Vertical Farming - How Does it Stack Up?

 

                                                                                                                                         by Sheri Lupoli representing Team Trella

I remember years ago hearing the term “vertical farming” for the first time when I was just a kid. In my mind, all I could imagine were plants being grown up poles the way my great-grandparents grew grapes for wine - letting the vines creep up stakes and trellises until they formed a perfect archway over the path that led to the larger field of crops. After all, “vertical” meant “tall”  to me. Beyond that, I really didn’t question the purpose or the application of vertical farming.

I was fortunate enough to understand the hard work and satisfaction that went into growing and consuming your own food. I had a deep sense of gratitude for the earth and somehow knew that what I was being taught by my elders was both basic and essential; yet I could not begin to imagine how critical indoor farming innovations would be to the future wellbeing of our planet and people.

Here we are in 2021 facing long-anticipated climate and resource challenges to our food and plant medicine security. In fact, on the East Coast we are in the midst of hurricane season, and just last night flash flooding and lightning knocked the power out in the neighborhood, tore up gardens, and ruined crops at local farms. These severe and worldwide weather events combined with an increasing global population and limited space for sufficient outdoor crop production on viable farmland has produced another perfect storm so to speak.

How can we grow what is needed to sustain more people with less available farming space, all while combating climate change and natural disasters?

Enter controlled environment agriculture (CEA) and vertical farming.

WHAT IS VERTICAL FARMING?

Obviously, my childhood definition of vertical farming wasn’t quite accurate (in my defense, I was 4 years old and vertical farming has come a very long way!). To clarify, vertical farming is a cultivation technique that utilizes stacking so that crops are grown on tiered racks or in towers. Grow racks, hydro towers, green walls, and even green roofs are all great examples of innovative crop production that make use of the space above and around us rather than beneath us.

Vertical farming is a very efficient and resourceful form of indoor growing for crops as well, where space and natural resources are limited. Rather than growing crops outdoors and spread across large, ground-level plots, crops are brought into a controlled environment and the surface area of farmable space is maintained or even increased by using a multi-level grow space. 

 

EcoPrespective Vertical FarmingUntitled design (3)-1

  Photo Credit: the EcoPerspective                                                               Photo Credit: Trella Technologies

                                      Texas AM AgriLife Vertical Farming

                                                         Hydro Towers - Photo Credit: Texas A&M AgriLife by Beth Ann Luedeker

 

WHY VERTICAL FARMING? 

Indoor agriculture as an industry is spreading rapidly to reflect the rising demand for year-round, robust crops to be immediately, easily, and equitably accessible. In simple terms, we have spread out almost to maximum capacity, so if we want to eliminate food and plant medicine shortages and introduce opportunities for agricultural sovereignty to current food insecure populations, then we need to start looking up. Stacking crops in layers or levels is like turning a farm on its literal side: rows of leafy greens become tall columns, get stacked on tall shelving, and/or can be propagated in hydroponic grow towers like the ones pictured above. 

Imagine how using vertical space will increase the farmable square footage of an indoor structure. In fact, our next blog post will outline a stacked system using six TrellaGro LST™ units, basic storage shelving, and an 8’x8’ grow tent. 

Check out this video of a shelving unit we are currently working on, and hear what our CEO, Aja Atwood, has to say about vertical farming and how the TrellaGro LST™ is being used.

 

LIMITATIONS OF VERTICAL FARMING

As with any innovation, perfecting the science of vertical farming is an ongoing process. CEA technology has made it possible to automate processes such as nutrient release, water filtration, lighting, and humidity control, but challenges do remain.

For example, taking care of vertical crops in a larger or commercial facility may require growers to climb ladders to access the plants for care and harvest. This is labor-intensive and could mean running into OSHA compliance issues. Or worse, it could mean injury. It is a similar problem to the one faced by growers of taller flowering and fruiting crops which require regular tying and training. Whenever possible, it is safest not to stack too high. 

But this leads to another problem. How can you maximize harvest for taller plants if they need to be kept short?  Traditional indoor vertical farming methods don’t really account for plants that vine or grow taller on their own. Although it can be done, it would require an extremely high ceiling and lower branches may not receive adequate light. Again, Cannabis growers understand that every branch removed is potential money down the drain and a waste of viable, natural materials. 

If you are a Cannabis homegrower, you may also run into plant count limitations, meaning you can only have a few plants flowering at a time. This type of mandatory crop rotation is devised to moderate the amount of each harvest, which is the exact opposite of what a grower wants to do. In this situation, you want to get the maximum harvest with the fewest possible plants.

At Trella Technologies, we have worked to solve these problems for the grow community by engineering a system that is not only stackable, but automated to grow plants horizontally with low-stress training.

Tall plants can be propagated and cultivated on shelves that are stacked lower and closer to each other, while sensors detect plant growth-rate and gently move with the plant to bend it accordingly. This reduces the amount of tying or trimming on ladders. The branches that are usually cut off because of poor light penetration will remain intact and be allowed to flower and fruit instead. Best of all TrellaGro LST™ is energy efficient and made of recyclable materials. 

Be a pioneer! Try out some cutting-edge tech for your indoor vertical grow operation! As engineers, we love working for you and with you so that we can solve some of these problems together. We want to help ensure that growers clearly see an increased return on their investment of time, money, and care.

Above all, we wish for all individuals in all communities to have access to the fundamentals of health and wellness that every human deserves. 

Until next time, stay well, be kind, and keep growing strong. 

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