Vertical Farming: An Idea that Really Stacks Up

by Kristin Holloway
Opinions Editor

It’s no secret that fruits and vegetables are often outsourced from California or Mexico then driven throughout the United States to cities that do not have the space or climate to grow their own. But what if that could change? What if everyone could have access to fresh food at a lower environmental cost? In Chicago and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, citizens are trying.

Using urban structures such as former warehouses, Chicago’s Green Sense Farms has teamed up with LED lighting giant Royal Phillips to hydroponically grow crops including baby romaine, kale, cilantro, etc. to sell to local restaurants, grocers, and citizens. Considering it can operate 365 days a year and does not depend on fickle elemental factors like weather, Green Sense Farms has a much higher expected yield rate than conventional farming at 20-25 yields per crop per year. Jackson Hole’s Vertical Harvest will follow a similar business model when it starts up in 2016, but will operate a 15,000-feet town-owned greenhouse (which is half the size of Green Sense Farms’ setup). Also, Vertical Harvest will hire developmentally  disabled adults to run the facility. The company expects to produce 37,000 pounds of greens, 4,400 pounds of herbs, and 44,000 pounds of tomatoes in its first year.

In addition to being more productive than conventional farming when it comes to crop output, vertical greenhouses also protect plants from pests, animals, and fungus known to kill crops, which in turn can prevent food shortages and decrease food costs. Also, operating a vertical farm year-round uses 80 percent less energy than running a conventional farm for just one crop season does. In fact, the only valid counter argument against vertical farming is that start-up costs are high. Considering that the LED lights used to grow the plants are extremely expensive to purchase (and also that around 7,000 of them are needed to run a 30,000 square foot vertical farm), a return on the initial investment made may take years to see. But isn’t that a small price to pay compared to the overall benefit of vertical farming?