Vertical farming has its roots in NASA programs and otherscientific studies, and was conceptualized as far back as 1909 when the ideawas featured in Life Magazine. Since then, the idea has made steady progress, alongwith the agricultural concepts of hydroponics and aquaponics. Back in 2000, then teacher Dickson Despommier, Ph. D.
, asked his students what they thoughtthe world would look like in the year 2050. Their main concern was how to feedthe billions of people who would reside in urban areas and places wherefarmland is scarce. The students calculated what it would take to turn all ofNew Jersey’s rooftops into gardens, and found that even if all of it wascultivated, it would only provide enough food for about two percent of the predictedpopulation of 2050. Despommier continued to encourage his students to findanswers, giving them examples such as the indoor agricultural methods that werepioneered by NASA to grow food on other planets.
This is part of the story ofhow vertical farming became a reality. In 2010 Despommier wrote a book, and by2011 there were already farms being cultivated in England, Holland, Korea, andJapan. One of the very first vertical farm grow towers was built inan elementary school in Newark and is still in operation today. The kids lovegrowing their own baby greens and learning all about biology, chemistry, math, and farming. It’s a small-scale version of a program now run by AeroFarms whichwill someday help feed the world. AeroFarms is housed in four buildings in Newark, and theprimary location was a former paintball and laser-tag amusement center.
Now thespace is full of row after row of eight-level vertical towers and techniciansin white coats. The company is run by David Rosenberg, Marc Oshima, and EdHarwood. Harwood is considered by many to be the original evangelist ofvertical farming. With Harwood’s patented mesh fabric and a proprietary spraynozzle, AeroFarms grows and ships more than a thousand tons of greens annually.
Vertical farming relies heavily on technology. AeroFarms’seventy thousand square feet of structure contains grow tables that are stackedtwelve layers tall and stocked with bok choy, watercress, red-leaf lettuce, andother baby greens. The whole process is monitored and maintained byalgorithm-driven computers and sensors that take the seedlings all the waythrough the sprouting process to maturation within eighteen days. This is ayield that is 350 times greater than traditional farming techniques and usesonly one percent of the water needed to irrigate most land farms. This kind offarming also has the benefit of freeing up depleted farmlands and giving them amuch-needed rest, and hopefully reversing some of the despoliation of theearth.
These farms can be housed in shipping containers, warehouses or anyother enclosed structure that can provide a controlled environment. Verticalfarming, along with hydroponic or aeroponic systems, can consume less water, and create less ocean pollution from agricultural runoff, and be used toencourage independence from the restrictions of seasonal growing. Seattle, Houston, Brooklyn, Detroit, Queens, and Chicago arejust a few of the cities that are working with the idea of vertical farming ina variety of different forms.
With the possibility of creating local homegrownhealthy food in any neighborhood, vertical farming shows the greatest promisefor solving many environmental, economic, and food shortage crises. Verticalfarming will probably never replace traditional farming completely, but thetechnology is a viable alternative. It is a complementary method of growing thefood we need, at a cost that doesn’t break us or the environment.