Vertical farming - the reinvention of horticulture?

Vertical farming has grown to become a world-wide concept since the early 2000s. The basic premise is simple: Instead of spreading production across endless acres of land, horticultural productions are facilitated in vertical layers, requiring far smaller areas to produce the same amount of crop.

The potential of vertical farming
Vertical farming is – as the term indicates – farming in vertical layers instead of traditional horizontal farming. Several vertical layers are set up, with light and climate adapted to the specific circumstances, to produce low cultures at scale.

"When plants are produced vertically, low cultures like lettuce and herbs are ideal in order to utilize the vertical space as much as possible," says Pål G. Knutzen, Area Sales Manager at Senmatic.

A vertical farming setup brings advantages not only for the grower, but for the environment as well. Thus, vertical farming is revolutionizing parts of the horticultural and agricultural industries and has the potential to be the preferred production method of the future.



Vertical farming in urban areas
The concept of vertical farming has been developed on the basis of its potential to provide large populations concentrated in urban areas with locally grown food – and to meet the demands of an ever-growing worldwide population. Due to the challenges and costs of transporting fresh crops to larger cities, urban farmers have realized the potential in utilizing existing square meters in tall city buildings and producing crops locally.

"The tall buildings are not originally meant for farming, but they can be transformed into large urban greenhouses with room for several vertical layers of plants, thereby meeting demands for production and space optimization," Pål G. Knutzen argues.

Vertical farming outside densely populated areas
Vertical farming can be an attractive option for growers outside major cities if the required facilities are available. Greenhouses tall enough for the installation of multiple layers are a necessity. This was the case for Dutch-based Rainbow Colors who increased production by 50% after establishing a vertical farming set-up. In most cases, however, it will be less costly to build horizontally if the required acres are available when expanding or establishing new setups outside populated areas – this way, natural lighting can be utilized as much as possible.

Advantages of vertical farming
"Vertical farming enables growers to increase production output without increasing costs on heat and electricity – and without expanding existing facilities. Growing vertically then becomes a way to draw benefit from excess space, otherwise unused", Pål G. Knutzen explains.

Secondly, full indoor vertical farming setups with circumstances adapted for the specific cultures with LED lighting and climate control entail a high level of controllability and increased production quality throughout the entire crop.

In addition, vertical farming technology creates the opportunity to automate the entire setup, which can increase the utilization rate of the production facilities. Because automation makes you less dependent on direct access to the crop, you become less dependent on excess space to move around between the plant layers.

Pitfalls of vertical farming
Despite the advantages of vertical farming, there are also pitfalls to be aware of before establishing a vertical farming set-up. Firstly, when urban farmers take on vertical farming, they need knowledge about the technical part of growing – climate controlling, lighting, irrigation etc. – or at least employ people who do, and who will be able to run the setup.

Secondly, it can be challenging for urban growers to compete with established farmers in a sustainable way. Before investing, an urban grower therefore needs to plan branding strategies and sales channels.

"Besides this, too many existing vertical farming set-ups have low utilization rates," says Pål G. Knutzen and explains: "In many set-ups, they maneuver large lifts between the vertical constructions. However, the ideal situation is to just have an inspection aisle in one side. When the entire set-up is automated, the growers don’t need to have direct access to the plants – it only takes up more space, which could have been utilized for more production".

Summary of advantages and pitfalls

Advantages:

  • Increase production output by utilizing vertical excess space.
  • Control growing conditions for your entire crop with LED lighting and climate control.
  • Exploit more square meters thanks to automation.

Pitfalls:

  • Do not invest in a vertical farming installation without the necessary technical, horticultural knowledge.
  • If you have the ambitions and the capital, but not the necessary knowledge, employ people with the required skills.
  • Make sure to plan your branding strategies and sales channels. When establishing a new horticultural setup, competition can be tough.
  • Do not establish vertical farming without utilizing the space sufficiently – utilization rates in existing setups are often low.

Ensure efficiency with the right technical setup
A vertical farming installation is not necessarily efficient in its own right – the growing conditions need to be ideal. 

"In an automated setup, an elevator moves gutters to the inspection aisle where the grower is able to check parts of the produce. The automated system operates the rest of the production as bigger plants are moved to higher and higher positions with increased distance between the layers," Pål G. Knutzen explains.

The automation of the moving gutters enables growers to allocate a larger net area for growing and thus a larger production output.
 
Besides the moving gutter set-up, vertical farming facilities need control of artificial light, environmental control and fertigation. Pål G. Knutzen elaborates: "With high quality LED grow lights, it is possible to make every day a sunny day without being dependent on natural lighting. The FL100 from Senmatic is a strong and controllable LED light bar ideal for indoor vertical farming."

Combined with an electronic climate computer and an efficient fertilizer mixer from Senmatic, you can control all aspects of the growing process. Along with skilled partners, Senmatic can help you install an entire automated setup.

“If you have many acres of land at your possession, vertical farming may not be the best solution for you. But in large cities around the world, vertical farming is most definitely justified and will only increase in significance in the future! We look forward to being a part of the development and to guide ambitious farmers to the ideal setup for their business", says Pål Knutzen, Area Sales Manager at Senmatic.

For more information:
Senmatic

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