Urban agriculture project: what to know when growing vertically

Vertical farms face a number of challenges in an effort to be profitable. While some of these challenges, such as lighting, HVAC, and working at heights, are unique to vertical farms, many of them, such as access to land and financing, are shared with traditional, soil-based farming enterprises, writes Josh Fabian, Glens Falls Farm Manager on re-nuble.com.

Space to grow
Vertical farming has the ability to be placed in areas that would not be able to grow crops otherwise, such as warehouses and old city buildings. This can give it a distinct advantage over soil-dependent farms. These spaces that have been unproductive can potentially be utilized for a lower cost than the equivalent amount of farmland. However, finding the right space also requires identifying technical needs for the setup of a vertical farm – is the ceiling high enough, what type of lighting can be built into the space, etc.?

While searching for a site to land the UAP Glens Falls farm, we visited a number of locations. First, we identified an interested building owner who had access to a variety of potential buildings. An uninsulated garage would require more energy and capital investment in infrastructure. A small blacksmith shop with less than 8’celings would cause a significant reduction in sq ft value and air movement potential. A third-story space we chose had high ceilings, water, and initial power available, and due to having a first-floor restaurant and second-floor office space underneath, it also had a heat advantage. With it being a building with a comfortable year-round temperature, the HVAC has a good starting point.

Startup costs
Vertical farming requires the infrastructure to get off the ground, literally and figuratively. This includes climate control, lighting, irrigation, pest exclusion, and some sort of mechanical apparatus to go vertically. Often, we see publications touting advanced setups, but also included in vertical are smaller systems that can be simple yet efficient in design and practice. Two aspects that are critical to success are scale and space utilization. Simplified small-scale systems can be more manageable if the operational and capital expenses are also small. With increasing scale comes lower costs, typically on a per grow site basis. While this is good in theory, it can also be harder to manage from a labor perspective. Space utilization is critical because every inch, both vertically and horizontally, is being conditioned via climate control. Wasted space is, in effect, wasting the higher capital expense at the attempt to scale.

In an effort to eliminate wasted space for the UAP Glens Falls project, a number of strategies were implemented. Racks that move, designed by Pipp Horticulture, allow the need for a single-aisle to access every side of the canopy. Aisles are often overlooked as unused canopy space that is being conditioned through HVAC. Rolling benches are often used in a similar application for a non-vertical approach. Next, 1020 trays were chosen due to the tight fit inside the drip pans on each level. No inch of drip pan space is wasted. Due to the crop chosen (leafy greens), a light system was implemented that provided even distribution across the canopy. Eliminating hot spots creates a more uniform and successful crop.

Growing crops
Once setup is complete and the growing calendar is in motion, vertical farming has the advantage of predictability. Lighting and climate are not varying to the degree they would in a traditional farm setup. While both face crop pests and diseases, the controlled environment aspect of vertical can more easily utilize “cultural remedies” such as lower humidity, improved air movement, and adjustment of nutrient availability without having to slowly amend the soil.

The need to process and transport crops from farm to market has many similarities between traditional and vertical farming. One advantage of vertical is the proximity to customers. Farmland can be rural in nature, which increases the transportation length required. This can be mitigated through “agritainment” which brings customers to the farm. For traditional farms, think apple picking or hayrides. For vertical farming, this can be done through community outreach such as school visits and tours for interested local citizens. Bringing exposure to a vertical farm through media and in-person visits can be critical to the success of the farm. These projects are unique and not commonplace as of yet. Breaking down preconceived notions of what they are and how they operate can foster a positive relationship between customers and farmers. A big reason for the success of farmers' markets and direct sales is this very relationship that is formed. People appreciate and deserve to know where their food comes from.

Our intention for the Glens Falls pilot is to never displace sales with existing local farms. Instead, we seek to find opportunities where produce are being sourced in non-local ways and serve as a local more sustainable supplier to foodservice and hospitality establishments within Glens Falls.

Vertical and traditional farms both face challenges on the road to profitability. Vertical farms can suffer from quick timelines for return on investment (ROI). Vertical farms are commonly judged on a 1-5 year ROI, while this figure could be 10-25 years for traditional farms. A reason for this is the relative newness of vertical operations. As time goes on and these systems become more commonplace, this difference between the two may shrink.

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