For centuries people have been cultivating plants in soil, in the ground. From small home gardens to commercial great lands, plants have been grown just about anywhere the soil provides adequate nutrients and moisture. Today, after hundreds of years of cultivation, these soils lack the rich vitamins, minerals, and organic matter they once had. To overcome this, farmers have added excess chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to keep plant production going. As a result, irrigation runoff, polluted with chemical residue, has seeped into groundwater, rivers, oceans, and land areas. In an effort to reduce chemical pollution, and better supply the plant's water and nutrient requirements, the idea and practice of Vertical Farming has emerged. It is believed to have been invented in 1915, by American geologist Gilbert Ellis Bailey, who started growing plants on rooftops. Today, it is used world-wide, and has proven to be a successful farming technique for a growing number of plant species.

Vertical Farming uses horizontal and vertical space to grow plants in multiple layers, or levels. Plants are watered and fertilized with drip irrigation, and are grown in containers in artificial soil mediums. It can be used to enhance a landscape, or to feed millions of people! In 2009, Time Magazine awarded Vertical Farming the World's Greatest Invention Award! When used on a commercial scale, plants are grown in large buildings, with no windows, under artificial lighting. Some commercial systems have been adapted to utilize natural light, however, most require the use artificial lighting. These indoor growing structures may contain racks up to 80 feet long, stacked one on top of the other, every 3 feet, as high as 12 stories. Plants are grown from floor to ceiling!

A major benefit of Vertical Farming is the reduction of water, and chemical use. Commercial, outdoor agriculture currently consumes 75% of the planet’s freshwater, and uses an overabundance of chemicals. Vertical Farming can reduce water use by almost 90% and pesticide and herbicide use can be greatly reduced, or eliminated entirely. More plants can be grown in less space. Plants are grown closer to the point of sale, allowing for fresher produce and reduced transportation costs. Supporters strongly believe that it can reduce the amount of farmland needed, decrease deforestation and pollution, and help make urban areas more self-sufficient.

Unlike traditional agriculture, Vertical Farming requires significant electrical usage. The sun is free for outdoor plants, but not for indoor ones. Electricity is needed for artificial lighting, and for running countless other programs and systems which control moisture, temperature, carbon-dioxide, pH, fertilization and irrigation. In addition, indoor conditions need to be kept sanitary and as sterile as possible to prevent the development of microbial plant diseases. Controlled-environments are driven by automation, therefore, close monitoring and constant adjustment of programs are required.

Despite all these challenges, Vertical Farming has been able to make a profit and succeed. The primary crop grown is baby salad greens and herbs, because customers are willing to pay a premium for them. Baby salad greens and herbs are an $8 billion dollar industry. Currently most of America’s baby salad greens are grown in fields in the Salinas Valley, in California. In winter months, a large majority of the production moves to fields in Arizona, or Mexico. When crops are grown indoors, year-round, there is no need to shift location due to weather changes. Vertical farms can be found in Seattle, Detroit, Las Vegas, Houston, Brooklyn, Queens, and many other locations as well. Henry Gordon-Smith, from the Association for Vertical Farming, there are at least 25 companies the United States that are practicing this type of farming. Outside the US, these innovative farms can be found in England, Holland, Sweden, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Shanghai.

Vertical Farming will likely never completely replace traditional farming. Both types have their pros and cons, and some plants will never adapt to indoor growing conditions. There is still much to learn because these systems have only been optimized for a relatively small number of plant species. Some companies have mastered the production of baby salad greens, but have not yet attempted to grow soybean, corn, or wheat, the top 3 crops in the United States. Soybean, corn, and wheat make up approximately 90% of harvested acreage. Currently, Vertical Farming works best for plants that can be grown in low-light-intensities, in high plant densities, and with a short turn over time. All three of these requirements do not meet those of soybean, corn, or wheat. New varieties would need development to find ones suitable for indoor growing conditions. It will take years before these systems are optimized, and farmers are able to profit, growing a variety of plant species. In the meanwhile, Vertical Farming will continue to be a valuable resource for agriculture and will continue to impact our planet, in a very positive way!

Author's Bio: 

D Everleigh is a retired plant biologist who enjoys growing plants, and teaching others about them. She is passionate about encouraging people of all ages to experience gardening, and helps run a website that sells unique small greenhouses.