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Moving on Up

Are skyfarms in our future?

Mooving on Up

By Alissa Bohling

Imagine: you climb on at level 14, hefting a bolt of burlap with one arm while the other cradles a padlocked vial of samples from the basement seed bank. The display over the doors is labeled like the rows of a garden bed marked out with seed packets; an image of each floor’s crop lights up and dims again as the car ascends. You reach your floor—39, spinach. The space is lit more like a disco than a greenhouse. The full spectrum lights haven’t come on this early, and every leaf is bathed in a blue and red glow that is gentler on the grid. Not a single insect hums over the plants. The entire building has been pressurized to keep them out: no pests to kill, no pesticides for workers to inhale. Beneficial insects have to be brought in; every corner market for 10 square blocks stocks bags of ladybugs and praying mantises next to its beer cooler.

This is a vision of life on a vertical farm. And it may be true that so far, the concept makes more appearances in architectural drawings, research papers, and environmentalist musings than it does in real life. But that could change soon.

According to Columbia University professor and vertical farming leader Dickson Despommier, 38 percent—almost two billion acres—of the earth’s landmass is currently devoted to soil-based agriculture. (The Organic Consumer Association puts the planet’s total farmable acres at 3.5 billion). Dickson believes that in order to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population, we will need to come up with more arable land. A lot more. If we don’t, by his calculations, in 50 years our land deficit will be roughly the size of Brazil.

in order to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population, we will need to come up with more arable land. A lot more. If we don’t, by his calculations, in 50 years our land deficit will be roughly the size of Brazil.

The vertical farm model he debuted in 2006 was Despommier’s answer to the land, water, and fossil fuel shortages already widely considered to be reaching catastrophic proportions. It’s not hard to see why his work has found such a large audience: he claims that a 30-story building spanning a single city block could yield 2,400 acres of food annually. That kind of close-in production potential could have huge implications on a planet where over half of the human population lives in cities—and that proportion is expected to increase to two-thirds by 2050.

Doubts crop up

The world’s first high-rise jumpstarted Chicago’s skyline in the 1880s, a symbol of another step forward in the industrial revolution and away from agriculture as we once knew it. If vertical farming proponents can replicate their theoretical feats on the ground, the same skyscrapers that helped seduce us to abandon the land a few centuries ago just might manage to return us to it—or at least to our food. But as beautiful as that equation appears on the surface, the vertical farming model has not escaped the notice of some well informed critics. 

The Land Institute’s David Van Tassel, who co-authored a May Alternet article raising doubts about vertical farming, is a plant-breeding researcher and skyfarm skeptic. “If the goal is to save a lot of cropland,” Van Tassel said, “that’s not going to do much, because the vast majority of our cropland is in grain production.” While American diets are grain-intensive, growing grain usually requires more energy than growing many types of produce—which is partly why vertical farm models tend to focus on the latter. Van Tassel crunched a few numbers, and found that in order to grow a year’s wheat supply for domestic eaters, a vertical farm—with its reliance on artificial lighting to supplement the natural light that can be crowded out in densely built urban cores—would have to burn eight times more energy than all of the U.S.’s utilities produces annually. “We’re not against this idea in certain cases,” said Van Tassel. “We just want to make sure people understand what it would take to do it. Let’s just be honest: it’s going to require building a lot of nuclear plants to produce the light.”

Harvest by design

One of vertical farming’s most intriguing aspects is its potential to bring together two otherwise disparate fields—agriculture and architecture. Thanks in part to the LEED program, architects are by no means behind the curve on sustainability issues. But how much do they know about growing food? Some of the most ambitiously scaled vertical farm proposals call for buildings of 40 or more stories, sited in dense urban areas; there’s no denying the need to put expert designers on the job. But at what point will their expertise be ceded to that of experienced growers? 

Seattle architecture and design firm Weber Thompson is behind a prospective vertical farm project in Newark, New Jersey, where they presented their concept along with project partner Despommier to an enthusiastic reception from city leaders. During the design process, “We didn’t specifically discuss the idea of traditional growers and farmers,” said Ecological Designer Dan Albert. “What we did was take the best case scenarios from companies like [vertical farm product inventors] Valcent Technologies, and various hydroponic and aeroponic soilless growing systems.” Many vertical farm concepts—including smaller operations like Chicago’s The Plant, a three-story former meatpacking plant whose 9,500 square feet are being retrofitted to grow food—rely heavily on hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. “No direct connection has yet been made to growers on our end,” said Albert. “We’re going on [the concept of], provide a model and they will come.” 

The turnout may ultimately depend on what skills and practices are in demand. As Tom Bosschaert of Except Consulting, which designed its first farm towers soon after Despommier came on the scene, pointed out, one of the payoffs of vertical farming’s emergence is that “it brought agriculture, arguably our most important industry, back into the realm of other professions.” It remains to be seen what the price of admission will be, and whether it’s one that traditional agriculturists will be willing—or invited—to pay.

Back to the land—without the soil?

To the uninitiated eye, “soil-less agriculture” can look about as strange as it sounds. In March, 2010, Valcent released its AlphaCrop system, which resembles more than anything those hanging pocketed closet organizers popular with shoe fanatics, except that the pouches overflow with leafy greens instead of sandals and stilettos. VertiCrop—the company’s other star product, intended for the highest density environments such as commercial-scale vertical farms—consists of a stack of white trays suspended one over another and run on a conveyor system; the result looks something like a heap of ceiling fans overrun by jungle flora. 

With their novelty and potential to deemphasize land-intensive growing, products like these tend to impress. But companies like Valcent have yet to prove that their technologies—and the growing methods they employ—are truly the “it” solution for resource scarcity. Van Tassel, for one, would like to know, “With what are you replacing the soil, and what are the logistics and energetics of that?” And while he stopped short of saying it would be impossible to grow organic food hydroponically or aeroponically, he maintained that “it would lend itself very well to inorganic.”

Europe’s organic certification standards already exclude soilless crops. Here in the states, the matter is still up for debate. In April, the National Organic Standards Board issued a formal recommendation that betrayed a definite lack of enthusiasm for certifying soilless-grown food. David Engel, Oregon Tilth’s Midwest Certification Program Coordinator, thinks soilless systems “are a viable way to grow food,” but “the support isn’t there philosophically. There’s just this deeply held belief that soil is the basis of agriculture.” Engel pointed out that some criticisms of soilless ag reflect a certain suspicion of technology, yet, “if you look at any of us—my dairy farm, my boy’s vegetable farm, a fruit farm, livestock—we’re all dependent on a lot of steel, a lot of plastic, a lot of fuel. So to say that you can’t do that with hydroponics because of technology, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Hype vs. payoff

The attention surrounding vertical farming is not just about its problem-solving potential. Its visual aspects are totally irresistible. A rendering of a grow tower by Except Consulting looks like a Mayan temple on steroids. A sketch by Brooklyn architects Kiss & Cathcart shows a woman overlooking the cityscape from a floor-to-ceiling window behind what resembles Venetian blinds—but is actually a wall of strawberries fourteen rows high. The flag flying from the roof of The Plant forgoes the typical stars and stripes for what might be the hippest-looking head of lettuce ever drawn. But photogenic appeal can only do so much for vertical farms. “They’re all over the news,” Bosschaert pointed out, but “in a bit of a dumbed down, iconified way.” What ambitious skyfarmers need now is funding for building, research, and development. 

The building and lab space for the proposed Newark facility carry a $15 million price tag, and that doesn’t include the turbines, living machine, or fuel cell featured in the design. In a 2006 report on one of their concepts, Despommier and his graduate students budgeted $83 million for the structure alone, with line items including a geothermal HVAC system and a giant floating garden for hydroponics. Inaugural investments could help determine whether and how any existing kinks in the vertical farm model can be worked out. “I think if we can get a couple of these built as R and D projects, then the private sector is going to come in,” said Weber Thompson Principal Peter Greaves. 

For his part, Bosschaert highlights the importance of capitalizing on the model’s potential to advance not just an environmental agenda, but economic and social causes, as well. The Shanghai facility his firm conceived, created jobs for unemployed migrant workers and doubled as a social housing enterprise. Despite the immense capital that large-scale urban ag demands, said Bosschaert, “It would not surprise me at all for a city government, in cooperation with several smaller players in the greenhouse industry, for instance, working with a social employment NGO, to get one of these up and running, make it into a firm, and start running around repeating the exercise wherever they can.”

Alissa Bohling is a Portland-based journalist.


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