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Vertical Farming:making history or making hype?

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What would the permaculture approach to vertical farming look like?

Most permaculturalist agree that we must grow more food with in our cities, but does that mean inside the buildings of the city itself?  Vertical farming has been making some big headlines lately and so I’ve decided to approach some of the latest ideas and innovations and examine them through the lens of permaculture principals.  This idea has been around for a while (think terraces in Asia) and has some very strong merits.  Bill Mollison remarked that “95 of the cost of food in a city like New York comes from it’s transportation, storage, and packaging.”  Growing in a high density fashion has the potential to save ample  land and resources if done correctly.  But, as a permaculturalist I have some serious reservations about vertical farms.  Most of the skyscraper type designs would grow food hydroponically This requires considerable energy and maintenance the trade off being a year long growing season; that is if your not dealing with constant “technical difficulties”.   Dickson Despommier the leading proponent of the vertical farming idea had this say, “You can control nothing outdoors, and you can control everything indoors.  That means no floods, wildfires, hailstorms, tornadoes, or droughts. Plant diseases and pests are more easily controlled, too, meaning less need for herbicides and pesticides.”

“And indoor agriculture is more efficient. One indoor acre of strawberries can produce as much as 30 outdoor acres can. In general, indoor acreage is four to six times more productive, in part because of the year-round growing season.  Outdoors, you might get one crop [per year]; indoors, you might get four or five crops per year,”

Now, I might disagree about his use of the word “efficient” because it may not account for the imbued impute energy of a large hydroponic system not to mention large steel and concrete building.  His emphasis on control is also a little unsettling too, simply because it was a disproportionate emphasis on control, instead of more flexible whole systems design based on relationships, that got us into the current food crisis mess in the first place.  Now I wouldn’t throw out the idea of vertical farming entirely I just think there may be a better use of our energy and resources.  Skyscrapers alone use ample amounts of energy in their construction let alone ones potentially holding complex hydroponics systems.  Some of these designs incorporate aspects of passive and active solar, wind, housing, rainwater harvesting, methane digestion for energy, composting, aquaculture, and other generally cool features you would expect from the sustainably minded.  But, here is what my friend Richard Register author of Ecocities: rebuilding cities in balance with nature had to say about it, “the notion of filling a building [with plants] and artificially supplying the light for the plants … from any kind of energy system is one of the weirdest ideas I’ve ever heard of.  It’s not serious agriculture. It’s just not…. It’s an intellectual plaything.”

“A better answer is to develop, over time, more compact, energy-efficient cities along the European model, he says. That would free up land near urban areas for conventional agriculture with “100-percent-free solar energy” falling on it. Urban community gardens and high-intensity conventional commercial gardens could also supply part of the need.”

I echo Richards sentiments; it seems to me that before we consider growning food in farmscrapers in the future we should reclaim what is already available to us now.  New York City alone has 1700 unused and vacant lots! If space is the issue well I’d rather get rid of some streets.  Mo Town in Detroit is starting to turn into one large urban farm and should’t we encourage ideas from the bottom up, as in from the community, versus developers first.  This doesn’t mean I think vertical farming is a absolute dead end.  Like I said I still think that it is an idea with good merits but it needs to be more scalable and less impute intensive.  If vertical farming becomes a euphemism for taking the industrialized petrol based monoculture outside and then reconfiguring that inside (which is what some designs looked like) then I say no way!  Recently, one design called Sky Vegetables caught my eye.  This design was developed by 22 year old Keith Agoada, a University of Wisconsin business student, and took home a 10000$ first place prize in a competition for creative start ups.  Sky Vegetables is basically a big box remix with vegetables being grown on the grocery store roof (in greenhouses), complete with rainwater harvesting, solar panels, compost, oh and large unsightly asphalt parking lot too of course.  I believe if you were to add affordable housing and office space to a idea like this, scale it down a bit, build most of the building with Glubam or with recycled wood, and of course take out the parking lot, well then I might sign on to vertical farming.  Until then, when I hear the word vertical farming  used I’m going to think of a forest garden.

Take care and fair share!

~Permie boi

P.S. Check out my next post on this subject when I examine arcologies and the way in which they aproach vertical farming.  Oh, and sorry about the typos I have to stop typing so late.

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12 responses

  1. the LB

    Hey Evan, Thanks for coming by! It’s sooo good to meet another permaculturist — It’s something I am really interested in and continually inspired by. Now, I’m going to go check out the rest of your blog :)

    December 29, 2008 at 4:37 am

  2. Hey man, thanks for the shout-out on Wild Green Yonder… I just came across your (awesome) blog myself the other day. Let me know if you’re ever rolling through Denver, we’ve got plenty of punk rock permaculture going on here.

    Cheers,

    Adam

    December 29, 2008 at 5:58 am

  3. There is a complimentary approach to vertical farming, and that is SPIN-Farming. There is a growing corps of urban farmers throughout the U.S. and Canada who are using backyards, and front lawns and neighborhood lots to establish commercial farm businesses. They are practicing a sub-acre farming system called SPIN-Farming. Developed by Canadian farmer Wally Satzewich, SPIN is a franchise-ready vegetable farming system that makes it possible to earn $50,000+ from a half acre. SPIN farmers utilize relay cropping to increase yield and achieve good economic returns by growing only the most profitable food crops tailored to local markets. SPIN’s growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you’d expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn’t any different from McDonalds. By offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them, and it removes the two big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and significant start-up capital. By recasting farming as a small business in cities and towns, SPIN farmers are helping to make local food production a viable business proposition once again. While vertical farming will still take some time and considerable investment to get off the ground, sub-are farming is already showing how agriculture can be integrated into the built environment in an economically viable manner. You can see some SPIN farmers in action at http://www.spinfarming.com

    December 30, 2008 at 4:51 am

  4. Thank you so much for this article on vertical farming. It is so important to turn as much attention to this subject matter in hopes of helping local communities with self sustainability and local health!
    Please come to Valcent’s blog (http://blog.valcent.net) and/or site to see what we’re doing in our vertical farming facilities. We are vertically growing today in commercially sized facility and research center based out of El Paso, Texas.
    Also, please be sure to check out our recent feature in TIME magazine.

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1865974,00.html

    http://blog.valcent.net

    Jessica Brock
    Valcent

    January 15, 2009 at 1:58 am

  5. natasha nathanielsz

    Great article on Vertical farming, i have just started a permaculture design course, and was doing a bit of research today, and came across vertical farming, The image i first had when a friend mentioned it to me was a modern version of the hanging gardens of babylon! yet i was rudely surprised when i looked at the designs, there seemed to be more steel and concrete than plants.My gut feeling was not complient with the idea, yet I too agree it has its merits, but it definatly needs tweaking!
    Anyway thanks for the article
    cheers
    Natasha Nathanielsz

    May 25, 2009 at 4:56 am

    • Very interesting observation about gardens of babylon. I am only to say in those times neither lighter materials like plastics not technology as so developed. Even then a beginning was made by Nebuchadnezzar II for his persian wife, Mayidis,(who was home sick) to feel her at home with hanging gardens. The technique was prevalent with Aztec also who used floating gardens named as ‘Chinampas’

      October 5, 2010 at 7:05 am

  6. Charles Pratt

    Vertical farming has become a reality. You should watch this video of Robert F Kennedy Jr. talking about the huge benefits of Valcent’s VertiCrop system: http://bit.ly/cPb00g

    January 28, 2010 at 10:31 am

    • I’m aware of Valcent’s technology but again my concerns are that vertical farming is very energy intensive and not connected in anyway to the greater ecology.

      January 29, 2010 at 4:05 pm

  7. anti_opposite

    Thanks for posting this article and your point of views. I think that a vertical farm considering its benefits will do great in the future. Of course, “for now” we may say that we’re just wasting our energy, for what? in a baseless food production scraper that could possibly feed millions of people and free our crops from mass damage to natural phenomenon?

    In terms of energy consumption, yes “for now” it will consume a lot but remember scientists and inventors are making innovations that are energy efficient and eco-friendly. And what renewable energy sources are for?? We just need to make the most out of it

    In building construction cost, yes lots of money involve. But then versus long term usage, ensure food security in cities where people are digging garbage bins just to have their dinner, would you mind spending???

    Vertical farm is like a cocoon, we just have to wait till it blossoms.

    December 21, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    • I agree that innovations in verticle farming will continue to talk place. But, I disagree on the scale and here is why. Veriticle farms are not connected to the greater ecology and often require hydroponice (energy intensive) and genetically modified crops in most of their design s. There are vertical farm designs at smaller scale than the ” scraper” variety that I would fully get behind. Natural principals must be an intrensic part of our designs.

      December 22, 2010 at 1:56 am

      • anti_opposite

        yes i agree on genetically grew plants but at least we are coping with our changing planet.

        thanks a lot freeplaystout..

        December 23, 2010 at 4:19 am

  8. Simply desire to say your article is as astonishing. The clearness in your post
    is simply nice and i can assume you’re an expert on this subject. Well with your permission let me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the gratifying work.

    July 6, 2012 at 3:30 am

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