When Dickson Despommier and his medical ecology students began dreaming of vertical farming in the 1990s at Columbia University, the thinking and designs involved elaborate, fancy buildings.
Two decades later, a shipping container was used as a successful vertical farm by University of Arizona professor Joel Cuello. He compared his design to a beehive, in how the rows could be slid out of the structure for access. This was not the utopian, skyscraper, eye-catching farm from early concept designs.
“Because of the concept, a lot of architects came up with these fancy designs, but they were not economically feasible,” Cuello said. “Now people have woken up to the reality that we cannot have vertical farms using fancy buildings.”
According to Despommier, in 2010, there weren’t any vertical farms. Despommier, who marks each new vertical farm on his map, said there are now at least 1,500 around the globe.
“I am quite amazed at the progress in such a short time,” Despommier said.
One of the most commonly cited reasons for vertical farms fast rise was technology making the process cheaper.
“There has been tremendous improvement in lightning technology,” Cuello said. “The prices have really gone down, so their prices have become affordable.”
Cuello said he could see his “beehive” design being used by neighborhood associations to create an onsite “minimally structured, modular and prefabricated vertical farm.” He envisioned this as the way for vertical farms to arrive in Tucson neighborhoods.
“Shipping container is an example of a module in this vertical farming structure and can be owned by a co-operative or a community group,” Cuello said. “The owners can all participate in the production process.”
Cuello spoke of the importance to increase food production.
“Vertical farming is a very timely technology given the situation we face right now,” Cuello said. He explained the combination of population growth and arable land limitation meant the need to produce twice as much food in as soon as a few decades.
The United Nations appeared to agree. According to a UN Report, not only would food production have to increase to compensate for an additional 2 billion people by 2050, but they predicted climate change will decrease farming output by 25 percent.
Cuello said vertical farming benefits would help with the increased demand for food. He said vertical farms use 80-90 percent less water, compared to open-field crops. Their crop production’s constant and year-round. Also, the crops produced at up to 50 percent faster. Since vertical farms are indoors in a controlled climate, they are independent of climate challenges, eliminating the need for arable land.
“The advantages really pile one on top of the other, but you have to pay for it in terms of energy,” Cuello said. “But if you have abundant solar radiation in the locale where you are doing this, then your problems are solved.”
That was one reason vertical farms were ideal for places in Africa and the Middle East and, Cuello hopes, soon in Southern Arizona.
Cuello has been studying controlled-environment agriculture since his Penn State graduate school days, and did post-graduate work in the field for NASA back when Despommier and his class where dreaming of vertical farming. He also studied vertical farms in Japan, a country that has embraced vertical farming.
“My experience at NASA really solidified the importance of the concept of sustainability, because we have to continue to produce food regardless of the limitations,” Cuello said.
While Cuello has created a design for smaller scale vertical farms, commercial businesses have begun using vertical farms to supply to areas that could not grow outside year-long.
Green Sense Farms, one of the largest commercial U.S. vertical farms, made their first shipment in March 2014. According to its website, it was 20 degrees below Fahrenheit outside when the shipment was made from Portage, Indiana.
While vertical farming has become attractive, it still hasn’t become the most ideal for all situations.
“I think we are at a point in farming evolution where there are different technologies that grow different crops best,” Robert Colangelo, founding farmer of Green Sense Farms, said.
Cuello agreed. While vertical farming could grow anything, it would not be the best choice for all food needs. Vertical farms have been ideal for growing leafy greens, because of their fast, more expensive crops.
“In its current form, it is not meant to replace the production of grains or cereal,” Cuello said.