by | Sep 21, 2022 | Ask The Experts

Vertical farms yield more produce per acre of soil, use significantly fewer land and water resources, are environmentally-conscious, and are able to grow crops year-round despite adverse weather conditions. Albeit these are very positive things to associate with vertical farming, there are challenges that should be highlighted too.

The three leading advantages of vertical farming include:

  1. Geographic Versatility
  2. Improved Crop Quality
  3. Year-Round Production

The three leading challenges of vertical farming include:

  1. Energy Dependency
  2. Advanced, Technical Knowledge Needed
  3. Susceptibility to Water-Borne Diseases/Pests

3 Leading Advantages of Vertical Farming

Geographic Versatility – Barren or Arid Regions

Vertical farming systems allow for upward expansion which means higher productivity in a smaller area. This is advantageous in areas where land is scarce (i.e. urban spaces), as well as regions that have challenging climates or areas that aren’t suited for traditional agriculture (i.e. remote locations, food deserts).

DYK? Depending on the type of crop grown, one acre of a vertical farm is the equivalent of approximately twenty soil-based acres.

In most instances, produce from conventional farms must travel long distances – sometimes across continents and oceans – to marketplaces in cities and rural areas. In fact, when it comes to food production, transportation to the consumer is usually the most expensive part of the supply chain. It is during this arduous journey when produce can become damaged or spoiled, resulting in it being discarded.

Growing food closer to where consumers live, such as operating vertical farms within a city or metropolitan area, significantly reduces shipping time from farm fields to grocery stores. In addition to reducing transportation costs, CO2 emissions, and food waste, this approach results in fresher and more profitable produce.

Improved Quality of Crops

In conventional agriculture farming, crop losses caused by disease, pests, and weeds, range from 20% to 40% of the yield that would otherwise be harvested. This represents a massive challenge to food security and food safety. Through the use of agriculture technologies that promote and support optimal crop care and growth conditions – plant quality, nutrient content, and flavor can be precisely controlled in a vertical farm.

Controlled conditions within vertical farms provide a natural barrier that keeps insects out and prevents fungal growth. Because pesticides are not needed, this guarded approach results in extraordinary crop performance which yields healthier and safer produce for consumers. Additionally, because plants grow in a protected, closely-monitored, and well-managed environment, it provides assurances for growers and results in predictable harvest times, improved volume, and repeatable production with consistent flavor and quality. This stable crop off-take allows vertical farms to meet their consumers’ demand.

In some instances, the vertical farm environment not only improves the quality of produce, it enhances the health benefits. For example, scientists from the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences discovered that by increasing exposure to the blue light spectrum, watercress’ anti-cancer compound can be enhanced.

Watercress grown in indoor, vertical farms has the highest phytonutrient content and yield, compared to cress grown in soil in California and in traditional, outdoor farms in the United Kingdom.

UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences – Scientia Horticulturae

Given that there is a more controlled environment and fewer adverse effects to contend with, vertical farming processes prevent crop loss or damage, and encourage larger, more consistent crop yields. In doing so, it helps to lower operating expenses and increase farm profits.

Potential For Year-Round Production

The impact that extreme and adverse weather conditions can have on crop production, yield, and quality, is a considerable disadvantage to traditional agriculture. Crops grown in a vertical farm are not dependent on the weather or restricted by seasons.

By controlling the environment, a vertical farm can operate independently of unfavorable external weather and light conditions, making them viable for all types of regions; including those that are affected by catastrophic weather-related events, such as ever-increasing floods and droughts. Moreover, crops grown in a controlled environment are not affected by seasonality, enabling farms to match production with demand all year round. This ensures that consumers can benefit from locally-grown, fresh, nutritious produce with better taste and quality, any time of year.

3 Leading Challenges of Vertical Farming

Energy Dependency

Vertical farms are very energy-dependent. They require a high amount of power to operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. As such, the energy demands for the extensive lighting and climate control systems needed for vertical farming are tremendous.

Where traditional farming is dependent upon the sun for light, indoor farms typically rely on LED lighting. For the moment, LED lights consume a lot of energy, making them costly to operate. In some facilities, this high consumption represents up to 65% of a vertical farm’s energy expenses.

DYK? Thanks to continued innovation, there are solutions which harness the excess energy released from LED lights and reuse it elsewhere within the farm, or in some instances transfer it back to the national grid.

Vertical farms are highly-dependent upon technology and equipment to monitor and maintain the farm’s environment, including humidity and temperature. Controlling the humidity and temperature within a vertical farm is achieved through costly and energy-intensive heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. If the farm were to lose power for an extended period, crop losses would be substantial. To address this dependency, backup systems can be introduced to ensure continuous operation during power disruptions and outages.

Advanced, Technical Knowledge Needed

Vertical farms require an advanced-level of technical “know how” to set up, monitor, and maintain.

Minimizing the need for human labor comes at a cost. “Smart Farming” uses modern information and communication technologies –  like IoT, AI, robotics, advanced imaging, and drones to increase the quantity and quality of crop production, as well as optimize the efficiency of human labor in the farm. Although fully-automated indoor growing systems do not need a lot of manual labour to produce crops year-round, they do require an advanced-level of understanding to configure, supervise, and sustain them.

A vertical farmer will need to know plant science, plant nutrition, and integrated pest management. Beyond that, a basic understanding of machinery, mechanics, and engineering will also be critical … if a mobile tray, a pump, or a machine breaks, you need to understand the mechanics of your system in order to fix it quickly.

Jeffrey Landau, Director of Business Development, Agritecture

In addition to advanced knowledge of horticulture and engineering, leadership skills, management experience, financial literacy, adept communication, and sharp observation skills are also needed to operate a profitable vertical farming operation.

Susceptibility to Water-Borne Diseases/Pests

Vertical farming systems can be susceptible to water-borne diseases or pests caused by pathogenic microbes spread through contaminated water. Once they have entered the farm’s water network, these microbes can spread quickly from plant-to-plant, due to the interconnectedness of systems.

Although, by isolating plants from the outside environment vertical farms provide a high degree of protection for crops, the safeguarding is not comprehensive. Careful consideration must be given to the way in which crop inputs, packaging, staff, etc., enter the growing area and the potential contamination risk they pose. For example, equipment that is operating close to or above growing crops can pose a contamination risk.

Waterborne pathogens spread in a variety of ways, including direct contact with water, aerosols, aspiration of water and inhalation of water aerosols, and indirect transfer from moist environmental surfaces via hands.

The Center For Disease Control (CDC)

The design of the vertical farm’s systems must facilitate appropriate hygiene practices and standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be used to ensure disciplined monitoring and cleaning of the farm’s infrastructure, including racks, floats, trays, pipes etc.

DYK? Nano-sized bubbles – 2500x smaller than a grain of salt – increase the oxidation-reduction potential, which reduces and effectively eliminates microbes on plastic and stainless steel surfaces within five minutes of exposure.

Conclusion

Vertical farming offers benefits over other methods of plant production. While the crops produced by traditional farming are limited by geography and seasonal changes, vertical farms enable operators to grow quality, regional or seasonal crops indoors, year-round. That said, with these advantages come a few challenges too.

Operating a vertical farm is a resource-intensive operation. The constant need for energy and labor resources to maintain farming operations is a challenge for many indoor farms. Even with the introduction of new, cutting-edge advancements in agriculture technology, the underlying demands for energy and knowledgeable people to power farming systems remains.