Farming in the Sky

Why agriculture may someday take place in towers, not fields

The Sky Greens vertical farm in Singapore (Edgar Su / Reuters)

A couple of Octobers ago, I found myself standing on a 5,000-acre cotton crop in the outskirts of Lubbock, Texas, shoulder-to-shoulder with a third-generation cotton farmer. He swept his arm across the flat, brown horizon of his field, which was at that moment being plowed by an industrial-sized picker—a toothy machine as tall as a house and operated by one man. The picker’s yields were being dropped into a giant pod to be delivered late that night to the local gin. And far beneath our feet, the Ogallala aquifer dwindled away at its frighteningly swift pace. When asked about this, the farmer spoke of reverse osmosis—the process of desalinating water—which he seemed to put his faith in, and which kept him unafraid of famine and permanent drought.

Beyond his crop were others, belonging to other farmers, so that as far as the eye could see were brown stretches of newly harvested cotton plants.

When I think of the potential ills of contemporary agriculture, I think of this farm, a 19th-century crop taken to its 21st-century logical limit, organized largely the same way it was two centuries ago—only with less human labor, and over a much bigger expanse. There is, even in Texas, only so much usable surface area, and so much irrigable water to maintain future commercial crops, and it made me wonder: What would a truly modern crop look like?

For one, the yields are smaller, but more importantly, the plants grow a whole lot taller.

The future of farming is looking up—literally, and in more ways than one: There are grow towers, rooftops, and industry talk of Waterworld-style “plant factories” in futuristic floating cities. And this vertical movement is happening for a variety of reasons. For one, by prioritizing localized operations, it offers a remedy to the mounting economic difficulties that independent farmers face when otherwise so easily underpriced by Big Ag. But more importantly, it’s rising out of environmental concerns—space, soil health, climate change, vital ecosystems decimated by monoculture. According to the professor of environmental health sciences Dickson Despommier in his article “The Vertical Farm: Reducing the Impact of Agriculture on Ecosystem Function and Services,” we should expect over the next 50 years for the human population to reach 8.6 billion, requiring an additional growing area “roughly the size of Brazil.”

When I returned home to Wyoming from the cotton fields of Lubbock, I happened upon Nate Storey’s farming operation, Bright Agrotech, in the outskirts of Laramie—a city in the high plains, 7,200 feet above sea level, with long, frigid winters often extending through May, frequently sustaining temperatures (way) below zero. The average growing season can be as short as 51 days. To battle the cold, Bright Agrotech operates in a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse, offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) by producing veggies (herbs and greens year-round, squash and root crops in the summer) for community shareholders. The greenhouse shelters 300 of Bright Agrotech’s patented ZipGrow towers (which they also sell for residential and commercial use), each reaching up to five feet; the company also custom-makes towers up to 17 feet.

In effect, the crops grow upward, maximizing the limited space within the climate-controlled walls of the greenhouse. The crops are fertilized and irrigated by deep-blue tanks of living tilapia, swimming around just out of sight. The fish tanks are rigged into part of a system that uses principles of hydroponics and aquaculture: one, the practice of using mineral-nutrient solutions in water for soil-less growing, and the other, the practice of using aquatic-life byproduct to fertilize. The waste of the tilapia is broken down, absorbed by the plants for food, and then the water is recirculated through the crops. The result? Bright Agrotech uses only 60 gallons of water a day, or about 22,000 a year (which, if you compare to water use in the average American household—400 gallons a day for a family of four—isn’t bad.) Plus a conventionally grown plot of that size would require 20 times that amount annually, according to Storey, and traditional commercial ag loses half of its water to evaporation, run-off, and flood irrigation.

Storey says that while vertical aquaponics and hydroponics is no doubt a response to environmental concerns, the approach is also business-driven. “Energy is expensive, so reducing reliance on traditional energy sources is not just more environmentally sound but also economically sound,” he says. “Part of reducing energy inputs is tripling our production per square foot. It means that we can reduce our energy consumption per unit of output by 66 percent.” In other words, the small farmer has fewer overhead costs.

Of course, right now, vertical aquaponics is not a money-maker for larger commercial outfits, but even in the face of traditional horizontal farming approaches, there are some practitioners. The largest, FarmedHere, operates in a 90,000-square-foot greenhouse just outside Chicago. And in municipalities all over the country, from farmers’ markets to backyard goats, we’re already seeing popular interest in what Storey calls “a kind of grass-roots renaissance in the small-producer farming economy.” Storey is confident in vertical aquaponics’ viability for larger operations, but there’s a caveat: “To make this new economy happen, we need to start using urban and high-value land and real estate more efficiently, and that means growing up, but growing up intelligently.”

Brooklyn Grange—the leading rooftop-farming and greenroofing business in the U.S.—agrees, in principle. But the founders, Ben Flanner and Anastasia Cole Plakias, are “growing up” in a different way.

Flanner, who previously worked in consulting and online marketing, cultivated a fascination with farming while daydreaming on the job, especially in regards to how agriculture “will influence our earth’s future—our growing population, climate change, land preservation, international trade, and of course, public health.” When he and Plakias set out to start their operation, Flanner says, “We looked across the city and saw the potential in the thousands of roofs, and set out to find good roof space.”

In Gabrielle Langholtz’ WNYC profile of Brooklyn Grange, she reports that the pair found their farms by using Google Earth satellite images “to scan for big, flat, sunny rooftops” and that in the process of scouting, guerilla-style, set off their “fair share of alarms.” By 2012, they’d rented vertical space in two boroughs—with farms in Long Island City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Brooklyn Grange grows salad greens and leafy greens, root crops, tomatoes, peppers, and rotating seasonal crops including the likes of eggplants, berries, and tomatillos. They are especially proud of their “crisp, colorful, ever-evolving salad mixes and our sweet heirloom tomatoes in the peak of the summer season.” They sell at farmer’s markets, as well as wholesale to New York restaurants and retailers, and maintain a thriving 24-week CSA—which includes, season and stock depending, flowers, hot sauce, and honey cultivated in their very own rooftop apiary.

All in all, Brooklyn Grange has 2.5 acres—that’s around 109,000 square feet—of rooftop farmland, and they “need and use every bit of area” that they have. Flanner says, “We also conduct detailed financial analyses on our crops, and it’s important to focus on the most profitable crops, in terms of time, yield, price, and demand … because at least for the seeable future, a small more profitable subset of crops seems to be the emphasis.”

In addition to keeping nutrient-dense produce close to consumers, the city itself benefits in more ways than one from farming vertically. “Green-roof farming retains millions of gallons of stormwater,” Flanner says, “thus helping to manage our stormwater runoff. Many large cities’ combined sewer systems overflow frequently into the nearby waterways.” By using a combination of “detention” (temporarily storing excess stormwater) and “retention” (long-term stormwater storage), Brooklyn Grange reduces what the city affectionately refers to as Combined Sewage Overflow. Tyler Caruso (an industrial designer who embarked on a project to prove the efficacy of rooftop-farming runoff management), said in an interview for Urban Omnibus, “When you compare that to the cost of retrofitting or constructing new sewage-treatment plants, and factor in the amount of energy that goes into treating wastewater, the savings become astronomical.”

Flanner says, “Rooftop farms also provide increased insulation to the building, reducing energy used in heating and cooling and combating urban heat-island effect.” And in addition to that, in some small way, Brooklyn Grange’s output reduces the number of produce trucks coming in and out of the metro area—and what if every neighborhood had its own vertical farm? How many fewer semis would be choking up the metro area?

Quality over quantity, closed systems, and efficient use of space, which is to say, utilizing alternative surfaces: These are all important tenets of future farms and the push to “grow up.” And taking the vertical-farm concept many steps further are the spectacular future-forward “plant factory” designs of the Japan-based tech firm Shimizu—skyscraping “farms” drafted onto lilypad-style cities floating atop the equatorial Pacific. It’s the meticulously detailed design dream from a team that is also known for conceptual projects like a space hotel and blueprints to install solar panels on the moon.

But even if Shimizu’s proposals are not being imminently carried out, their intent is sincere and visionary: “We tackle new technological challenges and present wide-ranging proposals for the benefit of up-coming generations.” Shimizu’s floating-city concept—dubbed “Green Float,” a “botanical-city concept”—includes plans for the tallest off-land structure in history. The project’s premise is based on the 70 percent Earth’s surfance that’s yet to be cultivated: oceans. According to Shimizu, parts of this surface area could be transformed into sites of closed-circuit living, where residential space and agrarian space coexist in “vertical-type plant factories,” as the project leader Masaki Takeuchi described them: many-windowed cylindrical buildings that, in illustrations, radiate the glow of something like a grounded Starship Enterprise.

The “Green Float” brochure provides elaborate designs and ambitious engineering plans, espousing visions of vertical communities where “food production and consumption are close together” with a planted area approximating 3.5 million square meters (which Shimizu estimates as being 75 times the area of the Tokyo Dome). The crops would include a variety of vegetables, including rice, according to Takeuchi. And all of this would be supported by 100 percent renewable energy, including the use of equatorial sunlight and artificial light, and furthermore guided by the belief that, “Food self-sufficiency begins with harvesting only necessary amounts when needed.”

While “Green Float” is still largely speculative, less fantastical plans that draw from some similar principles are in the works—and a few have been carried out. In Singapore, Sky Greens broke ground as the world’s first low-carbon, hydraulic-driven vertical farm and continues to supply vegetables to the dense metro area—so why hasn’t it been replicated 10-fold? In his article, Despommier stresses that in order for anything like this to take off, it would first need significant government backing—benefiting from subsidies currently relegated to horizontal ag. He says, “The vertical farm is a theoretical construct whose time has arrived, for to fail to produce them in quantity for the world at-large in the near future will surely exacerbate the race for the limited amount of remaining natural resources of an already stressed-out planet, creating an intolerable social climate.”

But Nate Storey of Bright Agrotech is optimistic: “As the market for local grows, there is going to be huge growth in the vertical growing industry. We’ve been scaling at several hundred percent annually for several years now, and there’s no end to it in sight.”