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Grow All The Food Indoors

Posted May 28, 2014 11:30 AM by HUSH

A family friend of mine recently sold his farm. A self-described city boy, I never truly appreciated the efforts of the American heartlands which supply our dinner tables. However, on my rare visits, the rolling pastures, sunlit vistas and earthy aromas are a reminder that we as a nation are forever dependent on agriculture-and we will be for the foreseeable centuries.

Yet, it's becoming tougher and tougher to make a living as a farmer. Agriculture has been on a steady decline since World War II, when farmers were asked to plant as much as possible, and in exchange received government benefits. The narrative of rural people emigrating to urban areas is well-established, but it remains a social truth. Corporate agriculture and genetically modified foods have resurfaced the face of agriculture.

As people continue to congregate in urban areas-about 2% of the U.S. population moves to cities each decade-our food sources are going to need to be brought considerably closer to our tables. The U.N. predicts 86% of all people will live in a city by 2050, so engineers are beginning to consider how an entire city can be sustained from a farm the size of a city block.

The solution is to build a farm within a skyscraper. Vertical farming is an idea that has existed in engineering obscurity for decades, but cheap energy costs and technical limitations kept it a pipe dream.

There are essentially two ideas for vertical farming: subsistence and commercial. In the former, individuals who live in skyscrapers have a plot of soil integrated into their residence. In the latter, the entire floor space of the skyscraper is dedicated to agriculture-including being able to keep livestock.

It is the second, more radical version of vertical farming that has been imagined in the United States. In March, the largest vertical farm in the world opened in Michigan. Singapore is closely examining vertical farms to reduce its heavy dependence on imported foods. There are numerous advantages to growing food in a controllable environment.

Foremost, the energy costs-from planting, to harvest, to shipping-are significantly reduced by growing food in the urban centers where it will be sold. Other resources can be better managed, such as labor and water. Each crop can be remotely monitored and addressed by automated controls. Photosynthesis can be initiated by natural light, which is rotated and reflected amongst the crops, or by high-efficiency LEDs that mimic sunlight. These cost-savings can be passed along to the consumer. There is developing concept of "food deserts" in low-income urban areas where cheap, processed food is significantly more abundant than more expensive, fresh foods; this too could be eliminated.

Indoor harvests won't be ruined by frosts or storms, and the farm can also eliminate herbicides and pesticides if quarantined from outdoor pests. If the farm can also leverage PV panels and rain collection systems, a vertical farm will be more efficient than a typical farm. All this, while old farmlands revert to forestlands for wildlife habitat and erosion protection.

So why has this taken so long? First, the resource capital for farming remains relatively low, for now. (But global warming indicates that our climate change might be outpacing our adaptations.) Second, the realty space needed to make an experimental farm work in a major city is a major prohibitive cost, especially since a dedicated structure needs to be developed. Finally, although the structure will save energy compared to most traditional farms, it will actually be a community pollutant, as fertilizers and elevated carbon dioxide levels permeate the vertical farm vicinity.

So, this concept is at least enough of a work in progress to become a reality someday in midtown Manhattan, even if vertical farms are currently alienated in second-tier cities such as Scranton, Pa., Jackson Hole, Wyo., and New Buffalo, Mich. But evidence suggests that country farms are becoming an antiquated model of food production.

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#1

Re: Grow All The Food Indoors

05/29/2014 12:16 PM

You want me to put a roof over all this and put in electric lights?

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#2

Re: Grow All The Food Indoors

05/29/2014 2:19 PM

I'll second StandardsGuy's skepticism. Why would you go through the cost and effort to house something that is better done outdoors anyway?!

Small farms haven't gone away. Typically they contract for a corporate grower. From my chats with a small farmer, they demand strict planting and harvesting schedules. Makes it a little rough to harvest corn if it's raining or the corn's not ready yet.

As well, the small farm with a small variety of livestock is no longer. There are exceptions like the Amish and the Mennonites, but the need to have that variety has gone away. Farmers typically plant all of their fields with a single crop in any given season. Crop rotation and forecasts for demand are what drive the crops they plant. For example corn demand has grown over the past few years.


A growing (pun intended) agri-business is the CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. These are small farms where customers 'buy in' to the crops to be grown at the beginning of the season. This ensures them a share of the harvest and gives the farmer seed money to start the season. They typically have a local customer base.

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#3

Re: Grow All The Food Indoors

05/29/2014 6:24 PM

I don't think so...

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