16 min

Everything you need to know about vertical farming

Vertical farming is the ideal solution for growing crops sustainably and efficiently at any desired location.

The popularity and the demand for vertical farming are growing rapidly worldwide. But what exactly is vertical farming? And what are the pros and cons? This blog provides detailed answers to these and many more questions.

What is vertical farming?

In vertical farming, crops are grown vertically rather than horizontally, as opposed to traditional farming in agriculture and greenhouses. The products are grown in several vertically stacked layers, one above the other, allowing for optimal space use. In this innovative and modern method of indoor vertical farming, environmental factors such as temperature, light, humidity, and nutrients are controlled and manipulated. Thus, creating the optimal environment for plants to grow fast, strong and healthy.

Combining the optimal environment for the plant and the clever use of space optimizes production. On a small area, 10 to 15 times more crop output can be achieved than on a field.

Summary: Vertical farming involves growing crops vertically indoors in a controlled and optimized environment.

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A brief history of vertical farming

Although indoor farming has been making rapid inroads in recent years, its history goes a long way back.Some 2,500 years ago, hanging gardens adorned the city of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world mentioned by the ancient Greeks [4]. The hanging gardens are considered the prototype of vertical farming. Many centuries later, in 1915, the term "vertical agriculture" was first used by geologist Gilbert Ellis Bailey. His view on this was very different from our contemporary view. Bailey planned to use explosives to plant crops deeper in the ground [5].In the 1960s, Austrian engineer Othmar Ruthner built several greenhouse towers using hydroponics (you can read more about hydroponics below) [6].Yet the concept of vertical farming did not catch on for a long time due to the high energy and maintenance costs involved with the growing method.

In the early 2000s, vertical farming finally gained a foothold. At that time, plant production systems with multiple layers on top of each other, using artificial lighting, were developed, both in America and Japan [7].After this, the awareness and popularity of vertical farming systems grew rapidly worldwide, and vertical farming companies shot up like mushrooms.

Summary: The history of vertical farming can be traced back to 600 B.C., but from the early 2000s, the concept broke through.

Which crops are suitable for vertical farming

Not all crops can be grown with vertical farming. What characteristics do the most suitable crops have to be grown by vertical farming:

  • The plants are relatively small in size, at around 40 cm or smaller
  • The crops can be grown hydroponically (on water, without soil)
  • The crop is a high-value crop (e.g., because it is difficult to find in the region, there is a high selling price per kg, or there is a high demand for the crop )
  • The crops have a fast growth cycle and produce many kg per m2
  • The price per kg of the crop is high; the higher, the better
  • The popularity of the crop is high in the market where it is sold
  • The product is difficult to grow locally
  • The supply in the market is small

Consider leafy greens (such as spinach, leaf lettuce, and arugula), fresh herbs (such as cilantro, basil, and chives), and microgreens (such as cress, mustard red frills, and radishes).

Other potential crops for vertical agriculture include:

  • Strawberries
  • Saffron
  • Cannabis (propagation)
  • Flowers (propagation)
  • Edible Flowers
  • Grasses
  • Green plant propagation (tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, and more)

Summary: In principle, any crop can be grown in a vertical farm. However, some crops are better suited than others.

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11 benefits of vertical farming

The popularity of vertical farming does not come out of the blue, as vertical farming has numerous advantages over traditional farming. We list 11 significant advantages of vertical growing systems.

Benefit 1: More species in one vertical farm

It is possible to grow different crops in different spaces in one indoor farm. In doing so, all environmental factors, such as light and nutrients, are matched to each crop in each cell. This allows you to grow various crops simultaneously in the same indoor farm, unlike traditional farming, where usually only one crop is produced at a time.

The maximum amount of crop species you can grow in a vertical farm is basically unlimited. It only depends on the size of the vertical farm. In contrast, in traditional agriculture, a maximum of three crops are harvested per year [10].

Benefit 2: Stable crop cultivation all year round

Vertical farming is not dependent on seasons but creates the optimal conditions for the plant to grow all year round.

The optimal conditions are controlled based on:

  • Light intensity
  • Light spectrum (the combination of red, blue, far-red, green, and white light)
  • CO2 supply and content
  • Temperature
  • Relative Humidity
  • Air flow
  • Water conditions (pH & EC)
  • Nutrients

 This gives complete control over the production and quality of your crops.

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Benefit 3: Maximum harvest

With vertical farming, you can achieve stable crop production throughout the year and produce more crops from the same square meters of the cultivation area.

This is reflected in the following figures:

  • One hectare of vertical farming offers the same output as 4-6 hectares of outdoor farming [2].
  • A vertical farm produces 23 times more lettuce than an outdoor farm with the same area [8].
  • To grow strawberries, 1 hectare of the indoor farm is needed compared to 30 hectares of outdoor farm to produce the same output [9]
Benefit 4: Up to 99% less water consumption than regular farming

Vertical farming requires 95% to 99% less water than regular farming. On average, you can count on about 20 liters of water per kilo of the crop, which on land compares to 250 liters per kilo of the crop. In Artechno Vertical Farming systems, however, 100% of water is recycled so only the water absorbed by the plant is used up. This means that this form of food production has a much smaller impact on the environment and the climate. [12]

Benefit 5: Protected from influences of weather, climate, natural disasters, and climate change

In traditional agriculture, crops are affected by weather and natural disasters, such as torrential rains, floods, or severe droughts. Global warming also affects traditional agriculture.

Due to the enclosed farm and controlled environmental conditions inside, vertical farms do not suffer from influences of weather and climate. As a result, they assure stable crop yields all year round, regardless of weather conditions.

Benefit 6: All crops are free of pesticides

Crops in indoor farming grow in a well-controlled indoor environment closed off from harmful insects and pests. This eliminates the need for the use of chemical pesticides, allowing you to grow crops pesticide-free with a vertical farm.

Benefit 7: Labor-friendly method of cultivation

In traditional farming, workers have to perform heavy physical work. They also face risks by working with heavy agricultural materials and toxic pesticides. Indoor farming requires much lighter and risk-free work, making it appealing to workers. For example, the main work performed in Artechno's vertical farming systems is semi-automatic. In this process, workers perform actions as an operator and controller while a machine takes care of most of the work.

Benefit 8: Much more space

Over the past 40 years, one-third of the world's land suitable for agriculture has decayed [1].  Vertical farming is not dependent on fertile land and takes up relatively little space. Growing crops vertically dramatically increases production per hectare while taking up much less space than traditional farming.

Benefit 9: The sky is the limit (cultivation is possible everywhere)

From countries with a desert climate to regions with infertile soil, a vertical farm can be placed anywhere to produce high-quality crops. Urban agriculture is also an excellent solution to increasing urbanization. It makes cities less dependent on their food supply.

Benefit 10: Guaranteed healthy vegetables

In an indoor farm, the crops are grown in trays. The soil in this tray is enriched with nutrients, including phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. In traditional farming, there are constantly changing conditions that you always have to react to, making it difficult to control and optimize the quality of the crops.

The undisturbed substrate in indoor farming ensures that the crop always grows in the most optimal conditions. This greatly increases the quality of the crop, for example, the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants it contains.

Summary: Due to the controlled indoor environment and not being affected by, for instance, weather conditions, vertical farming offers many advantages over traditional farming.

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Possible disadvantages of vertical farming

Although there are many advantages to vertical farming, there are also some potential drawbacks.

Drawback 1: Costs

Vertical farming requires a sizable investment. However, that investment can be earned back much faster compared to traditional farming investments.

Artechno guarantees an ROI <5 years, and in certain situations, the ROI is achieved in as little as two years.

Drawback 2: Dependence on technology

Vertical farming depends on various technologies. Among other things, for lighting, temperature retention, and humidity in the vertical farm. This can make it very expensive to have a power failure that stops the growing process. However, more and more solutions are being developed for this, such as recycling the indoor farm's solar energy at night. Moving vertical farming into dedicated climate cells/chambers can also greatly help mitigate this risk and keep climate conditions long enough for power to return.

Drawback 3: Higher labor costs

It is sometimes mentioned that vertical farming involves high labor costs, but this is only the case for a vertical farm without automation. We mentioned above that most of the work in an Artechno vertical farm is semi-automated or even fully automated.

At Artechno, most of the work consists of processes, such as:

  • Sowing
  • Harvesting
  • Cleaning of benches and trays
  • Packaging
  • Germinating
  • Transplanting
  • Farm management

At an Artechno farm, this can reduce the number of workers needed to perform the work by 25% to 50% in comparison to automated greenhouses and other vertical farming technologies.

Drawback 4: Higher energy consumption

Vertical farming uses a lot of energy; that's a fact. However, a vertical farm does not necessarily use more energy than other forms of agriculture. Climate conditions, such as heat, can mean that a vertical farm uses less energy than a greenhouse. 

Also, an AVF+ Factory (automated) uses between 4 kWh and 7 kWh per kilogram of lettuce, depending on the crop variety.  With future developments, this number will drop to an even lower amount of energy per kg produced.

Summary: Vertical farming brings challenges, such as a significant investment. 

Sustainability and vertical farming

Vertical farming fits in well with the new normal of sustainability and reducing the environmental, ecological, and climatic burden:

  • A vertical farm does not disturb the animals, trees, and other nature in the area, which is good for biodiversity
  • Vertical farming uses up to 99% less water than traditional agriculture
  • The dependency on energy comes with a large advantage, it allows the users to determine the energy source directly, potentially making vertical farming CO2 negative (using more carbon than it expels). Making Vertical farming an extremely sustainable method of growing food. Summary: In optimal conditions, vertical farming can even be CO2 negative.

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Popularity vertical farming

Interest in vertical farming is growing worldwide, for good reasons:

  • The technologies behind vertical farming, such as climate control, light efficiency (LED), and automation, have improved significantly in recent years.
  • Consumer and retailer interest in local and pesticide-free produce continues to grow.
  • Changing conditions, such as the corona pandemic, the war in Ukraine and climate change, mean that regions are keen to be as independent as possible for their food supply.
  • Vertical farming offers a much greater and year-round production capacity than traditional farming,
  • With its consistent yearly output, growers are able to grow on contracts delivering the exact same volume every day year-round.
  • Vertical farming offers certainty about the quality of the product.
  • It is a sustainable cultivation method because, among other things, no pesticides are used, and up to 99% less water is needed than in traditional agriculture.
  • The plants grow much faster than in traditional agriculture.

The popularity of vertical farming is growing tremendously, albeit not in all countries. Vertical farms are especially popular in countries with a high dependence on export for their fresh produce and, by the same token, have few facilities to produce these crops themselves. This can be caused, for example, by the fact that the climate is not suitable, labor costs are too high, or other costs do not allow the crops to be produced profitably.

Summary: The popularity of vertical farming is high, and ever changing conditions and new developments continue to boost it.

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The future of vertical farming

The benefits of vertical farming and its continued popularity are causing the vertical farm market to experience massive growth. Fortune Business Insights predicts that the total vertical farming market will grow at an average annual rate of 24.8% through 2026 [11]. This will bring the market value of vertical farming to $12.04 billion by 2026, an increase of 465.3%. Judging from Fortune Business Insights' market analysis, each region has a market share of:

  • The Middle East & Africa 6.1%
  • Latin America 4.5% 
  • Asia-Pacific 33.3%
  • Europe 24.8%
  • North America 31.3%

The future of vertical farming can be called rosy, to say the least.

Summary: The market value of vertical farming will continue to grow in the coming years, reaching a market value of more than $12 billion by 2026.

Three types of vertical farming

Vertical farms come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from simple two-level systems to elaborate automated systems with many layers.

All vertical growing systems use one of the following principles of vertical farming: hydroponics, aeroponics, or aquaponics.

1. Hydroponics

The most widely used vertical growth principle is hydroponics. This involves growing crops without the use of soil. The roots of the plants are suspended in a solution that is rich in nutrients. The composition of the nutrient solution is continuously controlled, so the plant grows in the most optimal composition of nutrients.

Features of hydroponics: 

  • Precise addition of nutrients
  • Low water consumption
  • Low or no disease impact (viruses, bacteria, but also insects)
  • Sparse consumption of materials, for example, substrates

 

2. Aeroponics

'Aeroponics' is a term coined by NASA. It means "growing plants in the air without soil and very little water. It is a variant of hydroponics, in which plants grow in air or mist that is sprayed on their roots several times an hour.

Features of aeroponics:

  •  The roots of the plantlets are better aerated, allowing them to grow faster.
  • The roots and substrates contain no moisture and depend on irrigation every half hour or hour. This makes the plantlets particularly dependent and more vulnerable. In the event of a failure, the plantlets can die within an hour.
  • Aeroponics requires precision sensor technology and a strict dosing regime to optimize results.

3. Aquaponics

Aquaponics combines aquaculture and hydroponics. Where aquaculture is the cultivation of organisms in water and hydroponics is the cultivation of plants without soil. These techniques are combined by growing fish and feeding the plants with the water the fish swim in. The waste of the fish is converted into food for the plants.

Features of aquaponics:

  • The start-up phase of an aquaponics system is a lot longer, as the microbial population must grow and stabilize. The balance is often difficult to completely achieve.
  • Aquaponics requires a broad knowledge base, both in aquaculture and hydroponics as well as in microbes and nutrient levels.
  • It is a water-efficient production method.
  • Growing in an aquaponics system diversifies the revenue model for vertical farms and can also open the door to a sustainable closed loop growing system.

Summary: There are three types of vertical farm systems, all with their advantages and disadvantages. It depends on the plant and the wishes of the grower which system is most suitable.

Artechno's revolutionary AVF+

At Artechno, we focus on providing a vertical farming system that is the best for the young plant. We have developed the innovative AVF+ systems using hydroponics with our plant-focused approach. AVF+ stands for Automated Vertical Farm plus.

The AVF+ Systems:
  • Are supplied with everything you need for vertical farming and large-scale crop production
  • Require a fraction of the cost involved in normal farming and indoor farming since fewer workers are needed to run the farms
  • Are scalable to the needs of the farmer
  • Utilize a climate cell that creates the ideal climate for the crop, making it strong, healthy, and growing quickly
  • Use 99% less water
  • Have a ROI of <5 years with the most favorable business cases having an ROI <3 years.

The climate cells from the AVF+ systems takes vertical farming to the next level. In this climate cell, light, climate, water, and nutrients provide the optimal growing conditions for the plant.

Read all about the AVF+ here.

Crops that are less suitable for vertical farming

In principle, almost all crops can be grown in a vertical farm. However, there are certain types of crops with characteristics that are less suitable for a vertical farm.

In the vertical farm, we use hydroponics, which we explained above. Hydroponics is less effective as a growing method for crops in which the fruit grows in the ground, such as potatoes, onions, and carrots, As the "fruits" have more difficulty handling the wet conditions. 

Secondly, crops that grow taller than 50 centimeters (bush crops, grains, or even corn) are less suitable as they take up a lot of volume.

Finally, crops with large fruits, such as eggplants, cucumber, pumpkins, and watermelons often take up too much space to profitably grow in a vertical farm.

Summary: Crops in which the entire fruit grows in the ground and crops that grow very tall or take up too much space are less suitable for growing in a vertical farm.

Vertical farming; a world full of opportunities

Vertical farming is the future, not for all crops, but those suitable for vertical farming.

Vertical farms make cities more resilient by providing year-round certainty about the quantity and quality of crops, as they are not affected by weather and climate changes.

Vertical farming faces a bright future and contributes to a sustainable environment with the continuous development of innovative solutions, such as Artechno's AVF+.

Are you interested in vertical farming? Or do you have any questions? Don't hesitate to contact us; we are happy to help you.

Resources

[1] The University of Sheffield. (2015). A Sustainable Model for Intensive Agriculture. Grantham Centre (source).

[2] Cho, R. (2011). Vertical Farms: From Vision to Reality. Columbia Climate School (source).

[3] Cho, R. (2011). How Sustainable is Vertical Farming? Students Try to Answer the Question. Columbia Climate School (source).

[4] Al-Kodmany, K. The Vertical Farm: A Review of Developments and Implications for the Vertical City. Buildings 2018, 8, 24 (source).

[5] Bailey, G.E. (1915). Vertical Farming. Wilmington, Del. : E. I. Dupont de Nemours Powder Co..: Wilmington, DE, USA.

[6] Kleszcz, J., et al. (2020. Vegetable and Gardening Tower of Othmar Ruthner in the Voivodeship Park of Culture and Recreation in Chorzów—The First Example of Vertical Farming in Poland. Sustainability, 12(13), 5378 (source).

[7] Kozai, T., et al. (2006). Commercialized closed systems with artificial lighting for plant production. Acta Hortic, 711, 61–70 (source).

[8] Çi̇çekli̇, M., et al. (2014). Transformation of today's greenhouses into high technology Vertical Farming Systems for metropolitan regions. Journal of Environmental Protection and Ecology (source).

[9] Banerjee, C. et al. (2013). Up, Up and Away! The Economics of Vertical Farming. Journal of Agricultural Studies (source).

[10] Despommier, D. (2013). Farming up the city: the rise of urban vertical farms. Trends in Biotechnology, 31(7), 388–389 (source).

[11] Fortune Business Insights. The global vertical farming market is projected to grow from USD 3.64 billion in 2021 to USD 17.59 billion in 2028 at a CAGR of 25.2% in the forecast period (source).

[12] Despoina, D., et al. (2020). Advances in Food Security and Sustainability. 5, 1-51 (source).

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