Exponential Thinking: Vertical Farming – Part 5

Welcome Back to Exponential Thinking: Part 5

1. Introduction, 2. Renewables, 3. Smart Ag, 4. Online Learning

For the past few articles, we’ve been covering exponential technologies that are set to disrupt our daily lives as well as our farms. Together, we’ve covered topics like renewable energy, smart agriculture technology, and online education. These technologies are changing who can be a farmer by opening up aquaponics to anyone. Using online video courseware and digital communities, anyone with enough passion and gumption can build their first aquaponics system. Smart sensor and controller systems will help the Aquapioneer farmer of tomorrow run their system efficiently from their mobile phone. Renewable energy let aquaponic farms become even more of a closed loop, increasing profitability for the Aquapioneer. Innovations like these and many others are changing the very definition of a farmer,’ while redefining who can be a farmer in today’s world.

Then there are the technologies that are just specifically changing how we farm.  This is extremely important because of three major issues facing today’s farmers: urbanization of the global population, loss of arable land & water, and non-sustainable practices.  

The biggest factor in food security is urbanization. The World Health Organization expects 70% of the world’s population to be urbanized in 10 years. The nation’s urban population increased by 12.1% from 2000 to 2010, outpacing the nation’s growth rate of 9.7% for the same period (US 2010 Census). As the population expands, the solution has been urbanization. Urban sprawl and poor natural resource management has replaced 40 million acres of farmland over the past 15 years (USDA Census, 2014). A trend has appeared relating urban population growth to declining farmland and food insecurity. The entire food chain is impacted as prices increase, pollution spreads, and reduced access to local food creates food deserts and barren soil. This leads to fifteen people per minute dying globally from hunger (WHO). In order to manage global food insecurity, we need to produce more with less land and resources.  

So how can we adopt our farming techniques to meet the needs of today?  Well, of course, there is aquaponics, but it is not our only tool in the toolbox.  In addition to aquaponics, we have vertical farming, the topic of this week.

Smart Agriculture Nate Storey
Nate Storey in his Research Greenhouse

Vertical farming aims to increase the efficiency of current traditional aquaponic farmers by approximately 100%-600% through an innovative technique that combines vertical farming with a plant-focused aquaponics system. Initial research supports this objective as a study by Sifola and Barbieri (2006) has shown that traditional farming produces 0.36 kg m-2 week-1 of Genovese basil, while a study by Storey (2012) has shown vertical systems in controlled environments produce upwards of 1.88 kg m-2 week-1  of Genovese basil.  This shows a 5.2x increase in vertical farming over traditional field farming.

So what doe that mean for our Aquapioneer? They can turn their existing aquaponics systems into total growing machines.  For every 1 sq.ft. of grow space, you can now grow vertically and have 5 cu.ft. or more of grow space!  With this kind of increase, you can maximize your potential biological living area for both plants and microbes. This turns even small spaces into productive farms. Soon 1000 square foot greenhouses will compete with multi-acre farms in production capacity. This is going to disrupt the modern food system because of its effect for small-farmers.  Most of the world’s farms are very small. Worldwide, more than more than 410 million farms are less than 1 hectare (Lowder et al., 2014). The USDA 2012 census states 92.5% of U.S farms are classified as small­/mid size farms, playing a factor in stabilizing our Nation’s economy and stewarding our biological and natural resources. Bringing vertical farming to this massive segment of farmers will drastically affect the production capacity of farmers in a way that can forever change our food system.

Vertical farming isn’t only about the insane productivity increases. It also saves on water thanks to the gravity fed design. The USDA states agriculture consumes 80% of our nation’s water; irrigation withdrawals were 115 billion gallons per day (Bgal/d) in 2010 (USGS, 2010). According to the USDA 2012 Census, 11% of specialty crop farmers are classified as small­/mid size farms. This equates to 12.65 Bgal/d in 2010 (USGS, 2010) of irrigation withdrawals. Aquaponics and Trifecta Ecosystems provide an alternative through resource sustainability and closed loop system technologies boasting a 90% reduction in water consumed (New Zealand, 2013), potentially saving over 11 Bgal/d in water consumption.

BARC Aquaponics System
Trifecta aGrow Aquaponics System

Vertical farming will disrupt how plants are sold as well. Live sales are made easy with transportable towers. What’s a live sale? When your customer witnesses harvest, performs the harvest, or goes home with a still living plant, then you’ve made a live produce sale. Forget harvesting plants for uncertain sale at the market. Now you can bring living produce to the market, sell to capacity, and bring anything left back home to rest in the garden until next time. Up to 36% of fresh fruit and vegetable goes to waste between farm and retail locations (FAO 2011). With living produce sales, these plants don’t have to go to waste anymore. Live harvest sales can offset nearly one-third of all food waste.

Not only that, but vertical farming can help get fresh food into urban food deserts by unlocking unused office and warehouse space in cities around the world. Thousands of warehouses, factories, and high-rises stand vacant in the face of outsourcing. These are the shells waiting to be filled with the farms of tomorrow. Their produce can be walked down a flight of stairs to the corner store that can now afford to sell live produce. Bodegas that once dedicated shelf space to cigarettes, tobacco, and fast food can now afford to offer fresh produce because it is available right upstairs! This will open up an entirely new industry of Urbaculture, or farming in urban centers. Only the future can tell the amazing innovations that await  Aquapioneers that utilize exponential technologies like vertical farming to change how we grow food for today and the future.

So how do we go about bringing vertical aquaponic farms to urban centers? Well, three major pieces of the puzzle stand to unlock this new wave of farmers. The three major pieces of the urban vertical aquaponics puzzle are empowering new farmers, utilizing existing urban spaces, and creating farming incentives for urban agriculture (urbaculture)

Vertical Smart AgricultureThe first part of empowering a new wave of urban farmers is to cultivate the farmers themselves! There are existing groups of hidden farmers in every city, ready to grow. All they need is the right technology and the right community to guide them through the rocky startup period. These farmers will be empowered by other exponential technologies like online education and smart agriculture tech. to make their growing experience as easy as possible.

These farmers will make use of otherwise wasted urban space in abandoned factories, warehouses, and high-rises. Many farms are taking to this trend with early adoption. Future skyscrapers will certainly have vertical farms built iintothe very fabric of the building.

The third step to empowering real urban farms is to create farm incentives for urban agriculture to rival that of existing cereal crops incentivization. Urban agriculture, or urbaculture will need a whole new set of regulations and incentivization programs in order to spur on growth equal to that of city population growth.

So why isn’t this already being done? What are the difficulties and present downsides? Well, there are the extremely high startup costs, the often understated importance of total environmental control, and the fact that it’s just not easy enough… yet.

High startup costs stop new innovators and potential investors from jumping in. After all, agriculture, no matter how efficient, doesn’t have the same 10x payoffs as some of the other tech startup unicorns that are out there today. That being said, those few who choose to invest at the early stages stand to take part in a brand new potentially trillion-dollar industry.

However, it is not a gold rush awaiting just anyone. It is still difficult to implement urban agriculture of any sort, let alone urbaculture to the the myriad factors that go into an urban aquaponics system. There are water quality issues like pH, dissolved oxygen, and temperature, not to mention every nutrient important to fish and plants. Meanwhile other factors are vital to tracking for the fish. Then there are the air quality concerns to ensure you do not allow disease or pests into your growing environment.  All in all, it is a difficult affair to recreate the perfect natural environment for every plant. These initial difficulties have dissuaded all but the most incentivized of growers. Those are barriers we hope to remove with our Sprout Food Hub in Meriden. In this location, we hope to standardize practices and create a repeatable model for others to follow. The more barriers we can remove the more we can attract and empower a new wave of farmers in urban areas. 

Great companies like Bright Agrotech are working day and night to unlock the secrets of vertical farming with their innovative ZipGrow towers.  In fact, Dr. Nate Storey and Chris Michael of Bright Agrotech might be the most influential market movers in the vertical farming industry today.  As major presenters at the World’s Fair 2015, their innovative ZipGrow towers decked the U.S. pavilion with over 42 varieties of vegetables, grains, and herbs.  

Only the future can tell what vertical farming has in store for us.  But if Bright Agrotech’s exhibit is any indication, we are in for a beautifully green future.  Are you excited about urbaculture and vertical farming?  Are you using ZipGrow towers or want to start using them?  Email us directly at sales@trifectaecosystems.com and we will walk you through everything you need to get started growing today!  

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