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.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...