Last week Sustainable Cities Collective hosted a successful webinar on urban agriculture, in particular indoor and vertical farming. It gave plenty of advice to anyone thinking of entering the industry or just curious about it. If you missed it, read this write-up, see a record of the Twitter conversation on Storify or you can listen to a recording below.

Listen to the audio: (length 00:60:00)

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The panellists were:

Henry Gordon-Smith is a sustainability strategist focused on urban agriculture, water issues, and emerging technologies. He has a certificate in Food Security and Urban Agriculture from Ryerson University in Toronto, and an MSc in Sustainability Management from Columbia University. He is a founder of the popular blog Agritecture.com and a board member on the Association for Vertical Farming

Oscar Rodriguez is a registered architect and Building Integrated Agriculture specialist with broad practical experience from 10 years in practice at Foster + Partners and other practices. Following years of dedicated research on resource constriction, climate change and the food system he founded Architecture & Food, to pursue how Building Integrated Agriculture can inform the architecture of resilient and equitable cities in an economy free of fossil fuels.

Milan Kluko is the President of Green Spirit Farms in New Buffalo, MI, and runs vertical farms in Michigan and Detroit.

Panellists were full of advice for anyone wishing to enter this exciting new industry.

What is vertical farming?

The panellists began by trying to define vertical farming and agreed that it involves growing plants in layers, usually indoors, in a controlled environment and is therefore capable of producing more food per acre, perhaps as much as 70 to 90 times as much, with vastly reduced energy losses.

Many companies involved in this new industry are members of the Association for Vertical Farming which includes 100 members, of which 20 are corporate.

Among them is Kluko's Green Spirit Farms. It was founded by Kluko in 2010 following an evaluation of different techniques for growing in greenhouses. "In exploiting the vertical plane, plant density is critical," he said. "The aim is to improve the traditional agricultural supply chain, which is too long and involves very few players, and produces much ecosystem degradation. We have a farm in Michigan and Detroit, plus one in Charleston, West Virginia."

The figures speak for themselves. "Our farms use 98% less water than going in the open air, on average. Growing Romaine lettuce in California would use about 75,000 gallons per acre and in Arizona 1.5 million gallons. Green Spirit Farms uses 800 gallons per acre that is 0.3 gallons per head of lettuce. As it is sold locally there are also significant carbon savings from not transporting it in refrigerated containers across the country. We can grow lettuces in mixed varieties and produce 17 harvests per year."

For dealing with pests, which do not infest plants very often (there hasn't been one in the last year) ladybugs are ordered "off Amazon" which arrive in a box "about the same size as a ice cream container". When they are released they get to work eating aphids and die out when all the aphids have been consumed. "So there is significant reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides, basically to virtually zero".

Some farms install highly reflective groundcover around the greenhouses/indoor farms, which disorient the bugs and prevents them from entering the greenhouses.

Traditional urban farms

Traditional types of urban farms are also sustainable ond effective, said Oscar Rodriguez, because they have social value. "This includes community assisted agricultural schemes. They change the perceptions of food amongst the public – food habits – and get people outdoors. Vegetables taste better when grown this way and give people an intimate closeness to something that is growing, encouraging biophilia.

"We need to replace the old forms of agriculture and encourage the eating of more vegetables because they are a really efficient conversion of energy from the sun into something we can eat, that powers us. Vegetables need more respect," said Oscar.

Finding Premisses

Panellists, led by Gordon-Smith, agreed with a member of the audience that existing, empty warehouses can easily be converted to vertical farming. Milan Kluko said: "We used a warehouse in New Buffalo – a former injection moulding factory. We cleaned and renovated it in 90 days and had our first harvest 90 days later. The systems we use mean that the equipment can be moved from one place to another relatively easily."

Rodriguez cited the example of 3-D printing that will create a paradigm shift whereby large warehouses will print goods that can be shipped locally and change the real estate dynamic, affecting the pricing of warehouses, and this will change the economics of vertical, indoor farming. "We also need to compete with what is currently heavily subsidised agriculture. Our type of agriculture is not subsidised. Its advantage is that it is close to the people it serves."

Robots or people?

Gordon-Smith said that although it is true that the increased use of robotics will grow the industry it is not the only way. Particularly where there are plants being grown with different varieties together and human judgement needs to be deployed, only people will be able to harvest. "We are creating lots of green collar jobs. We do use some automation but not a lot. There is a place for automation that we need to discern between efficient versus effect the production, where effect it means socially effective and creates employment in the neighbourhood. We like the human input. It's not a green industry if humans are cut out."

Vertical farming uses specialised LED lighting of specific frequencies that the plants particularly like. This maximises the growing potential in an energy efficient way.

Some foods cannot be adapted to indoor growing, specifically grains, because grains can be stored. Indoor farming is appropriate for fresh foods. The panel also agreed that for animal welfare reasons, they would not support intensive indoor animal rearing. "We needed to eat less meat if we're going to make it in the future anyway," said Kluko. "I'm opposed to high-density meat farms in cities."

Aquaponics

While some people have tried to combine the growth of edible fish and salads with aquaponics, the panel thought that on the whole this did not work economically. "You either need to focus on the needs of the vegetables or the fish. They are not the same. So if you focus on one, the other becomes less efficient. Certain species are not right, but home systems do work well." There are many of these on the market.

"There is also a case for using aquaponics in warm countries where it can be done outdoors very efficiently."

Finding finance

There are four sources of investment:

  • individual investors who believe in the future;
  • private equity;
  • loans;
  • crowd funding.

"I've never taken loans or subsidies," said Kluko. "Financial folk and real estate people are our investors. In our third year we started to make money and we are in our fourth year now. I find crowdfunding interesting. Community supported agriculture has a social side and there's an opportunity to do it outside and on rooftops. We can combine them and manage them effectively. This can be a viable business model but it must be sustainable."

"People want to invest in something measurable that makes a difference," said Rodriguez. "Social impact funds do this. They want a more accommodating rate of return and investors want to be identified with this kind of thing (urban agriculture). Private equity on the other hand we want a shorter return. We must remember that agriculture is traditionally inefficient. When we enter into a more judicious part of the investment community they are seeking a long-term relationship and we can give them this."

"Our company received $0.25 million from a farm cooperative," said Kluko. "This was traditional agriculture, Greenstone credit services. They came to terms with the fact that we weren't applying for tractors but were a viable investment based on superior risk management. Vertical farming, compared to traditional farming, has 17 harvests per year. The farm cooperative is a member-owned system as is a social impact firm."

Planning and regulation

Negotiating planning and regulations for a new urban farming initiative varies according to locality and it depends upon what you are planning.

The panellists agreed that it was a potential nightmare because of the inexperience of officials in dealing with this type of planning application, although "Boston has an app that helps you navigate the codes. New York City should have one and all cities should run workshops and say these are the structure was we would like to see if you want to apply to grow food in the city," said Gordon-Smith.

"There is a greenhouse amendment in New York City – you can put one on top of a building – but in the UK you need a permitted development order."

"Cities need to develop typologies on the type of building that can be used with codes," said Rodriguez. "If I want to put a greenhouse on a roof in the UK a pplanner will have to look at the local plan and the regional plan and the National Planning Policy Framework and then will say 'I have no idea what this is'. The strategy should be to start a dialogue with them at a pre-application meeting, and with building control. Take them inside the building. Let the planner look at its appearance and together design it. Then you might stand a chance. This will set a precedent and this has a legal bearing in the UK under common law.

"We don't have that many typologies in the UK. There are farm shops but we don't have rooftop greenhouses, just research ones. There is a food-growing warehouse in Newham that's about to happen but eventually we are going to need a rigourous codification of the language for what type of thing it is. This could hopefully dovetail with planning legislation.

"The thing is, horticulture and agriculture haven't spoken to each other for so long (since coal came along) and they need to build a relationship. To do this we need frameworks. We can then see what the synergies are and what the benefits are to the building, for example how it can help the building with cooling and heating. Building integration of agriculture is about to what degree in operational and utility costs get reduced to make the buildings and the entire city more efficient."

Kluko agreed. "It's about nomenclature. We need definitions and to approve the components of each project. Planners don't yet understand, but it needs to change soon."


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