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Did you know the world produces enough food for everyone to live a healthy, productive life? “The problem is that we don’t distribute it properly,” says Henry Gordon-Smith, Association for Vertical Farming.
Recent estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization show that 805 million people – about one in nine of the world’s population – are chronically undernourished. Although that number represents a decline of more than 100 million people, the world’s population isn’t slowing down; it’s projected to burgeon to 9 billion by 2050. With 80% of that figure expected to live in cities, the solution to ensuring that food is consistently available may require a fundamental shift in how we grow food.
When Columbia University emeritus professor Dickson Despommier set out to solve America’s food, water, and energy crises, he looked up for answers.
In his book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, readers are taken on a journey inside the vertical farm, where multistory buildings are filled with fruits and vegetables grown locally for entire cities.
While the concept has taken root in places like Japan, which opened its first plant factory in 1983 and reportedly has more than 200 in place today, the U.S. has seen slow adoption.
“Vertical farming took off in Japan because it had a market for radiation-free produce long before there was a need to grow food using less water and closer to cities than in North America,” explains Gordon-Smith. “There are four large-scale commercial farms (20,000 square feet or more of indoor space) in North America today.”
Still in the early stages here, Gordon-Smith, who has been reporting on vertical farming for four years, says he’s really seen it escalate recently. “Four may not sound like a lot, but the majority of those opened in the last year,” he notes.
On the one hand, the industry is growing, but Gordon-Smith says people are still somewhat naïve about the technology.
“Alterrus opened up two years ago in Vancouver, Canada, and was considered the first commercial vertical farm in North America,” he relates. “It was badly managed and ended up going bankrupt a year later. There are lessons to be learned from that failure. Some people are jumping in a little too fast.”
A model for success
Based on the success of Green Spirit Farms, it is clear that father-and-son team Milan and Daniel Kluko have figured out how to create an economically viable and sustainable vertical-farming business. Founded in 2011, the vision for the company was spearheaded by Milan, who has worked, owned, and operated businesses in the conservation and environmental engineering sectors for more than 30 years. His concept uses 98% less water and 96% less land than traditional ag.
Although critics claim vertical farming consumes a great deal more energy than traditional farming, the Michigan farm employs a carbon-neutral energy source to use less energy and is continually exploring alternatives.
“Traditional soil-farming methods use little to no electricity since their light source is the sun. We use about 52,000 watts of electricity to grow the same acre-equivalent of lettuce. With renewable energy sources, we will generate more electricity than we use and administer that extra electricity back to the power company. We plan to have this accomplished before the end of 2015,” notes Daniel, head of research and development.
They also use the latest in lighting technology. “The Illumitex LEDs are our most efficient lighting source to date. Not only do we use less electricity than traditional light sources, but also the light spectrum emitted is optimized for plant growth,” he explains. “More traditional lights have surprisingly large amounts of unusable light in their spectrum. The lighting components utilized – from a spectrum, intensity, uniformity, and day-length standpoint – are important aspects of attaining a sizable yield.”
Other sustainability practices include recycling water through a reverse-osmosis system, composting plant waste, using recycled and compostable packaging, and no pesticides or herbicides.
With a 21-day standard growing cycle for most crops, the farm gets a little over 17 harvests a year per system and grows basil, leaf lettuce, spinach, and kale. “We can grow an acre-equivalent of lettuce (average 26,000 heads) in 620 square feet,” says Daniel. “Right now, we grow 42 heads of lettuce per square foot.”
This initial prototype farm, which has 20,000 square feet of space, also grows small amounts of arugula, beets, swiss chard, bok choy, and French Breakfast radishes.
The Klukos opened a second farm in Detroit and a third in Medina, Ohio. In an abandoned warehouse of just over 50,000 square feet, the northeast Ohio farm harvested its first crop in February 2015.
Selling to supermarkets and restaurants, business is booming, but they still face challenges. “There were places we couldn’t build farms because the local zoning policies don’t support a business like ours,” Daniel says.
Yet, Green Spirit Farms will forge ahead to keep the momentum going while keeping procedures and processes simple and effective. “I think we will find more and more vertical-farm produce in the aisles of our local and national supermarkets,” predicts Daniel. “I don’t see vertical farming replacing all forms of agriculture, by any means. However, I think companies will move past growing leafy greens and find niche markets like raspberries, strawberries, or maybe even bananas.”
Feasibility of fodder
What began as an experiment in a garage two years ago has evolved into a valuable feed supplement for a Pescadero, California, livestock operation.
“We started the fodder program growing barley to see how our livestock would perform on it,” says Kevin Watt, TomKat Ranch integrated land and livestock manager.
The initial thought was that it would be a feed substitute that would eventually replace a large percentage of fed hay. Barley is currently being fed to mother cows and sick animals.
“While it does help supplement caloric needs, fodder is most helpful as a quality enhancer,” he notes. “It lengthens our finishing season by providing green grass longer, but it also leads to higher quality animals. It helps sick animals recover much faster, too.”
When Mother Nature forces a producer’s hand, growing feed indoors alleviates the concerns around finding feed.
“We are very fortunate because our budget is comprehensive, so we can cover all of our hay costs,” says Watt. “Sometimes, the big question is can we even find hay, especially with the drought we’ve seen in the last few years. Then if we do find hay, is it up to our standards, or do we have to truck it in?”
“It also alleviates price fluctuations for farmers subject to skyrocketing hay costs in recent years and potentially saves up to 50% in feed costs compared with hay,” says Jon Kozlowski, FarmTek’s hydroponic fodder specialist.
TomKat Ranch’s homemade system, built for about $1,500, produces about 70 30-pound biscuits every week. It takes about six days to grow one biscuit. “It takes about two to three hours per week to produce 30 biscuits,” notes Watt.
“This year we are purchasing a Fodder Solutions system that will cost around $50,000,” he says. “Estimates from the manufacturer, which we corroborated with existing owners, claim the system will produce 70 biscuits per day and will require 30 to 60 minutes of labor. It’s also why we decided to switch from our homemade system to a model that really allows for scaling down that process.”
Although fodder systems are not a new technology, there is little research on raw nutrition values or how a system can offset the cost of using hay. “We’re in conversations with academics at UC Davis and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to design a feed trial,” notes Watt. “Hopefully, we can help provide the numbers and financials for others. I estimated it would take 3½ years for the system to return just on what it offsets in hay production.”
However, he believes they will likely see a payoff sooner because of the higher quality and higher finishing weight they expect to see once they’re able to provide a large amount of fodder consistently, which hasn’t been possible with their pilot program.
“By 2020, we expect fodder awareness and adoption to increase significantly,” says Kozlowski. “Fodder is America’s future premier feed that allows farmers to raise healthy, grass-fed animals on smaller tracts of land.”