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217: Vertical farms

Problem:

For thousands of years the only way to farm was horizontally or on terraced slopes.

Solution:

In a 1999 effort to figure out an effective way to feed the population of New York using only urban rooftop agriculture, Columbia University environmental health sciences professor Dr. Dickson Despommier and his students developed the idea of a a 30-story urban farm with a greenhouse on every floor: in other words, a contemporary vertical farming tower.


The next key element was the employment of LED to balance light emissions in order to increase the return rate of vegetables. This system was tuned to service two types of chlorophyll, one preferring red light and the other blue. (Despommier has since gone on to become the world’s foremost expert on and proponent of vertical farms.).

In 2006, Shinji Inada, a former vegetable trader, founded SPREAD, and opened his first indoor vertical farm facility the following year in Kameoka, Japan. The company spent years refining systems for lighting, water supply, nutrients and other costs. By 2013, producing 21,000 heads of lettuce per day, which at the time was the world’s largest vertical farm in terms of production, Spread finally turned its first profits. Their brand, “Vegetus” was soon available in supermarkets nationwide.

In 2014, a partnership system and global expansion strategy for Spread’s vertical farming business was established. In 2015, they announced the concept for the leading vegetable production system. This new low cost and more environmentally friendly system would first be constructed in a new facility called Techno Farm Keihanna in the Kansai Science City, designed as the world’s largest automated leaf-vegetable factory with an output of 30,000 heads of lettuce a day.
This system can produce or 648 heads of lettuce per m² annually, on racks under custom-designed lights using light-emitting diode. A sealed room protects the vegetables from pests, diseases and dirt. Temperature and humidity are optimized to suitable growth of the greens, which are harvested by robots.

The Techno Farm will use only 110 milliliters of water per lettuce, 1 % of the volume needed outdoors, as moisture emitted by the vegetable is condensed and reused. Electrical power consumption per head will also decrease, with the new factory using custom-designed LEDs that require about 30 % less energy. A collaboration with telecoms company NTT West on an artificial intelligence program to analyze production data could boost yields even more. Spread won the Edison Award in 2016 for its vertical-farming system. (spread.co.jp)

Spread is not alone. As of 2014, Vertical Fresh Farms was operating in Buffalo, New York, specializing in salad greens, herbs and sprouts. In March the world’s then largest vertical farm opened in Scranton, Pennsylvania, built by Green Spirit Farms (GSF). The firm is housed in a single story building covering 8 ac (3.25 ha), with racks stacked six high to house 17 million plants. The farm grows 14 lettuce crops per year, as well as spinach, kale, tomatoes, peppers, basil and strawberries. Water is scavenged from the farm’s atmosphere with a dehumidifier.

AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey leans heavily on intelligent machines, a sustainable 70,000 ft.² (6,500 m²) vertical farm located in a former steel factory in the Ironbound section. There, 2 million lb (907,000 kg) of greens and herbs are produced each year, using an aeroponic growing method.  Aeroponic growing towers are a closed-loop system, recycling the water and nutrients with virtually zero waste.

AeroFarms patented growing system mists the roots of their plants with targeted nutrients, water, and oxygen. This system uses up to 95% less water than field farming to grow high-quality produce faster and more efficiently, with zero pesticides. After testing hundreds of growth media for their plants, they have developed a patented, reusable cloth medium made out of 100% recycled materials for seeding, germinating, growing, and harvesting.

With projects in development in China, the United Arab Emirates, and Europe, AeroFarms has its sights on the world, but is still very focused on Newark. Where they have four farming operations and employ over 120 people — 40 % of whom live in Newark, with 80 % within a 15 mi (24 km) radius.

AeroFarms produce is sold through their retail brand, Dream Greens. Meanwhile, Bowery, which is growing crops inside two warehouses in New Jersey, can promise people in New York that their “bok choy” did not travel far at all. (aerofarms.com)

Some commercial ventures have targeted wealthy nations in the Middle East as prime candidates for vertical farms because of the high cost of importing fresh produce.

In 2019, Dubai’s Emirates Flight Catering began construction of a 130,000 ft.² (12,000 m²) vertical farm, located near Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central to supply airlines in a joint venture with California-based Crop One Holdings. The US$40 million facility was planning to deliver its first vegetables to airlines and airport lounges in December 2019.

Due to the COVID19 pandemic, the program to produce 6,000 lb (2,700 kg) of herbicide-free and pesticide-free leafy greens every day was postponed. In April 2020, the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) invested US$100 million to four agri-tech companies to set up high-tech agricultural facilities including an 88,000 ft² (8200 m²) plant by AeroFarms.

In Canada, Elevate Farm is working with North Star Agriculture to bring vertical farming and ‎‎‎production of leafy green vegetables to northern Canada including Yukon and other isolated northern territories. Once the installation completed and begins to operate, it is expected to produce an estimated 9,100 kg of leafy green vegetables per week and reaching over 473,200 kg crops per year. (elevate.farm)

Other high-rise farms have appeared in office towers or condos as part of the design. In Tokyo’s Ginza shopping area, stationery retailer Itoya tends a vertical farm on the 11th floor of its 12-story building to supply lettuces exclusively to its cafe, at a cost that would be uncompetitive with vegetables grown in outdoor farms.

Javier F. Ponce and a team at Smart Floating Farms (SFF) in Barcelona, Spain hav designed a sustainable, solar-powered vertical farm that floats on pontoons, making it possible to grow food off a coast, in the open sea or just about any large body of water.

The designers estimate that SFF can produce an estimated 8,152 tonnes of vegetables and 1,703 tonnes of fish annually. The farm is comprised of three levels and features innovative agricultural technologies that are already in use around the globe. It can be modified or stacked in different ways to suit the needs of respective locations.

The top level incorporates rainwater collectors for irrigation needs, photovoltaic panels for electricity and skylight openings to provide natural light for plants. It’s also possible to integrate other renewable power technologies such as micro wind turbines or wave energy converter systems.

The second level features a greenhouse and hydroponic systems (which allows crops to grow year round in any weather and without soil).

Lastly, the ground level is designated for offshore aquaculture. According to the designers, this cage fishing method takes place in the open sea and eliminates the exposure to wind and waves. This level also includes a hatchery where fish eggs are incubated and hatched, a nursery for growing fish, a slaughterhouse and a storage room to hold the fish before they are ready for the market.

The designers said the farm is ideal for many large cities or densely populated areas with access to water.

Visit us tomorrow for Solution 218: The glass battery

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