Vertical Farming Technology Trends

Four years ago I discovered urban agriculture. I immediately became hooked on the concept and prowled the Internet to learn more and to be inspired. I shared what I found on my blog Agritecture.

I believe that while not everyone wants to be an urban farmer, overwhelmingly, city-dwellers crave and seek a connection to the natural environment they have become so removed from. Local food is an ideal opportunity to re-engage residents whilst maintaining a thriving urban culture. I am fascinated and amazed by just how many ideas and business have developed in 2014 to improve food security and how rapidly new ones are arriving on the scene.

The current food system fails to efficiently grow and distribute the food we consume where we consume it. It is exciting that there is a movement that is trying to connect the farm with the city and the city with farm. They, like me, imagine future cities where buildings and open spaces are treated as productive urban landscapes. At present, this movement is largely a technology one, driven by social entrepreneurs and inventors who seek new ways of producing the food we need to feed the 9 billion.

What follows is a brief overview of the emerging trends in vertical farming since 2014 began. If you are new to agritecture and want to see previous posts, look back through the archive. 

2014 VERTICAL FARMING TRENDS

The growing importance of sensors and data:

Low cost sensors for PH, temperature, DO, air quality, nutrient uptake, are in demand and here are the companies getting in on the action:

EdenWorks is a Brooklyn-based aquaponic greenhouse business with plans to integrate sensors throughout its vertical growing systems and develop quadrants of data. Data can then be used to optimize inputs and increase production output whilst improving quality. Edenworks has almost finished its first rooftop greenhouse that will be gathering data and the test bed for their sensor-integrated urban growing vertically-integrated solutions.

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The high-density local food movement has found its way into the MIT Media Lab where the MITCityFarm project seeks to test out the most popular controlled-environment agriculture methods in a façade-greenhouse that responds to the indoor and outdoor environment and provides additional lighting and cooling accordingly. Specifically, MIT researchers are testing NFT, raft, and aeroponic systems and working hard to optimize vertical growing versions of these methods. Data is king with their operation as well: a primary goal is to share their findings with the world through the Open Agriculture Information Initiative. With their farm at Media Lab well on its way and mirror labs being set up in other parts of the world, MITCityFarms could change both food production itself and the way we share industry data.

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Growing food in the home, growing food in the city:

Urban food production also saw further development in 2014 which a focus on integration into buildings and consumer products for homes and small businesses.

Agrilution, a startup out of Munich is developing a prototype for growing food near-effortlessly in the home. Their refrigerator-like growing product utilizes aeroponics, a highly-efficient method of growing food through spraying exposed plant roots with nutrients. When realized, Agrilution will allow people to grow food using pre-set “recipes” that define ideal growing conditions. Imagine an oversized microwave with a “basil” button rather than “defrost”. Furthermore, recipes can be customized through Agrilution’s online platform.

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Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) for Vertical Farming:

Every controlled-environment agriculture project has different requirements. Scalable solutions are in demand and manufacturers are responding.

Indoor Harvest Corp. is a design-build, value added reseller and original equipment manufacturer of commercial grade aeroponic fixtures, for use in Controlled Environment Agriculture (“CEA”) and Building Integrated Agriculture (“BIA”). By consulting to the vertical farming industry and providing license free, low cost, commercial grade equipment they have become one of the first in the industry to offer an OEM approach to vertical farming.

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Substrates Reconsidered:

With more vertical systems on the market and an increasing focus on vertical growing, substrates have had to evolve:

Agricel has received distribution rights for a thin film that can actually provide a substrate to grow almost any plants. Essentially, nurtrient-rich water is stored below the film, which functions as a substrate and supports the roots stronger than you would expect. This film allows for unparalleled flexibility in greenhouse design and plant management because it is lightweight and easy to dispose of or reuse.

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Met at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA):

These honorable mentions met to talk agritecture at the global forum on innovations in agriculture in Abu Dhabi (January 2014).

Evolve Growing Solutions is an experienced greenhouse consulting team out of the UK that invests in projects and innovations that they believe are sustainable, efficient, and profitable. These enthusiastic self-named “three amigos” were by far the most popular booth at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA) held in Abu Dhabi in January. Their enthusiasm and experience made for a great environment for learning about hydroponics, aquaculture, and innovative greenhouse materials like ETFE.

Ben Greene of the Farmery was also at the GFIA conference and gave a rousing speech on how disillusioned he was by the backwards food system and especially the waste that occurs as a result. His vision: grow food where its bought and bring small-scale modular “Farmerys” to supermarkets where customers can see, touch, smell, and taste food when they buy it. In a world of urban dwellers and rising obesity it is surely a powerful message and mission. We love this idea.

Why Collaboration in Vertical Farming Matters

Technological innovation is not enough to achieve the critical mass and economic feasibility needed for vertical farming’s widespread implementation. We need more new ideas to improve urban resilience to climate change and guarantee food security. We need transparency in everything from yields data to failures in business and proven distribution models. Just this past January, the first commercial urban vertical farm in North America, Local Garden, announced it was going bankrupt after being in operation for two years. Why did this happen? What can we learn from this?

A year ago, I teamed up with Max Loessl, founder of the Association for Vertical Farming to gather data to map the urban farms (vertical and not) around the world. It amazed me how few business decision makers were willing to share what they grow, how they grow it, and how much of it they grow.

We didn’t give up. Finally, Max and I met for the first time in January and launched the first map of its kind on the association’s site. This map, does more than just place urban farms for the public to see but also tells them what growing technologies the farmers are using and if their construction was a retrofit or a design-build. The AVF has also developed a glossary for the purposes of bringing consistency to the industry and clearing up the complexities of growing methods to outsiders of urban agriculture. There are so many exciting opportunities and challenges in this emerging industry that a map, forum, and glossary like the AVF has developed, can truly help unite growers and inventors across the globe and improve food security in a way that has not been achieved before. Join the Association for Vertical Farming here!     

Skeptics to vertical farming are common and while some of their criticisms are warranted (artificial lighting energy costs are still a major barrier to high-density farming), these 2014 trends demonstrate that this industry will continue to grow and change the way we grow and eat our food dramatically.

We are entering a new stage of the local food movement where technology, design, architecture, education, and business are uniting to bring fresh food closer to cities globally. Innovation and collaboration will be the describing words for vertical farming in 2014.

We have already seen an increasing interest of business, research and governmental initiatives of a willingness to share and collaborate. AVF is a great example of this. Within less than a year we have managed to gather members from 5 continents including universities, the German Aerospace Center, companies and non-profits initiatives.

Keep Growing,

Henry Gordon-Smith

Founder, www.agritecture.com

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