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Volumetric Growing: The Economics of Vertical Growing Solutions

From Jackson, Wyoming, to post-tsunami Japan, growers and investors worldwide are excited about the potential of vertical farming. There are many variations on the idea, but essentially vertical farming is an indoor growing environment, where multiple layers of plants are grown in large racks with precisely controlled lighting, climate, and water. A typical warehouse can house 10 or more levels of plants, depending on the ceiling height of the space and the plant’s growth habit and desired mature dimensions.

Investment Opportunity

Businesses in all areas of vertical farming are attracting investors who see the potential for growth and a long-term solution to global hunger in an ever-more urbanized world. Investors are funding the farms themselves, as well as the technology and research necessary to make them work: lighting systems, climate and water control, and understanding how to optimize the growing environment for each plant.

Volume, Not Acreage

With this new approach, yield and investment calculations are no longer simply two-dimensional figures of acreage or square footage. Vertical farming means including the third dimension, going up! The building footprint is much smaller than the equivalent “flat farm,” and may be permitted in an area previously not suitable for agriculture.

Air and Water Systems

In an indoor environment, plants are not vulnerable to weather extremes. Seasons don’t matter, and the farm also will not be subject to potential extreme-weather effects of climate change. Since the entire environment is enclosed, growers can establish their own optimal temperature and humidity, and vary them to simulate natural seasonal cycles. In addition, the growing environment is protected against pests and invasive species, all but eliminating the need for controversial chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

Indoor farms typically use a hydroponic approach, growing plants directly in water without soil. The water recirculates, cutting demand to one tenth or even one hundredth that of traditional farming. Some vertical farmers use “aquaponics,” in which the water supports fish. The fish feed on excess root material of the plants, and in turn the fish waste enters the water and is taken up by the roots as nutrients. And when the fish are full-grown, they too can be harvested for consumption! Another approach is “aeroponics,” where there is no fixed water but instead a continual mist of nutrient-enhanced water is sprayed onto the plants’ exposed roots.

Indoor Grow Light Systems

Indoor farms in greenhouse buildings may use a mechanism for rotating plant trays to allow maximum use of natural light. But indoor farms are more typically closed warehouse structures, allowing complete control of the growing environment. That means artificial lighting.

The lighting needs of a vertical farm are multiplied by the number of layers, so both initial investment and ongoing energy cost will be greater than in a flat operation. But new lighting systems such as those developed by Heliospectra can provide new kinds of efficiency in a vertical environment. Heliospectra’s LED grow light system can be more than twice as power-efficient as the HPS (high-pressure sodium) and other systems that have been used in most indoor growing operations until recently. They last much longer, and generally produce less heat. As the market expands for LED applications in agricultural environments, production efficiencies should also lead to more economical installation costs.

In addition, LED solutions offered by Heliospectra uniquely give growers the ability to directly control the exact wavelengths of light emitted, targeting different plant processes and growth stages. The lighting can be controlled conveniently over the internet —even remotely. Since the entire environment is enclosed, growers can even manage the length of the night-day cycle, speeding the crop’s time to maturity.

 

Are you ready to make a move towards LED? Or maybe you already have? We would love for you to share your experience of switching to LEDs in your grow.

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