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Soil and the future of vertical farming

"In general, soil-based agriculture offers numerous benefits, including better nutrient retention and a versatility that enables the growth of an unrivaled variety of crops when compared to any other growth medium. Healthy soil also has the potential to store up to 1.5 gigatons of carbon per year, equivalent to the annual emissions of the global transportation sector (Lal, 2018, 2020)," shares Daniel Matthews, founder of Garden Stack, a US-based supplier of vertical growing systems. 

As Daniel continues, he shares that soil sequestration can help mitigate climate change effects, and soil-based vertical farming could play a crucial role in these efforts. However, water usage is a concern in soil-based agriculture, particularly in areas with limited water resources. Hydroponics is typically seen as being much more water-efficient.

Few people realize, though, that olla irrigation, an ancient soil-based irrigation method employing unglazed clay pots filled with water, can reduce water usage by up to 70% compared to conventional irrigation methods (Mollison, 1991). It remains the most water-efficient soil irrigation method to this day, far surpassing drip irrigation, for example.

Photo 56483705 © Baphomets |

"In other words, olla irrigation carries the water efficiency of hydroponics without the waste associated with constant connectivity and the production and transportation of nutrient solutions. In fact, ollas are so water efficient that they are directly comparable to hydroponics," he notes. 

Yet, studies have shown that soil-grown plants often have higher nutritional content than hydroponic or aeroponic counterparts (Smith et al., 2010; Fernández-González et al., 2019). Soil-grown plants exhibit a more diverse and robust microbial community, which plays a crucial role in enhancing plant growth, health, and resilience against pests and diseases (Mendes et al., 2013; Trivedi et al., 2020).

Daniel explains that the complex interactions between plants and their associated microorganisms in the soil contribute to improved nutrient uptake, making soil-based systems a valuable component of sustainable agriculture (Bender et al., 2016; Williams & Marco, 2014).). Soil has the clear advantage of fostering a diverse and healthy microbiome that can improve plant health and resilience to diseases.

These complex microbial interactions can help plants access essential nutrients, strengthen their immune systems, and even protect them from harmful pathogens (Bender et al., 2016). "Furthermore, soil-based agriculture promotes the conservation of essential soil biodiversity, which is crucial for maintaining long-term soil fertility and supporting sustainable agriculture (Barrios, 2007)," he adds. 

Photo 17690284 © Panpote |

By contrast, Daniel points out that in hydroponic systems, the circulation of nutrient-rich water can create favorable conditions for the growth and spread of waterborne pathogens, leading to rapid plant disease outbreaks (Savidov & Brooks, 2004). This leads to a need for constant connectivity and concomitant energy consumption in a non-stop struggle to optimize all variables to mitigate these risks.

Speaking of waste, even hydroponic or non-hydroponic food marketed as "local produce" generates emissions associated with, for example, packaging or actually getting the produce into consumers' hands and then from their hands to their homes. Vertical farming should place a greater emphasis on consumer-friendly solutions to accelerate our transition towards genuinely local food production straight from consumers' homes.

"On top of this, the absence of a diverse microbial community in hydroponic systems can make plants more vulnerable to opportunistic pathogens (Berg, 2009). Soil-based systems with olla irrigation promote a healthier, more diverse microbial community that can help suppress plant pathogens and reduce disease risk (Compant et al., 2010)," Daniel elaborates. 

Furthermore, the slow release of water from ollas minimizes standing water and damp conditions, which can deter the growth of harmful microorganisms and reduce the risk of human diseases associated with contaminated water (Stikkelman & Bainbridge, 2010). While hydroponics systems might work in a high-tech lab environment, this suggests that they might be less well-suited for the home.

Photo 25950387 © Puma330 |

Adding onto that, Daniel says that "Unsurprisingly, over the course of evolution, the soil-based microbes associated with traditional agricultural methods have entered into a symbiotic relationship with humans, affecting even our mood and psychology. The list of benefits of soil interaction and soil-based crops goes on, which is also unsurprising. After all, we do call this place 'the Earth.'"

Yet, by utilizing soil-based farming methods in vertical farming, Andrew thinks we can preserve valuable soil ecosystems and promote healthier, more resilient plant growth.

Garden Stack combines soil and olla irrigation in its unique vertical farming system, providing the benefits of soil-based agriculture while reducing water usage and enhancing plant growth, matching or surpassing the benefits of hydroponic alternatives.

"This approach suggests that vertical farming may be neglecting soil-based solutions, which doubtless have a role to play in the future of vertical farming and the construction of sustainable and environmentally friendly urban agricultural systems," Daniel concludes. 

Click here to access the sources used by Daniel.

For more information:
Daniel Matthews, Founder
Garden Stack 
Email: [email protected]