balcony or in a room with windows, you can open them to let in natural pollinators such as a breeze, bees, and butterflies. If not, you will have to do it manually, which can be pretty labor-intensive, depending on the size of the operation.

Not all plants require pollination. Some, such as leaf and root vegetables, are self-pollinating and need minimal assistance, but others will not fruit without help. Pollination, therefore, has to be done manually. Some cultivators use a battery-operated hand-held machine that vibrates the plant into releasing its pollen into the air. Leaf blowers are also used. Pollination basics provide an easy-to-follow video on different pollination techniques.

Indoor Vertical Farming Is Artificial

As with genetically engineered seeds and plants, no one knows the long-term impact on human health of growing plants under artificial conditions – artificial light, artificial soil, and a cocktail of chemical nutrients. Organic farmers believe that nothing can beat natural full spectrum sunlight, loamy soil, compost, and worm casting tea to produce wholesome natural fruit and vegetables. Organic in the total sense of the word – not just the absence of pesticides and herbicides – guarantees a healthy growing environment packed with the requisite microorganisms, minerals, and vitamins that plants and their fruit need.

Although indoor vertical farming factories use fewer pesticides and herbicides – fungal and anaerobic infections are a constant danger in the moist closed conditions. All dependent on sophisticated equipment and a steady electricity supply, continuous management and surveillance is needed to ensure that the end product is not contaminated.

Indoor Vertical Farming Threatens Farming Communities

If urban industrial-scale indoor vertical farming becomes the norm, it will directly compete with traditional agriculture and the rural way of life. Farmers and farmworkers, both permanent and seasonal, will be affected. Some might argue that this would be a good thing given the insecurity and low wages associated with this sector – especially the employment of illegal foreign migrants. Still, the impact could be devastating if measures aren’t taken to retrain and absorb this labor force segment.

Mechanization and the increasing capital intensity of industry have long been the enemy of the labor intensity. Urban industrial farming is no exception. Fortunately, many crops are not suited to indoor hydroponic vertical farming – crops such as cereals and potatoes – that require extensive rather than intensive conditions to be produced on a large scale.

You can check out this video on advantages of vertical farming for more information.

How To Set Up Your Own Indoor Vertical Farm

You can follow some practical steps to set up your indoor vertical farm. These range from a simple organic setup to a more complex hydroponic one. The main pros and cons in vertical farming remain the same for every system, particularly factors such as space saving and startup costs.

Keeping Vertical Indoor Farming Simple

You can start very simply with plastic or cloth grow bags. These are available from your local gardening center, hardware store, or online: Plant-Grow-Bags. You can fill these bags with either soil and compost or a hydroponic medium such as expanded clay pellets, coco coir, Rockwool, sawdust, or gravel. You can place them next to a wall and construct a support structure attached to the wall for climbing vegetables such as intermediate (creeper) tomatoes, cucumbers, climbing beans, granadillas, and peas. The possibilities for support structures attached to the wall are endless – a bought constructed trellis, nylon nets, or wire strung between wooden supports.

Various products are available for small indoor growers who want to grow anything from strawberries, lettuce, spinach, potatoes, and tomatoes. These range from interconnected stackable pots to vertical wall hanging planters with varying numbers of pockets. The stackable pots are stacked and connected so that you only have to water the top one, and the water or nutrient liquid will dribble down through each pot into the drip tray at the bottom. Available from: Stackable Planters/Hanging planters

Setting Up A More Sophisticated Hydroponic Vertical Indoor Farm

There are many different hydroponic systems to grow vegetables vertically indoors. The simplest is the Ebb and Flow system

To start with, you will need a grow tray. It should be deep enough to contain the liquid and support the number of grow bags you will use. It will require an exit hole for the water to flow back to the reservoir below. The grow tray will rest on a tray stand. The stand must be of sufficient height to fit the reservoir underneath it so that the water draining out of the grow bags can flow back into the reservoir below. 

The reservoir for the nutrient is the next item you will need. It must have a lid to protect the nutrient solution from light. The top should have two holes—one for the returning nutrient and the other for the feeder tube from the submersible pump. A submersible pump and timer to pump the nutrient up to the plant — such as that used in ornamental fountains — and an electronic timer used to switch swimming pool pumps on and off will do the trick. More extensive systems will need more powerful pumps.

When the nutrient solution is pumped from the reservoir, it needs to be distributed to each grow bag. The optimum way to achieve this is to use inline drippers. These need to be suspended just above the grow bags, each dripper above its bag. You will want grow bags and a growing medium to anchor your plants. To give the roots access to the air, you need net or fabric pots filled with expanded clay pebbles.

If you are using a room or basement that does not have natural light, you will need lights. LED lights are best as they use the least electricity, but neon lights will also work. You can attach a timer to them if you do not want the hassle of having to switch them on and off manually.

There are many different ways to support climbing plants. As with the more straightforward system above, you can buy a ready-made trellis or construct one yourself, use nylon nets, or wire or rope strung between wooden supports. You will need to train your plants to grow vertically up the frame and tie them with cloth strips or plastic ties.

You will need to ensure that the vertical farm is adequately ventilated to prevent anaerobic diseases. If you set up in a basement, heating will also be an issue, especially if you want to grow your crops year-round.

Final Thoughts on Vertical Farming Pros and Cons

There are numerous vertical farming pros and cons when compared to growing food crops on conventional farmland. Chief of these is that not much land is needed, the proximity to urban markets, the small amounts of water required, and the year-round consistency and productivity offered by indoor conditions.

Disadvantages include the high capital costs for large-scale hydroponic units, difficulty with pollination of some crops, the cost of electricity, fungal and anaerobic disease, and the threat it poses to the existing farming community. Either way, it’s worth weighing up these vertical farming pros and cons if you’re thinking of starting your own project.

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