Is Vertical Farming the Frontier of Urban Agriculture?

Is Vertical Farming the Frontier of Urban Agriculture?

Chicago O'Hare International Airport had a vertical garden on display, shown here in 2012. (Source: Creative Commons)

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When living in a city, there isn’t always a choice for fresh, locally sourced food. Much of the food that urbanites eat must be trucked in, frequently from great distances. As a result, our kitchens increasingly offer levels of diversity rivaling that of the United Nations: Avocados find their way to your table from Mexico, the pomegranates on your kitchen counter originate in Israel, and the lettuce sitting in your fridge was grown and harvested in Spain.

Worse yet, Kathleen Merrigan, GW’s Executive Director of Sustainability and former United States Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, said “we are increasingly importing during our own season, when farmers could be growing here.”

Merrigan, who spoke at Planet Forward’s April 4 Urban Agriculture Salon, encapsulated America’s tendency toward shortsighted food practices. 

Many people have begun to look more closely at these practices, and are working to find solutions, because the bottom line of the issue is that this practice is incredibly harmful to the environment. The mass transit of food requires not only the energy to grow the product, but also the energy that is used to transport it to its final destination.

Faced with this dilemma, some cities are turning to a unique solution: Vertical farming. While vertical farms are not yet abundant, there has been a steady increase in recent years. There are currently six vertical farming operations in the United States, but soon to be seven, as Missouri State University recently leased 21 silos in downtown Springfield to a startup company that will use them for vertical farming.

The startup, called Vertical Innovations, plans to use the silos for lettuce, mushrooms and other vegetables. A couple of the silos also will be used for aquaponic and hydroponic experiments. The structures already built into the silo to move grain up and down provided an added benefit of assisting to move water throughout the structures. The silos, which for years sat empty aside from rotting grain, will hopefully be able to flourish, and the method replicated in other abandoned silos.

The practice of repurposing existing structures for urban farming is not uncommon. In Chicago, a vertical farming operation and model for closed resource, waste and energy loops called The Plant stands in an abandoned industrial building. Located in the old meat packing district, The Plant is growing food and generating business in an area that is considered a food desert. Within the plant, there are more than a dozen small businesses, which include a bakery, kombucha and beer breweries, coffee roasters, and mushroom and aquaponics farms, among others.

Another vertical farming operation is The Farmery, located in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is based in old shipping containers. (Check out their video on Planet Forward!) This system also uses a combination of aquaponics and hydroponics, and is capable of growing up to an acre of greens in a single shipping container. They developed a modular growing system, which allows for the plants to be moved. There is also a farmers market that they host, as well as a restaurant located in an airstream trailer.

America’s practices of importing produce from all around the world is clearly unsustainable, and an environmentally unfriendly system. Unfortunately, as more and more of the country’s — and of the world’s — population moves to urban centers, the practice becomes more heavily relied upon, due to the lack of infrastructure in cities that could allow such food production to occur there. However, with the implementation of solutions such as vertical farming, we could find a more sustainable, eco-friendly solution to feeding our cities.

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Food Sustainability, urban agriculture, vertical farming

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