How vertical farming can change the supply chain
Vertical farming has the potential to redistribute the supply chain from a small group of producers to dozens or hundreds of urban vertical farms that supply surrounding local markets.
Vertical farming is a soilless method of farming that takes place inside a climate-controlled, laboratory-like environment. Farmers are able to fine-tune indoor spaces to the crops they want to grow, instead of being limited to growing crops that a particular outdoor area can support.
The ability to grow in-demand produce without the massive footprint of an outdoor farm, regardless of climate, has led to more vertical farming facilities in urban areas, where produce is grown, harvested and quickly shipped to retailers in the same city. This cuts down on product loss and shipping damage while increasing the shelf life and quality of produce once it hits the shelves.
How does vertical farming work?
A vertical farm consists of tightly packed rows or towers of planting containers, which are designed to maximize the available space and artificial light supplied by energy-efficient LEDs. Every parameter that affects growing conditions is controlled to a precise degree: temperature, humidity, water levels and nutrients, as well as light frequency, time and intensity.
In a hydroponic system, the roots hang down into a nutrient-rich, oxygenated flowing water source, while in an aeroponic system, they hang into an enclosed chamber, where they are periodically misted with nutrient-rich water. Both methods speed up plant growth by providing nutrients directly to the roots — aeroponics, however, also allow oxygen to be directly absorbed by roots, which leads to faster growth and one less parameter to control.
In both styles of indoor farming, a “closed loop” system collects spare water for recirculation, eliminating water waste. It’s also worth noting that vertical farms typically employ integrated pest management practices in lieu of pesticides, making it easier to certify produce as organic.
Vertical farming could change the supply chain
Vertical farming has the potential to redistribute the supply chain from a small number of rural mega-producers that supply large portions of the country to dozens or hundreds of urban vertical farms that instead supply surrounding local markets.
In a traditional farm, crops are grown in a field, harvested, packed, then driven across thousands of highway miles or shipped across the ocean to an entirely different continent. That creates a huge carbon footprint, all so people in New Hampshire can buy Guatemalan snow peas. In such a long journey, considerable product spoilage and shipping damage is bound to occur.
Produce grown in vertical farms can be picked when it’s ready to eat and make its way to the grocery store that same day, prolonging its shelf life and avoiding spoilage and damage issues.
Additionally, these massive producers often don’t have the ability to quickly respond to changes in demand. When COVID-19 led to labor shortages and panic buying, some producers struggled to keep up, leaving many grocery shelves empty. At the same time, restaurants across the country cancelled orders from their suppliers and tons of produce went to rot.
Vertical farmers can make real-time adjustments to the products they grow in accordance with the fluctuations of the markets they serve.
Six things to look for in a potential vertical farm facility
Vertical farms can be a tremendous opportunity to revitalize an unused building or warehouse space. While each individual facility can be set up differently based on size and layout, there are some key factors that will make vertical farming possible:
- Height: This is vertical farming — make sure there is ample headroom to set up suspended rows or towers. Maximizing every square foot is how vertical farms remain profitable.
- Controllable environment: The building needs to be a climate-controlled, cleanable space. The indoor temperature and humidity shouldn’t be affected by outdoor weather conditions.
- HVAC capability: A robust HVAC system with good air circulation goes hand-in-hand with controlling the temperature and humidity.
- Sufficient utilities: Make sure the local area and utility connections can support the amount of water and energy required to sustain a vertical farm.
- Existing refrigerated spaces: Large refrigeration warehouses or those with insulated refrigeration spaces are well suited for climate control and cold storage.
- Rinsing/packing areas: Depending on the produce, it may need to be rinsed before it’s packed for sale. Both of these processes will need to take place outside the grow area, so look for separate rooms or areas that can be partitioned for these purposes.