Traditional farming will not be able to sustain the growing global population. It’s a truth experts have known for years, but has only recently become urgently apparent. Over the past two years, the strains of the pandemic and extreme weather caused by global warming have disrupted the global food supply system, which resulted in ruined crops, bare shelves, and higher prices and contributed to growing food insecurity. The collision of these crises has helped position vertical farming, the seeds of which have been sown for the past 22 years, as an attractive solution.
Modern vertical farming, which first gained traction in the early 2000s as a potential way to solve food insecurity, describes commercially grown crops planted in vertical stacked layers. Often, these crops are grown using controlled-environment agriculture (CEA), where temperature, light, water, and carbon dioxide levels are all controlled by the farmers. (Vertical farms typically also don’t require pesticides or fertilizers, both of which can pollute surrounding landscapes.) Increasingly, farmers are using sophisticated artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to optimize their vertical farms—think sensors precisely monitoring temperature, light, and water, and drones and robots supporting crop maintenance.
As a result, vertical farming is typically more environmentally-friendly than most row cropping. Vertical farms require far less ground space—a square meter of ground space on a vertical farm can produce the equivalent of 50 square meters on a row farm—and up to 95 percent less water compared to row farming. That means these farms can produce higher yields using fewer resources, making it a promising way to tackle food shortages. They’re also less vulnerable to extreme weather changes, since most vertical farms are in climate-controlled indoor facilities. Still, Tripp Williamson, the president of Vertical Crop Consultants, says traditional row farms are still the gold standard for produce that requires lots of vertical space to grow, like corn and wheat. “[But] vertical farming will help in areas where you can plant a large density of plants, [like] lettuce, microgreens, strawberries, and mushrooms,” he says.$2.7b
While vertical farming isn’t new or meant to completely replace traditional farming, the pandemic has made its potential crystal clear to the agricultural community. “At the beginning of the pandemic our business slowed drastically. Then, six months later, it exploded because people did start to worry about food production,” Williamson says. “If you are in the food industry in the U.S., you know firsthand just how fragile the system is.” Investors see the pressing need and are taking action: In 2021, capital investment for indoor farming (most of which uses vertical farming) increased over 15 percent and reached a high of $2.7 billion.
It sounds futuristic, but the fruits of vertical farming are already in stores. “In my 30-plus years at Whole Foods Market, I’ve never seen an expansion in the produce space grow quite as fast as ultra-urban farming,” says Erik Brown, executive leader of produce at Whole Foods Market. It’s what prompted the retail chain to name “ulta-urban farming” (which often uses vertical farming techniques) as something that will take over grocery stores in 2022.
Smallhold (launched in 2017), which sells vertically-grown specialty mushrooms in 250 locations across 10 states, is one such brand coming to more grocery store shelves in 2022. The company secured $25 million in Series A funding earlier this year and is planning to build a larger, state-of-the-art vertical farm in Southern California, supplementing its existing farms in New York and Texas. The new facility will allow mushrooms to be rolled out into many more stores in the next 12 months, says CEO and co-founder Andrew Carter.
Existing players in the space will also have a larger presence in stores in the next year. AeroFarms, which has been in the vertical farming game since 2004 and grows various greens (including kale and arugula), is expanding into hundreds of more stores. Prior to 2021, the company’s produce was already available at Walmart, Whole Foods, ShopRite, AmazonFresh, and FreshDirect. Now, its products are newly available in 350 Stop & Shop stores. “We have also begun construction on our large-scale R&D vertical farm in Abu Dhabi—which will be 90,000 square feet—and announced plans to expand to the Midwest region of the U.S. in the coming years,” says AeroFarms marketing director Alina Zolotareva, RDN.
Vertical farms require far less ground space—a square meter of ground space on a vertical farm can produce the equivalent of 50 square meters on a row farm—and up to 95 percent less water compared to row farming.
Bowery Farming (founded in 2015), which currently sells its greens in 850 grocery stores, will open a new vertical farm in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 2022, says Katie Seawell, the brand’s CMO. She says that the new facility will be the company’s largest and most technologically advanced one yet—allowing Bowery Farming to supply even more food to more grocery stores.
Artificial intelligence used in vertical farming is changing rapidly, improving the industry as it grows. “AI and machine learning are very good at taking lots of data points and we use those data points to learn how to improve what we grow,” says Sam Bertram, the co-founder of Willo, a vertical farming and produce subscription service based in San Jose, California, that launched during the pandemic and, to date, has almost sold out its founding memberships for a new farm set to open in early 2022. For example: “We [use sensors to] look at the length of the light wavelengths, the intensity of the light, irrigation schedule, humidity, temperature, and pH in the nutrients,” he says. All of that data is analyzed to help support the farm’s efficiency.
Similarly, Bowery Farming will rely on smart technology in its upcoming Bethlehem facility: “The farm will leverage billions of data points collected from previous farms—which would have taken traditional farmers hundreds of years to gather—to grow a reliable supply of delicious produce year-round,” Seawell says.
In 2022, Bertram says Willo plans to introduce an app to help members customize their experience. “Members will be able to design their own farms on their phones, deciding what type of crops they want us to grow for them,” he says. “It’s Farmville come to life.” Members will use the app to pinpoint what they want grown (and how much). Then, Willo’s team plants the crops, alerting members via the app when the plants are grown. Produce gets shipped right to customers when it’s ready.
Farm.One, which grows different types of greens, similarly adopted a membership model in which customers can opt in to weekly produce deliveries from the farm. The company, founded in 2017, originally worked exclusively with restaurants. In 2020, the brand launched a membership program for consumers (prices start at $30 per week), moving operations from Manhattan to a bigger space in Brooklyn to accommodate the demand. “We plan to build many more neighborhood farm locations in more cities across the U.S. [in 2022],” CEO and founder Robert Laing says. “Each [vertical] farm will form a new local hub for food—instead of having your produce shipped across the country, it’s grown right where you live.”
“For [the vertical farming movement] to really make an impact, it needs to be accessible to the masses." Maya Feller, RD
Some organizations hope to embed vertical farms directly in vulnerable communities to help eradicate hunger. 7 Generations, a regenerative agriculture company, has built vertical “cloud farms” in Native American communities across the country—a population more likely to experience food insecurity compared to white Americans. The farms provide food for the communities, and members can sell surpluses for additional revenue. Ted Treanor, the company’s co-founder, says 7 Generations has also developed a STEM AgTech (sustainable agriculture technology) curriculum for grades K-12 in Native communities across the country. The curriculum ensures Indigenous kids can use this technology themselves. “Every [vertical farming] facility will be its own island, essentially; it will produce its own energy and won’t require any [outside] water,” Treanor says. “We think kids will really love it because it’s hands-on. The food they grow will go home to the families, too.”
Cities may soon use vertical farms to feed hungry citizens, too. In October, Healthy Greens JC, a pilot nutrition program in partnership with AeroFarms, opened the first of 10 planned vertical farms in Jersey City, New Jersey. The program plans on providing 19,000 pounds of free produce to participating community members in its first year. This is the type of initiative Well+Good Wellness Trends advisor Maya Feller, RD, says is imperative in the vertical farming industry in order to actually help those most in need—particularly people who don’t readily have access to a grocery store. “For [the vertical farming movement] to really make an impact, it needs to be accessible to the masses,” she says.
In these ways, vertically farmed produce will soon be found in more grocery stores and right in local communities. When you head to the grocery store in 2022 to pick up some produce, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find an option that was grown in a temperature-controlled farm with data-optimized watering and growth schedules. How’s that for eating smart?
Photo Credit: Stocksy/Rob and Julia Campbell