Vertical farming today is moving from a conceptual phase to the mainstream as a greater abundance of food is profitably grown in urban areas and new crops come under development, said Henry Gordon-Smith, founder, Agritecture Consulting Services during his Fresh Take Talk at the International Baking Industry Exposition on this cutting-edge movement on Sept. 8.
Vertical farming involves building indoor farms with LED lights to replace the sun and control every single variable in that farm to optimize plant growth. Despite the fact the first U.S. vertical farms are less than a decade old, the sustainable industry has blossomed with the flourishing demand for local, safe produce and farm-fresh ingredients as well as the need of city dwellers concerned about climate change to reconnect with food systems in their local communities.
Such farms allow craft bakers, high-end retailers and fine restaurants to fill a void and offer fresh-grown food harvested year-round.
“Retailers should think about value-added products through vertical farming through enhancing the retail experience or through growing something that could be used in their bakery products,” Mr. Gordon-Smith said.
He added they create the opportunity to cultivate customer loyalty through marketing value-added baked foods with herbs, vegetables and other free-from-pesticides ingredients harvested in their store or at a nearly indoor farm. These herbs and vegetables also can be sown in larger vertical farms that offer fresh seasonal food or in a smaller unit inside a store that also promotes a theater of community that grounds city dwellers with the food they consume.
The multi-level farms range from 250 square feet for a small retail shop to 3,000 to 10,000 square feet for a medium-sized operation that supplies the nearby neighborhood. The world’s largest one is about 60,000 square feet. Mr. Gordon-Smith said vertical farming is prospering globally, especially in colder climates and congested urban areas where farm-fresh food isn’t readily available.
Typically, wheat isn’t the best crop for vertical farms, mainly because it takes so much space to grow the volume needed to produce baked foods. Mr. Gordon-Smith added that wheat requires a soil structure that hydroponic soil cannot provide, although there may be opportunities to foster the growth of heirloom and specialty wheat as the trend expands. However, rosemary and other key minor fresh components in baked goods are more practical today.
“You’re essentially driving the value of a fresh product, and fresh wheat isn’t a huge value proposition because it’s stored and transports very well,” Mr. Gordon-Smith said. “Fresh lettuce doesn’t, so you can see why fresh lettuce and other products would be grown in a vertical farm and not wheat.”
Mr. Gordon-Smith expected vertical farming research of wheat, cocoa and other value-added commodities could become more widely available in five years. In recent years, he added, the quality of wheat has deteriorated due to myriad variables. The urban farms provide the possibility of naturally raising the quality of wheat by controlling all of the variables involved in growing the crop.
“We’re going to see more and more research on how to grow wheat indoors and how to develop indoor systems to grow wheat,” he said.