Aiming high: are vertical farms sowing the seeds of a new way to farm?

Aiming high: are vertical farms sowing the seeds of a new way to farm?

By
Louise Burfitt
September 22, 2020

What do a shipping container, an air raid shelter and a skyscraper have in common? The answer: lettuce. That may sound weird, but vertical farming is all about transforming previously unloved indoor spaces in the heart of cities into innovative environments for growing food.

Sprouting salads in the sky may sound a bit sci-fi, but modern tech is finally catching up with years of hype. The virtual farming market was worth $3 billion worldwide in 2018, but is expected to hit $20 billion by 2026. A crop of start-ups across Europe, Asia and America are attracting funding and expanding, with particularly quick growth in the US. San Francisco’s Plenty has now bagged $401 million in funding, while AeroFarms raised $100 million in 2019 to expand its facilities.

So let’s explore how vertical farming is shaking up salads and get to grips with what’s driving the skyward growing revolution and how it’s disrupting traditional agriculture.


The lowdown on vertical farming


Instead of growing food in fields, vertical farming sees edible crops – usually salads, herbs and microgreens – grown indoors, packed onto trays arranged in tightly stacked layers. These modules are frequently installed inside urban structures like shops and apartment blocks, as well as former car parks and warehouses. This means far more can be grown in a smaller space than in traditional farming.

Vertical crops photosynthesise under LED lights designed to optimise the process. Irrigation, fertilisers and temperature are all fully adjustable and controlled via the cloud. Technological innovations monitor environmental conditions and much of the process is automated using AI, reducing labour costs. Crops can be grown all year-round, allowing several more cycles per year compared to outdoor agriculture.


Trend drivers: food security, the environment and coronavirus


The world’s growing population is a key driver behind vertical farming – there’ll be almost 10 billion humans to feed by 2050. The UN estimates that food production needs to increase by 70% to cope. Given that the amount of arable land is decreasing due to urbanisation, vertical farms could provide a space-saving solution to meet demand.

Agriculture is also tough on the planet. Farmers must battle pests (requiring pesticides) alongside poor soil and weather conditions (requiring fertilisers and a lot of water). In both these instances, vertical farms come out on top: toxic pesticides are no longer needed where there are no pests and water can be recycled, with most vertical farms claiming to use 95% less water.

The ongoing pandemic is also driving interest. With limitations on movement, border closures and the resulting economic interruption, growing food close to consumers starts to sound enticing. Reduced dependency on imports equals improved food security – more important than ever in 2020. When panic buying put pressure on supply chains, vertical farms were able to adapt quickly to meet demand. As much of the process is automated, farms also need minimal human input – ideal for a socially distanced world. This April, LettUs Grow chose to fast-track the construction of two new vertical farms in the UK.

Soil-free systems and edible flowers


In Singapore VertiVegies is widening its product range with Asian greens like pak choi and kai lan, and edible flowers. It’s one of nine vertical farms awarded $39.4 million by the government to scale up local food production. Currently, the tiny, urbanised nation imports 90% of its food, making prices for fresh produce incredibly high. The city state is a prime example of how vertical growing can offer nutritious, purse-friendly goods with fewer food miles and a longer shelf life.

Most vertical farms stick to leafy greens for cost and ease, but limited variety doesn’t mean companies aren’t experimenting. Many are pioneering soil-free (hydro- or aeroponic) methods, where plants are grown on membranes or with their roots in water. As 80 per cent of farmland suffers from soil erosion, cultivating crops without soil can reduce habitat damage and protect plants from diseases. US company Bowery Farming is building a nutrient-rich, hydroponic system that will soon grow 100 greens and yield 30 times that of traditional agricultural methods.

Case studies: InFarm and Agricool

Berlin’s InFarm specialises in growing herbs and greens in hydroponic units where consumers work and shop. Their in-store modules are already in situ in supermarkets, offices and schools in Copenhagen, Seattle and London, growing using 95% less water and 75% less fertiliser. This year it started installing mini farms in branches of Aldi and sales figures for March 2020 increased 200% compared to 2019. Just last week InFarm announced it raised $170 million in its first Series C funding round to continue scaling up its facilities.

French Agricool is busy innovating with its pesticide-free, non-GMO strawberries, cultivated in former shipping containers. By cutting out the middle men, the company can sell strawberries - sold on the same day as they are picked – for €4 a punnet, nearly €3 less than a pack grown organically elsewhere in France. Agricool has already secured €37.4 million in investments and installed containers in Paris and Dubai, with 7,000 punnets sold every week. The team now plans to branch out to tomatoes cucumbers and cucumbers, which also grow well indoors.


Hurdles: products, costs and energy


If variety is the spice of life, then the limited range of vertical farms is a disadvantage. Salads and herbs offer the highest product margins and are easy to grow with the available technology, but lettuce alone won’t spark a revolution. As Agricool shows, though, many companies are beginning to branch out to other hothouse crops, including courgettes and tomatoes.

Another drawback is high set-up costs. Initial investment is massive and renting premises in big cities is often extremely pricy. Consequently, the sector has witnessed many bankruptcies over the years. In 2017 FarmedHere cited unsustainable energy costs when shuttering their hydroponic farm. Indoor farms devour energy – rather ironically for a concept praised for its green credentials. Luckily, vertical farmers are increasingly able to generate this energy themselves using solar power: Bowery Farming has plans for a solar microgrid to power its farms all year.

Given the eye-watering costs, it’s no surprise that food produced vertically has a high price tag. While most start-ups in the field say increased availability of local food is their main aim, the sale price of vertical greens is likely too high to make them a regular buy for the average consumer. Nonetheless, a survey by Forager shows that many customers are willing to pay above and beyond for local food.
Despite recent innovations in vertical farming, it seems unlikely that these indoor growing machines will replace traditional farms any time soon. Nonetheless, they could provide cities with genuine opportunities to grow truly local produce and increase food security. Those in the know imagine a blended future where vertical farms supplement traditional agriculture, enhancing but not replacing the current system.

Business Opportunities

  • Run a ‘field-to-fork’ eatery? Look into partnering with a local vertical farm to offer patrons food that’s grown round the corner or even on site.

  • If salads or microgreens are a key component of your product or feature on your menu, explore including vertically grown greens in your offering.

  • Food retailer? Given that vertical farms are already partnering with supermarkets including Edeka and Marks & Spencer, it’s worth investigating potential collaborations.

The 30-second pitch: Vertical Farming


🔎 What

  • Vertical farming is all about growing greens, herbs and lettuce in indoor spaces in city centres. LED lighting, AI and innovative technology are deployed to create a fully adjustable indoor farming environment, maximising crop growth and increasing yield. Crops can be grown all year-round, allowing several more cycles per year compared to outdoor agriculture.


🤷‍♂ Why

  • With more humans on the planet, demand for food is increasing, but there’s a limit on how much land is available for agricultural purposes. Vertical farmers offer an innovative space-saving alternative to feed our growing world.

  • Traditional farming is tough on the soil, weather-dependent and often requires the use of harsh chemicals. Vertical farming is hailed as an eco-friendly alternative, using 95% less water, less fertiliser and virtually no pesticides.

  • Growing food in urban areas, close to consumers, sounds particularly practical in light of COVID-19 movement restrictions. Pandemic-related panic-buying has also put pressure on supply chains, but vertical farms can quickly adapt to meet increased demand.


🧬 How

  • Salads
  • Microgreens
  • Herbs
  • Strawberries
  • Edible flowers
  • Hydroponic and aeroponic growing systems


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Growing food in cities reduces food miles and helps urban areas improve food security.
  • Vertical farms use less water and fewer pesticides than traditional outdoor farms, and can often generate their own energy using solar panels.
  • As vertical farms make use of upward space, growers are able to cultivate far more produce across a smaller area.


👎 The bad

  • Vertical crops are grown inside, necessitating the use of LED lighting. This can be tailored to maximise photosynthesis, but requires a lot of power and is subsequently very expensive.
  • At present most vertical farms have a limited product range, with salads, herbs and microgreens offering the highest margins.
  • Vertically grown food tends to be more expensive and it’s unclear whether consumers used to inexpensive food will accept the higher price tag.


💡 The bottom line

  • Vertical farms are a space-saving, efficient way to grow certain crops close to consumers. While it’s unlikely these indoor facilities will fully replace traditional farms in the near future, vertical farms can provide incredibly local produce in urban areas, reduce food miles and supplement outdoor agriculture.


Written by
Louise Burfitt

Louise is an editor and writer based in Oxfordshire. When her nose isn’t buried in a dictionary, you’re most likely to find her taking long weekend walks or nurturing herbs and vegetables in her container garden.

Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Read Unlimited Articles
  • Access Member Directory
  • Get Event Discounts

What do a shipping container, an air raid shelter and a skyscraper have in common? The answer: lettuce. That may sound weird, but vertical farming is all about transforming previously unloved indoor spaces in the heart of cities into innovative environments for growing food.

Sprouting salads in the sky may sound a bit sci-fi, but modern tech is finally catching up with years of hype. The virtual farming market was worth $3 billion worldwide in 2018, but is expected to hit $20 billion by 2026. A crop of start-ups across Europe, Asia and America are attracting funding and expanding, with particularly quick growth in the US. San Francisco’s Plenty has now bagged $401 million in funding, while AeroFarms raised $100 million in 2019 to expand its facilities.

So let’s explore how vertical farming is shaking up salads and get to grips with what’s driving the skyward growing revolution and how it’s disrupting traditional agriculture.


The lowdown on vertical farming


Instead of growing food in fields, vertical farming sees edible crops – usually salads, herbs and microgreens – grown indoors, packed onto trays arranged in tightly stacked layers. These modules are frequently installed inside urban structures like shops and apartment blocks, as well as former car parks and warehouses. This means far more can be grown in a smaller space than in traditional farming.

Vertical crops photosynthesise under LED lights designed to optimise the process. Irrigation, fertilisers and temperature are all fully adjustable and controlled via the cloud. Technological innovations monitor environmental conditions and much of the process is automated using AI, reducing labour costs. Crops can be grown all year-round, allowing several more cycles per year compared to outdoor agriculture.


Trend drivers: food security, the environment and coronavirus


The world’s growing population is a key driver behind vertical farming – there’ll be almost 10 billion humans to feed by 2050. The UN estimates that food production needs to increase by 70% to cope. Given that the amount of arable land is decreasing due to urbanisation, vertical farms could provide a space-saving solution to meet demand.

Agriculture is also tough on the planet. Farmers must battle pests (requiring pesticides) alongside poor soil and weather conditions (requiring fertilisers and a lot of water). In both these instances, vertical farms come out on top: toxic pesticides are no longer needed where there are no pests and water can be recycled, with most vertical farms claiming to use 95% less water.

The ongoing pandemic is also driving interest. With limitations on movement, border closures and the resulting economic interruption, growing food close to consumers starts to sound enticing. Reduced dependency on imports equals improved food security – more important than ever in 2020. When panic buying put pressure on supply chains, vertical farms were able to adapt quickly to meet demand. As much of the process is automated, farms also need minimal human input – ideal for a socially distanced world. This April, LettUs Grow chose to fast-track the construction of two new vertical farms in the UK.

Soil-free systems and edible flowers


In Singapore VertiVegies is widening its product range with Asian greens like pak choi and kai lan, and edible flowers. It’s one of nine vertical farms awarded $39.4 million by the government to scale up local food production. Currently, the tiny, urbanised nation imports 90% of its food, making prices for fresh produce incredibly high. The city state is a prime example of how vertical growing can offer nutritious, purse-friendly goods with fewer food miles and a longer shelf life.

Most vertical farms stick to leafy greens for cost and ease, but limited variety doesn’t mean companies aren’t experimenting. Many are pioneering soil-free (hydro- or aeroponic) methods, where plants are grown on membranes or with their roots in water. As 80 per cent of farmland suffers from soil erosion, cultivating crops without soil can reduce habitat damage and protect plants from diseases. US company Bowery Farming is building a nutrient-rich, hydroponic system that will soon grow 100 greens and yield 30 times that of traditional agricultural methods.

Case studies: InFarm and Agricool

Berlin’s InFarm specialises in growing herbs and greens in hydroponic units where consumers work and shop. Their in-store modules are already in situ in supermarkets, offices and schools in Copenhagen, Seattle and London, growing using 95% less water and 75% less fertiliser. This year it started installing mini farms in branches of Aldi and sales figures for March 2020 increased 200% compared to 2019. Just last week InFarm announced it raised $170 million in its first Series C funding round to continue scaling up its facilities.

French Agricool is busy innovating with its pesticide-free, non-GMO strawberries, cultivated in former shipping containers. By cutting out the middle men, the company can sell strawberries - sold on the same day as they are picked – for €4 a punnet, nearly €3 less than a pack grown organically elsewhere in France. Agricool has already secured €37.4 million in investments and installed containers in Paris and Dubai, with 7,000 punnets sold every week. The team now plans to branch out to tomatoes cucumbers and cucumbers, which also grow well indoors.


Hurdles: products, costs and energy


If variety is the spice of life, then the limited range of vertical farms is a disadvantage. Salads and herbs offer the highest product margins and are easy to grow with the available technology, but lettuce alone won’t spark a revolution. As Agricool shows, though, many companies are beginning to branch out to other hothouse crops, including courgettes and tomatoes.

Another drawback is high set-up costs. Initial investment is massive and renting premises in big cities is often extremely pricy. Consequently, the sector has witnessed many bankruptcies over the years. In 2017 FarmedHere cited unsustainable energy costs when shuttering their hydroponic farm. Indoor farms devour energy – rather ironically for a concept praised for its green credentials. Luckily, vertical farmers are increasingly able to generate this energy themselves using solar power: Bowery Farming has plans for a solar microgrid to power its farms all year.

Given the eye-watering costs, it’s no surprise that food produced vertically has a high price tag. While most start-ups in the field say increased availability of local food is their main aim, the sale price of vertical greens is likely too high to make them a regular buy for the average consumer. Nonetheless, a survey by Forager shows that many customers are willing to pay above and beyond for local food.
Despite recent innovations in vertical farming, it seems unlikely that these indoor growing machines will replace traditional farms any time soon. Nonetheless, they could provide cities with genuine opportunities to grow truly local produce and increase food security. Those in the know imagine a blended future where vertical farms supplement traditional agriculture, enhancing but not replacing the current system.

Business Opportunities

  • Run a ‘field-to-fork’ eatery? Look into partnering with a local vertical farm to offer patrons food that’s grown round the corner or even on site.

  • If salads or microgreens are a key component of your product or feature on your menu, explore including vertically grown greens in your offering.

  • Food retailer? Given that vertical farms are already partnering with supermarkets including Edeka and Marks & Spencer, it’s worth investigating potential collaborations.

The 30-second pitch: Vertical Farming


🔎 What

  • Vertical farming is all about growing greens, herbs and lettuce in indoor spaces in city centres. LED lighting, AI and innovative technology are deployed to create a fully adjustable indoor farming environment, maximising crop growth and increasing yield. Crops can be grown all year-round, allowing several more cycles per year compared to outdoor agriculture.


🤷‍♂ Why

  • With more humans on the planet, demand for food is increasing, but there’s a limit on how much land is available for agricultural purposes. Vertical farmers offer an innovative space-saving alternative to feed our growing world.

  • Traditional farming is tough on the soil, weather-dependent and often requires the use of harsh chemicals. Vertical farming is hailed as an eco-friendly alternative, using 95% less water, less fertiliser and virtually no pesticides.

  • Growing food in urban areas, close to consumers, sounds particularly practical in light of COVID-19 movement restrictions. Pandemic-related panic-buying has also put pressure on supply chains, but vertical farms can quickly adapt to meet increased demand.


🧬 How

  • Salads
  • Microgreens
  • Herbs
  • Strawberries
  • Edible flowers
  • Hydroponic and aeroponic growing systems


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Growing food in cities reduces food miles and helps urban areas improve food security.
  • Vertical farms use less water and fewer pesticides than traditional outdoor farms, and can often generate their own energy using solar panels.
  • As vertical farms make use of upward space, growers are able to cultivate far more produce across a smaller area.


👎 The bad

  • Vertical crops are grown inside, necessitating the use of LED lighting. This can be tailored to maximise photosynthesis, but requires a lot of power and is subsequently very expensive.
  • At present most vertical farms have a limited product range, with salads, herbs and microgreens offering the highest margins.
  • Vertically grown food tends to be more expensive and it’s unclear whether consumers used to inexpensive food will accept the higher price tag.


💡 The bottom line

  • Vertical farms are a space-saving, efficient way to grow certain crops close to consumers. While it’s unlikely these indoor facilities will fully replace traditional farms in the near future, vertical farms can provide incredibly local produce in urban areas, reduce food miles and supplement outdoor agriculture.


Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Read Unlimited Articles
  • Access Member Directory
  • Join a Global Community
UPGRADE NOW
Cancel anytime

What do a shipping container, an air raid shelter and a skyscraper have in common? The answer: lettuce. That may sound weird, but vertical farming is all about transforming previously unloved indoor spaces in the heart of cities into innovative environments for growing food.

Sprouting salads in the sky may sound a bit sci-fi, but modern tech is finally catching up with years of hype. The virtual farming market was worth $3 billion worldwide in 2018, but is expected to hit $20 billion by 2026. A crop of start-ups across Europe, Asia and America are attracting funding and expanding, with particularly quick growth in the US. San Francisco’s Plenty has now bagged $401 million in funding, while AeroFarms raised $100 million in 2019 to expand its facilities.

So let’s explore how vertical farming is shaking up salads and get to grips with what’s driving the skyward growing revolution and how it’s disrupting traditional agriculture.


The lowdown on vertical farming


Instead of growing food in fields, vertical farming sees edible crops – usually salads, herbs and microgreens – grown indoors, packed onto trays arranged in tightly stacked layers. These modules are frequently installed inside urban structures like shops and apartment blocks, as well as former car parks and warehouses. This means far more can be grown in a smaller space than in traditional farming.

Vertical crops photosynthesise under LED lights designed to optimise the process. Irrigation, fertilisers and temperature are all fully adjustable and controlled via the cloud. Technological innovations monitor environmental conditions and much of the process is automated using AI, reducing labour costs. Crops can be grown all year-round, allowing several more cycles per year compared to outdoor agriculture.


Trend drivers: food security, the environment and coronavirus


The world’s growing population is a key driver behind vertical farming – there’ll be almost 10 billion humans to feed by 2050. The UN estimates that food production needs to increase by 70% to cope. Given that the amount of arable land is decreasing due to urbanisation, vertical farms could provide a space-saving solution to meet demand.

Agriculture is also tough on the planet. Farmers must battle pests (requiring pesticides) alongside poor soil and weather conditions (requiring fertilisers and a lot of water). In both these instances, vertical farms come out on top: toxic pesticides are no longer needed where there are no pests and water can be recycled, with most vertical farms claiming to use 95% less water.

The ongoing pandemic is also driving interest. With limitations on movement, border closures and the resulting economic interruption, growing food close to consumers starts to sound enticing. Reduced dependency on imports equals improved food security – more important than ever in 2020. When panic buying put pressure on supply chains, vertical farms were able to adapt quickly to meet demand. As much of the process is automated, farms also need minimal human input – ideal for a socially distanced world. This April, LettUs Grow chose to fast-track the construction of two new vertical farms in the UK.

Soil-free systems and edible flowers


In Singapore VertiVegies is widening its product range with Asian greens like pak choi and kai lan, and edible flowers. It’s one of nine vertical farms awarded $39.4 million by the government to scale up local food production. Currently, the tiny, urbanised nation imports 90% of its food, making prices for fresh produce incredibly high. The city state is a prime example of how vertical growing can offer nutritious, purse-friendly goods with fewer food miles and a longer shelf life.

Most vertical farms stick to leafy greens for cost and ease, but limited variety doesn’t mean companies aren’t experimenting. Many are pioneering soil-free (hydro- or aeroponic) methods, where plants are grown on membranes or with their roots in water. As 80 per cent of farmland suffers from soil erosion, cultivating crops without soil can reduce habitat damage and protect plants from diseases. US company Bowery Farming is building a nutrient-rich, hydroponic system that will soon grow 100 greens and yield 30 times that of traditional agricultural methods.

Case studies: InFarm and Agricool

Berlin’s InFarm specialises in growing herbs and greens in hydroponic units where consumers work and shop. Their in-store modules are already in situ in supermarkets, offices and schools in Copenhagen, Seattle and London, growing using 95% less water and 75% less fertiliser. This year it started installing mini farms in branches of Aldi and sales figures for March 2020 increased 200% compared to 2019. Just last week InFarm announced it raised $170 million in its first Series C funding round to continue scaling up its facilities.

French Agricool is busy innovating with its pesticide-free, non-GMO strawberries, cultivated in former shipping containers. By cutting out the middle men, the company can sell strawberries - sold on the same day as they are picked – for €4 a punnet, nearly €3 less than a pack grown organically elsewhere in France. Agricool has already secured €37.4 million in investments and installed containers in Paris and Dubai, with 7,000 punnets sold every week. The team now plans to branch out to tomatoes cucumbers and cucumbers, which also grow well indoors.


Hurdles: products, costs and energy


If variety is the spice of life, then the limited range of vertical farms is a disadvantage. Salads and herbs offer the highest product margins and are easy to grow with the available technology, but lettuce alone won’t spark a revolution. As Agricool shows, though, many companies are beginning to branch out to other hothouse crops, including courgettes and tomatoes.

Another drawback is high set-up costs. Initial investment is massive and renting premises in big cities is often extremely pricy. Consequently, the sector has witnessed many bankruptcies over the years. In 2017 FarmedHere cited unsustainable energy costs when shuttering their hydroponic farm. Indoor farms devour energy – rather ironically for a concept praised for its green credentials. Luckily, vertical farmers are increasingly able to generate this energy themselves using solar power: Bowery Farming has plans for a solar microgrid to power its farms all year.

Given the eye-watering costs, it’s no surprise that food produced vertically has a high price tag. While most start-ups in the field say increased availability of local food is their main aim, the sale price of vertical greens is likely too high to make them a regular buy for the average consumer. Nonetheless, a survey by Forager shows that many customers are willing to pay above and beyond for local food.
Despite recent innovations in vertical farming, it seems unlikely that these indoor growing machines will replace traditional farms any time soon. Nonetheless, they could provide cities with genuine opportunities to grow truly local produce and increase food security. Those in the know imagine a blended future where vertical farms supplement traditional agriculture, enhancing but not replacing the current system.

Business Opportunities

  • Run a ‘field-to-fork’ eatery? Look into partnering with a local vertical farm to offer patrons food that’s grown round the corner or even on site.

  • If salads or microgreens are a key component of your product or feature on your menu, explore including vertically grown greens in your offering.

  • Food retailer? Given that vertical farms are already partnering with supermarkets including Edeka and Marks & Spencer, it’s worth investigating potential collaborations.

The 30-second pitch: Vertical Farming


🔎 What

  • Vertical farming is all about growing greens, herbs and lettuce in indoor spaces in city centres. LED lighting, AI and innovative technology are deployed to create a fully adjustable indoor farming environment, maximising crop growth and increasing yield. Crops can be grown all year-round, allowing several more cycles per year compared to outdoor agriculture.


🤷‍♂ Why

  • With more humans on the planet, demand for food is increasing, but there’s a limit on how much land is available for agricultural purposes. Vertical farmers offer an innovative space-saving alternative to feed our growing world.

  • Traditional farming is tough on the soil, weather-dependent and often requires the use of harsh chemicals. Vertical farming is hailed as an eco-friendly alternative, using 95% less water, less fertiliser and virtually no pesticides.

  • Growing food in urban areas, close to consumers, sounds particularly practical in light of COVID-19 movement restrictions. Pandemic-related panic-buying has also put pressure on supply chains, but vertical farms can quickly adapt to meet increased demand.


🧬 How

  • Salads
  • Microgreens
  • Herbs
  • Strawberries
  • Edible flowers
  • Hydroponic and aeroponic growing systems


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Growing food in cities reduces food miles and helps urban areas improve food security.
  • Vertical farms use less water and fewer pesticides than traditional outdoor farms, and can often generate their own energy using solar panels.
  • As vertical farms make use of upward space, growers are able to cultivate far more produce across a smaller area.


👎 The bad

  • Vertical crops are grown inside, necessitating the use of LED lighting. This can be tailored to maximise photosynthesis, but requires a lot of power and is subsequently very expensive.
  • At present most vertical farms have a limited product range, with salads, herbs and microgreens offering the highest margins.
  • Vertically grown food tends to be more expensive and it’s unclear whether consumers used to inexpensive food will accept the higher price tag.


💡 The bottom line

  • Vertical farms are a space-saving, efficient way to grow certain crops close to consumers. While it’s unlikely these indoor facilities will fully replace traditional farms in the near future, vertical farms can provide incredibly local produce in urban areas, reduce food miles and supplement outdoor agriculture.


What do a shipping container, an air raid shelter and a skyscraper have in common? The answer: lettuce. That may sound weird, but vertical farming is all about transforming previously unloved indoor spaces in the heart of cities into innovative environments for growing food.

Sprouting salads in the sky may sound a bit sci-fi, but modern tech is finally catching up with years of hype. The virtual farming market was worth $3 billion worldwide in 2018, but is expected to hit $20 billion by 2026. A crop of start-ups across Europe, Asia and America are attracting funding and expanding, with particularly quick growth in the US. San Francisco’s Plenty has now bagged $401 million in funding, while AeroFarms raised $100 million in 2019 to expand its facilities.

So let’s explore how vertical farming is shaking up salads and get to grips with what’s driving the skyward growing revolution and how it’s disrupting traditional agriculture.


The lowdown on vertical farming


Instead of growing food in fields, vertical farming sees edible crops – usually salads, herbs and microgreens – grown indoors, packed onto trays arranged in tightly stacked layers. These modules are frequently installed inside urban structures like shops and apartment blocks, as well as former car parks and warehouses. This means far more can be grown in a smaller space than in traditional farming.

Vertical crops photosynthesise under LED lights designed to optimise the process. Irrigation, fertilisers and temperature are all fully adjustable and controlled via the cloud. Technological innovations monitor environmental conditions and much of the process is automated using AI, reducing labour costs. Crops can be grown all year-round, allowing several more cycles per year compared to outdoor agriculture.


Trend drivers: food security, the environment and coronavirus


The world’s growing population is a key driver behind vertical farming – there’ll be almost 10 billion humans to feed by 2050. The UN estimates that food production needs to increase by 70% to cope. Given that the amount of arable land is decreasing due to urbanisation, vertical farms could provide a space-saving solution to meet demand.

Agriculture is also tough on the planet. Farmers must battle pests (requiring pesticides) alongside poor soil and weather conditions (requiring fertilisers and a lot of water). In both these instances, vertical farms come out on top: toxic pesticides are no longer needed where there are no pests and water can be recycled, with most vertical farms claiming to use 95% less water.

The ongoing pandemic is also driving interest. With limitations on movement, border closures and the resulting economic interruption, growing food close to consumers starts to sound enticing. Reduced dependency on imports equals improved food security – more important than ever in 2020. When panic buying put pressure on supply chains, vertical farms were able to adapt quickly to meet demand. As much of the process is automated, farms also need minimal human input – ideal for a socially distanced world. This April, LettUs Grow chose to fast-track the construction of two new vertical farms in the UK.

Soil-free systems and edible flowers


In Singapore VertiVegies is widening its product range with Asian greens like pak choi and kai lan, and edible flowers. It’s one of nine vertical farms awarded $39.4 million by the government to scale up local food production. Currently, the tiny, urbanised nation imports 90% of its food, making prices for fresh produce incredibly high. The city state is a prime example of how vertical growing can offer nutritious, purse-friendly goods with fewer food miles and a longer shelf life.

Most vertical farms stick to leafy greens for cost and ease, but limited variety doesn’t mean companies aren’t experimenting. Many are pioneering soil-free (hydro- or aeroponic) methods, where plants are grown on membranes or with their roots in water. As 80 per cent of farmland suffers from soil erosion, cultivating crops without soil can reduce habitat damage and protect plants from diseases. US company Bowery Farming is building a nutrient-rich, hydroponic system that will soon grow 100 greens and yield 30 times that of traditional agricultural methods.

Case studies: InFarm and Agricool

Berlin’s InFarm specialises in growing herbs and greens in hydroponic units where consumers work and shop. Their in-store modules are already in situ in supermarkets, offices and schools in Copenhagen, Seattle and London, growing using 95% less water and 75% less fertiliser. This year it started installing mini farms in branches of Aldi and sales figures for March 2020 increased 200% compared to 2019. Just last week InFarm announced it raised $170 million in its first Series C funding round to continue scaling up its facilities.

French Agricool is busy innovating with its pesticide-free, non-GMO strawberries, cultivated in former shipping containers. By cutting out the middle men, the company can sell strawberries - sold on the same day as they are picked – for €4 a punnet, nearly €3 less than a pack grown organically elsewhere in France. Agricool has already secured €37.4 million in investments and installed containers in Paris and Dubai, with 7,000 punnets sold every week. The team now plans to branch out to tomatoes cucumbers and cucumbers, which also grow well indoors.


Hurdles: products, costs and energy


If variety is the spice of life, then the limited range of vertical farms is a disadvantage. Salads and herbs offer the highest product margins and are easy to grow with the available technology, but lettuce alone won’t spark a revolution. As Agricool shows, though, many companies are beginning to branch out to other hothouse crops, including courgettes and tomatoes.

Another drawback is high set-up costs. Initial investment is massive and renting premises in big cities is often extremely pricy. Consequently, the sector has witnessed many bankruptcies over the years. In 2017 FarmedHere cited unsustainable energy costs when shuttering their hydroponic farm. Indoor farms devour energy – rather ironically for a concept praised for its green credentials. Luckily, vertical farmers are increasingly able to generate this energy themselves using solar power: Bowery Farming has plans for a solar microgrid to power its farms all year.

Given the eye-watering costs, it’s no surprise that food produced vertically has a high price tag. While most start-ups in the field say increased availability of local food is their main aim, the sale price of vertical greens is likely too high to make them a regular buy for the average consumer. Nonetheless, a survey by Forager shows that many customers are willing to pay above and beyond for local food.
Despite recent innovations in vertical farming, it seems unlikely that these indoor growing machines will replace traditional farms any time soon. Nonetheless, they could provide cities with genuine opportunities to grow truly local produce and increase food security. Those in the know imagine a blended future where vertical farms supplement traditional agriculture, enhancing but not replacing the current system.

Business Opportunities

  • Run a ‘field-to-fork’ eatery? Look into partnering with a local vertical farm to offer patrons food that’s grown round the corner or even on site.

  • If salads or microgreens are a key component of your product or feature on your menu, explore including vertically grown greens in your offering.

  • Food retailer? Given that vertical farms are already partnering with supermarkets including Edeka and Marks & Spencer, it’s worth investigating potential collaborations.

The 30-second pitch: Vertical Farming


🔎 What

  • Vertical farming is all about growing greens, herbs and lettuce in indoor spaces in city centres. LED lighting, AI and innovative technology are deployed to create a fully adjustable indoor farming environment, maximising crop growth and increasing yield. Crops can be grown all year-round, allowing several more cycles per year compared to outdoor agriculture.


🤷‍♂ Why

  • With more humans on the planet, demand for food is increasing, but there’s a limit on how much land is available for agricultural purposes. Vertical farmers offer an innovative space-saving alternative to feed our growing world.

  • Traditional farming is tough on the soil, weather-dependent and often requires the use of harsh chemicals. Vertical farming is hailed as an eco-friendly alternative, using 95% less water, less fertiliser and virtually no pesticides.

  • Growing food in urban areas, close to consumers, sounds particularly practical in light of COVID-19 movement restrictions. Pandemic-related panic-buying has also put pressure on supply chains, but vertical farms can quickly adapt to meet increased demand.


🧬 How

  • Salads
  • Microgreens
  • Herbs
  • Strawberries
  • Edible flowers
  • Hydroponic and aeroponic growing systems


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Growing food in cities reduces food miles and helps urban areas improve food security.
  • Vertical farms use less water and fewer pesticides than traditional outdoor farms, and can often generate their own energy using solar panels.
  • As vertical farms make use of upward space, growers are able to cultivate far more produce across a smaller area.


👎 The bad

  • Vertical crops are grown inside, necessitating the use of LED lighting. This can be tailored to maximise photosynthesis, but requires a lot of power and is subsequently very expensive.
  • At present most vertical farms have a limited product range, with salads, herbs and microgreens offering the highest margins.
  • Vertically grown food tends to be more expensive and it’s unclear whether consumers used to inexpensive food will accept the higher price tag.


💡 The bottom line

  • Vertical farms are a space-saving, efficient way to grow certain crops close to consumers. While it’s unlikely these indoor facilities will fully replace traditional farms in the near future, vertical farms can provide incredibly local produce in urban areas, reduce food miles and supplement outdoor agriculture.