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A new direction for indoor growers

Vertical farming rises to meet growing demand for local, organic food.

 

As a winter storm blows outside, Haydn Christensen harvests basil for an order for Whole Foods Market.
Autumn Parry

Nate Storey looked out his window in China at agricultural workers laboriously threshing grain by hand.

“There has to be a better way to do this,” he thought.

It was 2001, and the Cheyenne, Wyoming, native was working in a Chinese orphanage, trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life. At that moment, his vision crystallized: He would make food production more efficient.

Back in the U.S., he enrolled in the agronomy program at the University of Wyoming. For his Ph.D. in 2012, he designed a structure that turned indoor farming on its head — literally — by growing plants vertically in towers.

Storey is now CEO of Laramie-based Bright Agrotech, part of agriculture’s larger vertical-farming trend. The stacked racks of plants use space more efficiently than traditional single-layer greenhouses. Raising crops indoors without soil requires less water than outdoor growing and removes the risk of early frosts, hailstorms and too much or too little rain. And being able to grow food year-round in otherwise unsuitable environments helps farmers produce high-quality greens, herbs and tomatoes that bring premium prices.

“It won’t be the only kind of farming we have by any means, but our needs are changing,” says Daniel Burrus, a technology forecaster who has studied vertical farming since its inception. He believes it will play an increasingly important role in the future, especially in Western areas with harsh growing conditions. “Vertical farming plays to all of the important trends,” he adds, as consumers increasingly demand fresh produce, grown locally without pesticides and herbicides.

 

Basil grows vertically out of ZipGrow towers at Haydn Christensen’s farm in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Autumn Parry

The term “vertical farming” goes back to 1999, when Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier tasked architecture students with designing futuristic skyscrapers that could grow plants on every floor, producing food for city-dwellers. The idea of growing in a controlled setting, close to consumers, was appealing, and farmers began trying to make it work.

Stacking flats of plants maximized indoor space but created ventilation problems and made it difficult for light to reach the plants evenly. Storey thought upright towers were a better option. Bright Agrotech’s ZipGrow Towers are 3 or 5 feet tall and hollow, with a slit down one side where plants grow in a soil-less medium made from recycled water bottles. An overhead grid of pipes drips water and nutrients into their root systems. The towers are particularly suited to specialty crops high in water weight, like lettuce and herbs, because these crops don’t transport well.

Storey hopes to “democratize production,” taking some of the market away from commercial farmers and sharing it with local growers. Bright Agrotech offers videos, blog posts, consulting and classes to educate aspiring farmers on making the best decisions for their farm and market size. “If you don’t have the market and you’re just paying for the equipment, it doesn’t make sense at all,” Chris Michael, Bright Agrotech’s chief marketing officer, says.

Haydn Christensen, a Fort Collins farmer who was an early partner of Bright Agrotech and one of the first to adopt ZipGrow towers, says vertical farming has its drawbacks. Heating, cooling and lighting costs can erode profit margins below those of traditional outdoor farming. And the crops it’s best suited for, such as arugula and chives, are a small portion of the average family’s grocery list.

Nonetheless, the company has tripled in size in the last five years. Tens of thousands of towers have been installed since 2014 across the U.S. and in Europe, Southeast Asia and in China, where the idea first sprouted.

Bright Agrotech also created downtown Laramie’s “living wall,” working with Altitude Chophouse and Brewery, which transformed an unused vertical space into a wall that produces cabbage, basil and mint. Making use of existing structures and abandoned lots saves farmers from having to build their own spaces, one of indoor farming’s biggest expenses. In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a sliver of vacant land next to a parking garage became a three-story hydroponic greenhouse, producing tomatoes, herbs and microgreens. Seattle’s Farmbox Greens got its start in a two-car garage. A New Jersey company called AeroFarms recently converted an old steel mill in Newark into the world’s largest commercial vertical farm.

Vertical farms are still far from achieving Despommier’s goal of supplying a large part of a city’s food, says Stan Cox, research coordinator at The Land Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research organization. The cost of equipment, the energy required for artificial light and heating, and the limitations on what can be grown efficiently confine vertical farms to a relatively narrow slice of the market. “I think there’s a pretty strict limit on how big it can get,” he says.

As the market for locally produced food grows, however, Bright Agrotech hopes the industry will too. “We’re trying to help build a better food-distribution system,” Michael says. “So we’re empowering small farmers who are starting and running successful farms that bring better food to their communities.”

Ginger Hervey is a freelance journalist who has reported stories from Wyoming, Texas, Missouri and Belgium.