How to Design a Successful Vertical Farm : Vertical farming provides a practical and cost-effective way to bring food production to congested spaces. Getting a vertical farm off the ground requires more than just a green thumb and some warehouse space, though. Read on to find out how to design a successful vertical farm and start harvesting crops indoors in city environments.
What Is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming is an indoor cultivation technique that maximizes the use of space for plant production. It involves layering multiple crops or types of crops in a highly controlled vertical hydroponic or container-based system. Those who are already familiar with indoor growing can think of it like a traditional hydroponic or container garden but on multiple levels.
The Four Key Design Factors
There are four key design factors that future vertical farmers must keep in mind if they want to bring down large, high-quality yields. They mimic processes that occur in nature but would otherwise be absent in a man-made system. The four factors are:
- Climate control
- Nutrient control
- Vertical integration
There’s little sense in purchasing seeds or rootstock until future farmers know exactly how they will provide for all the plants’ needs, so this is a good place to start. Let’s take a look at what factors farmers need to take into account before they start the design phase.
All indoor farms and gardens require some form of artificial lighting. Farmers and growers who are still in the beginning stages of taking their operations indoors can get the basics down by visiting Agron and reading through their educational materials. However, vertical farming is a little more complicated than a normal hydroponic or container-based garden.
Since plants will be grown on multiple levels, hanging lights from the ceiling isn’t always the best solution. Most vertical farmers purchase specialized ballasts and use LED lights that emit very little heat so they can keep their lighting as close to the plants’ canopies as possible. Some modern farmers also go in for more advanced options like installing rotating beds or utilizing smart lights, but they won’t make up for inadequate lighting for all levels of the vertical farm.
Plants can only grow and thrive under the right climate conditions. Vertical farms need good temperature, humidity, and air handling systems. In most cases, the building’s HVAC system will be able to handle heating and cooling demands. Without adequate ventilation and air handling systems in place, though, high humidity can negatively impact plants’ cellular respiration processes and create a perfect environment for the spread of fungal diseases. It’s worth taking the time to investigate options like dehumidification systems, exhaust fans, or specialized HVAC systems that manage humidity and airflow as well as temperature control.
Plants don’t get all the energy they need from photosynthesis alone. They require nutrients as well as light and water. Every species has a different set of requirements, but all terrestrial plants need macronutrients like nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) along with a smaller amount of micronutrients to fuel healthy growth and crop production. How they get those nutrients is largely a matter of farmers’ preferences.
There are four types of systems that are appropriate for vertical farming. On a small scale, container farming using soil, amendments, and fertilizers can work. However, most large-scale vertical farms eschew this traditional practice in favor of hydroponic or aeroponic systems. Hydroponic and aeroponic setups remove soil from the equation entirely. They’re similar systems, but while hydroponics gives plants access to nutrients via a water-based solution, aeroponics involves leaving the roots exposed and spraying them with nutrients.
Finally, some more sustainability-minded vertical farmers introduce elements of aquaponics into their farms. Aquaponics involves cultivating both plants and fish. The fish provide beneficial nutrients via a hydroponic system, while the plants filter the water so the fish can thrive. The benefits of vertical aquaponics systems include improved sustainability, water conservation, and added crop value.
Not all indoor farms are vertical farms. To qualify as a vertical farm, the plants must be cultivated on multiple levels in the same room. Warehouses are perfect for this approach since they have high ceilings that can accommodate tall towers of plants and all the equipment required to maintain optimal temperatures, humidity levels, light, and nutrient delivery. The key in designing a vertically integrated farm is to maximize crop production by ensuring that the plants have just enough space to grow and thrive and receive as much light as possible.
Crop Selection for Vertical Farming
It may be tempting to assume that since vertical farming occurs indoors in a highly controlled environment, that means it’s suitable for all crops. While it’s true that vertical farmers can grow almost any kind of annual plants, and even some perennials, that doesn’t mean they should. Farmers need to consider these factors when selecting crops:
- Local demand
- Time to harvest
- Climate requirements
If the idea is to get crops out to market as fast as possible, farmers may want to stick with fast-turn crops like lettuce, potherbs, and other greens. Most of these crops will be ready for harvest in six weeks or less. Slow turn crops have higher revenue margins but require more inputs and time to grow than leafy greens. It’s also perfectly fine to plant a combination of crops as long as they all have similar climate requirements.
Vertical Farming Is the Future
With climate change poised to wreak havoc on agricultural lands across the globe and the costs associated with water scarcity on the rise, vertical farming poses a viable solution. A well-designed system can help to conserve water, avoid the impacts of inclement weather, and provide reliable, year-long access to fresh food.
The best part is, designing sustainability features like LED lighting, aquaponic systems, or even wind turbines into the vertical farm from the beginning can help to offset both the financial and environmental costs of producing food for city-dwellers, often right in their backyards. It takes a large initial investment to get started, but the payoffs will be worth it.
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