Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Future of Farming: There Is Nowhere To Go But Up

In Salinas, California, Gary Caraccioli wakes up every morning by 5 a.m. and drives for 30 minutes through a bed of tulle fog so thick, he cannot see the purple mountains that flank the highway. This is the only route to get to his farm in Gonzales.  He spends anywhere from 5 to 10 hours a day driving on muddy dirt roads in a Chevy truck between vast, flat, fields of emerald and neon greens and chocolate brown soil to keep track of his lettuce crop’s growth and his employee’s progress. When he isn’t driving, Caraccioli is conducting business meetings, or working in his office to make sure that his farm is running efficiently.

The Salinas Valley, touted as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” cultivates 80 percent of the world’s lettuce and produces 580 billion pounds of produce annually. Thousands of farmers, like Caraccioli, continue an orthodox method of farming by leasing out large plots of land and planting and harvesting in bulk. At Caraccioli’s ranch, which consists of the grower L&J Farms and labor provider Jackpot Harvesting, they cover 3500 acres of crops and ship 250,000 boxes of produce from their land daily.
(Laborers Harvesting Asparugus, Salinas, CA; Courtesy Amber Sandoval-Griffin)

Across the continent at 431 E. 91 St. in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the crop beds sit on top of a worn, industrial looking warehouse and are measured in feet rather than acres. You have to walk up four flights of creaky wooden stairs in the darkness, but once you finally make it to the top, you can escape the chilling winter cold, clattering noises and honks from down below to enter the best kept secret in town – a controlled 75-degree oasis where fruits and vegetables thrive year-round. Welcome to the first stages in the future of farming.

When Eli Zabar started Eli’s Vinegar Factory in 1993, his mission was to get as close as he could to the source of his own ingredients so he eventually built a greenhouse in 1994 on the roof of his grocery store and restaurant where he could grow them.

“I thought we could grow things that are not available locally and that I could grow things that are better and fresher than things being grown far, far away where somebody doesn’t really care about them,” Zabar said.

The project was very simple at first with just one gutter and hoop greenhouse design. Zabar had a structural engineer and an architect test the roof’s weight capacity and then he and some members of his staff built the greenhouse.  He says the cost was so small, that he can’t even recall how much he invested, but it was not a substantial amount.

Now Zabar has five greenhouses on the rooftops of his buildings on East 91st street - one directly above Eli’s Vinegar Factory and four others across the street on the roof of his warehouse. Combined, the houses cover themselves in cost and make a small profit. Zabar and his staff grow a variety of fruits, vegetable, herbs and flowers from mixed greens and tomatoes to figs and strawberries.

The crew uses gas from the bakery below to heat the houses and has a compost system to recycle excess waste from crop production and from his bakeries. Although the crops are not certified organic, Zabar does not use fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides and every plant is watered and harvested by hand by two staff members who work in the houses 50 to 60 hours a week.

Though Zabar’s greenhouses are small, they have the potential of evolving into the world’s first vertical farm. Expand one of his greenhouses to encompass one full New York City block and add two more levels and this could be the future of farming. According to he creator of the Vertical Farm Project, Dickson Despommier, a 30-story farm would be able to feed 50,000 people a well-balanced diet of over 80 different types of fruits vegetables. He believes this farming model is the key to solving hunger and ecological restoration worldwide.

The Vertical Farm Project proposes a hydroponic growth method in rows, benches, or hanging systems situated in the high-rises of urban communities. Hydroponics use a mineral nutrient solution to produce a plant without soil. The plant can be placed in only the mineral nutrient or in an inert medium, such as foam, gravel, or mineral wool. Though there are other alternatives to hydroponics such as a drip irrigation system, aeroponics or aquaponics, a hydroponic system provides the most options for utilizing space.

Vertical farming has numerous advantages for the future of food production and the restoration of the environment, but there are also many obstacles to this method of farming. Cost, taste and light must be improved in order for this project to be a success. In a country where most people are accustomed to eating food from mass farms, the challenge of making this fantasy a reality is not only developing a functional system, but also teaching the public how to accept it.

Some experts believe that this new method of farming is completely feasible and necessary to human survival, while others who look at it from an engineering and scientific standpoint have found obstacles that leave them questioning if it can be done. Experts have proposed light restraints and outbreaks of epidemics in an indoor ecosystem as some of the obstacles while others worry if the food quality will change and where all the excess waste will go.

The concept is appearing more and more in the media, but at this point, vertical farms remain a vision for the future. Since Despommier made his project public, an entire slew of architects, engineers, students, professors, and scientists have solicited their own ideas and designs for creating a vertical farm. Many have even created similar projects or business plans that are related to the concept. But in a society of dreamers and visionaries, we have yet to see this system, which could potentially change the way we purchase and eat food, become a reality.

The project started in 1999, when Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, was teaching a medical ecology class to a group of seven graduate students and they came up with a concept that could possibly revolutionize the way humans currently grow food. Week after week, class after class, the students would listen to Dr. Despommier’s lectures on the degrading environment and the earth’s health risks, which even the jovial and optimistic Despommier admits can become very depressing.

“Just imagine yourself as a student, every time you come to class, that’s all you hear about,” said Despommier. “You start to throw up your hands and say ‘I might as well quit school and get a job and wait for the earth to come falling down on me.’ But they didn’t do that.”

Instead, the students began to brainstorm what they could do to make a difference. At first, they envisioned the concept of rooftop gardening in Manhattan to see how many people they could feed by building gardens on vacant roof space. After working the entire semester, the students were disappointed again when they calculated that there were only 13 acres of non-commercial rooftop space in Manhattan.

The class decided to change the model from building gardens on rooftops to creating gardens on multiple levels in abandoned buildings. This initiated the Vertical Farm Project: a conceptual idea of farming indoors on multiple levels in urban centers to provide food for large groups of people while simultaneously relieving farm land of the strains of crop production.

Ten years later, on Jan 13, 2009 at Union Hall in Brooklyn, a line of people wait anxiously for over an hour to see if they could squeeze into an already packed room in hopes of catching a few words from 68-year-old Despommier’s talk on urban farming for the Secret Science Club. As the white bearded professor cracks poop jokes in relation to his theory of recycling human feces and uses analogies to children’s books like Old MacDonald Had An Apartment House by Judi Barrett to explain his theory, environmentalists and science freaks appear excited and bewildered. They are all curious to see how creating vertical farms in urban skyscrapers could radically re-vision the way we live and eat forever.

In 2004, The Food and Agriculture Organization reported over the next 50 years, the human population is expected to rise to at the least 8.6 billion which would require an additional 3.3 million square miles of land – roughly the size of the country of Brazil - to feed them using current technologies. The Food and Agriculture Organization also says that as of 2004, approximately 3,088,817 square miles of land or 38 percent of the total landmass of the earth is already committed to soil-based agriculture.

Eighty percent of the available land in the world is already being farmed according to Science Magazine. This includes grazing lands for cattle and land for feed grains. In order to support this type of large-scale agricultural activity, hundreds of millions of square miles of hardwood forest, grasslands, wetland, estuaries and coral reefs have been eliminated or damaged with significant loss of biodiversity and a disruption ecosystem functions. In addition to this damage, 70 percent of available fresh water is used for farming.

One of the most important reasons for building a vertical farm in today’s food market is to develop a source to alleviate hunger in countries that suffer from starvation due to depleted natural resources and poverty. Many countries like Palestine and Jordan can no longer grow crops in their vicinity due to years of resource absorption, toxic spills and waste related to military practices and weapon production coupled with an extreme climate.

“Sometimes it’s not necessarily the food that you eat but that you have food to eat,” said Despommier. And he has a great point. If a 30-story building can feed 50,000 people, this is a solution to better communities that are plagued by disease and starvation.

Proximity is another major benefit of placing a vertical farm in an urban community because it will provide people with fresh food that is farmed blocks or even steps away from where they live. Despommier’s vision for the model would attach vertical farms to schools, apartment complexes, senior centers, hospitals, office buildings and restaurants to provide people with fresh food on a daily basis. “Imagine working in a building where 10 feet out from where you’re working you had to look through a garden and the garden was actually growing the food that you could come down and eat?” Despommier asked.

Zabar’s store exemplifies how people want to know where their food is coming from, and they will pay more for that peace of mind. Although the greenhouse project started out as a personal endeavor for Zabar, who loves food and wanted to provide his customers with the freshest ingredients possible, it has created a large following where people will come specifically to buy the freshest produce in town because they know it was harvested that morning just steps away from the store.

“I think it brought a kind of recognition to me and the business,” Zabar said. “People know we grow things and they respect that. And nobody else is doing that. It adds a certain kind of interest.”
Though Zabar’s customers are willing to pay $7.99 for a pound of freshly cut arugula, most people cannot afford such high prices. A vertical farm would generate this type of fresh quality, organic produce on a much larger scale enabling the farmer to sell it for much lower prices while maintaining its value. 
(Eli Zabar’s rooftop greenhouse, New York City; Courtesy Amber Sandoval-Griffin)

Urban farming also holds the promise of returning farmland to nature and restoring the ecosystem.  “The Best reason for doing this, the only justifiable reason for doing this that I can think of would be to restore the damaged ecosystems that have become fragmented because of farming,” Despommier said.

In his Vertical Farm Essay I, Despommier provides historical proof of this concept where the earth naturally restored itself after an epidemic or manmade disaster. The dust bowl, which was created by farming the grasslands of the central Great Plains of the Untied States, is proof that an ecosystem can restore itself. From 1889 to 1895, hopeful immigrants settled in the Oklahoma territories where farming and rainfall flourished. Twenty years later, some of the worst droughts in history caused families to move further west, leaving the area virtually empty of human residents for the next 15 years. During that period where no farming was taking place, the ecosystem naturally repaired itself. Precipitation regimens returned, tall and short grasses rebuilt the soil and wildlife that had been long absent began to populate the region once again.

The ecosystem can repair itself if left alone, according to an experiment in Hubbard Brook, New Hampshire. The area was a mixed boreal watershed that had been harvested at least three times in the past 350 years. In 1967, Gene Likens, cut down a watershed and the wood was left in place to test the vegetation structure of the area and the effects of human activities on ecosystems.  He looked at the chemical, physical and biological characteristics of the water, before, during and after the repair period.

After only three years, the water draining into the damaged area returned to its original high quality because the ecosystem supplying the water was able to repair itself. Despommier believes that according to these examples, if vertical farming were to replace the majority of the world’s food production models, then ecosystem services that provide a healthy lifestyle for humans and animals would eventually be restored.

“What I’m proposing is something that some people would call radical but I don’t think its radical at all,” Despommier said. “I think it’s absolutely reflective of where I know I came from. I came from an in-tact ecosystem.”

Beyond ecological benefits, a vertical farm also eliminates food miles and dramatically reduces our use of fossil fuels by cutting out the use of tractors, plows and vehicles for shipping. Carraccioli said that last summer a truck going from Gonzalez to New York with one thousand boxes of commodities cost him 7,000 dollars total, breaking down to seven dollars a unit. “Transportation is a major factor in our agriculture industry,” Caraccioli said. “One big advantage [of a vertical farm] is shipping. You’re there.”

The ideal vertical farm is three levels or higher and is capable of growing market produce from fruits and vegetables to herbs and flowers. If the farm implemented the soil-less growing method of hydroponics, they would use 70 percent less water than farming today. The farm also has the capacity for raising chickens, fish, mollusks and crustaceans and some believe that even pigs could work in certain type of floor plans like warehouses that span horizontally instead of vertically.

The model has solar panels on the roof to follow the sun and drive the internal heating and cooling system used to nurture the plants. A device placed in the ceiling of each level of the building called an evapotranspiration recovery system collects moisture that can be bottled as water and sold. The farm is also designed to have a black-water treatment system that will filter the wastewater and reuse it for irrigation and a pellet power system that can take non-edible plant matter and turn it into fuel.

To create a prototype where farmers, agrologists, scientists and ecologists could test the model and various types of crops to see if it could even work, someone needs to pay to develop it. Despommier estimates that is would cost 20 to 30 million dollars to create a four to five story building to cover an eighth of a city block. Though Masdar City in Abu Dhabi has asked Despommier to create a design for them, and the country of Jordan has expressed keen interest in the project, neither one has not discussed finances at this point or have finalized concrete plans.

Despommier recommends conducting a two-year trial period to help determine which types of plants can move forward in this type of an environment and which types of food and crops you need to create a well-balanced diet.

But therein lies another obstacle. Most experts will tell you that hydroponic growth systems cannot produce as high of quality food as soil. This system must be perfected to successfully provide thousands of people with nutritious food. “For where we’re going  - a need for nutrient rich food – we would need to perfect that [soil-less] system,” said Jack Algiere, a food season grower and greenhouse manager at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean that anybody would want to eat anything out of it.”

Although Despommier believes you could use supplements for hydroponics to replace the nutrients found in soil, many farmers and agrologists believe that it isn’t possible. “To me there is no comparison between a soil system and a water system,” Algiere said.

Twenty-six miles north of Manhattan, in Pocantico Hills, New York, Algiere works nearly seven days a week managing nearly 30,000 square feet of cold and warm greenhouses that produce fruits, vegetables and herbs for the center’s three restaurants, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Blue Hill CafĂ© and Blue Hill of Manhattan. He has been in the farming industry for over 15 years since the days where he ran a lab greenhouse in college at the University of Rhode Island.

As manager of agriculture production at Stone Barns since they opened in 2003, Algiere is devoted to organic agriculture and sustainable crop production, working daily on his hands and knees planting, watering, and harvesting his crops by hand. He also teaches classes on farming to the public and has several apprentices that he is training to run a greenhouse. If he isn’t driving around the farm on all-terrain vehicle with his Border Collie, Lily, seated next to him, you can almost always find him in works pants, brown hair disheveled, with dirt on his hands in one of the two greenhouses.

Algiere agrees that a hydroponic system indoors could work on multiple levels, but since hydroponics is just a growing medium, moving a plant from water to a foam, it does not create the same amounts of nutrients. He believes there are no real active spaces for biological actions, organisms are not eating each other and there is no cycle of life happening in that soil. Although humans can supplement some nutrients, we have yet to match the quality that can be found in a natural ecosystem.

Algiere and Caraccioli think there’s another obstacle: food grown through hydroponics often tastes bad.  “I don’t know how the final commodity would taste being grown indoors” say Caraccioli. “You taste indoor hothouse tomatoes all the time. To me, they’re nothing special.”

Farming vertically avoids weather and pest related crop failures because the plants are contained in a controlled environment. However, this type of contained environment also requires additional attention in other forms. Vertical farms would require more labor than today’s greenhouses, yet on the bright side, in today’s economic climate that means an opportunity for more jobs. But these farms are more susceptible to epidemics because they are not being maintained by a natural ecosystem. They would require a team of experts like Algiere and Caraccioli, who have spent decades learning about the science and methodology of growing crops and who also have a genuine love for what they do.

Algiere says that there are enough people out there who want to learn, but there are currently very few people like him who want to teach them. “There’s lots of people and there’s lots of interest there’s just not a lot of training, Algiere said. “If something like vertical farming were to start, its not starting tomorrow. It would take a planning group a long time to get something really functioning and for a city to be on track.”

Food quality, taste and education aside, light is another major problem when situating a farm in the middle of an urban center like Manhattan. Some experts like Jack Rabin, Associate Director of the Farm Programs at Rutgers New Jersey Experiment Systems Agricultural, have questioned how the natural light from the sun is going to be evenly incorporated into a high-rise farm if the building is surrounded by other high-rises.

“I can’t see how you would ever get the number of photons [light particles] to make vertical farming really vertical,” said Rabin.

Zabar admits that one of his major problems with crop production in his greenhouses is a lack of sunlight in certain areas. A building on the east side of his greenhouses blocks the natural light in the afternoons and as a result he has experiences bad crops of melons, tomatoes and berries. He also believes that his fig trees would produce higher yields of crops if that building did not block out a large majority of sunlight.

Disposing of excess waste is also a problem. Harvesting creates inedible crops and many times, crops will go bad before you can sell them. Despommier’s model includes a compost system where you recycle what you don’t sell through the energy recapturing system. Some worry that a compost system in such a confined space like a large city will create foul odors and health hazards for those who live around the farm.

Gregg Twehues, Director of Nutrient Management at Stone Barns, who handles their entire compost operation, says that a forced air system like the O2 system he uses at Stone Barns is the solution to that problem. An O2 system cycles fresh oxygen enriched air into the compost container to minimailze unpleasant odors. The system he uses controls all of the pre and post consumer waste at all of their restaurants.

Twehues says that with an O2 system, “You can compost a large volume of material in a shorter amount of time, you can stabilize it in a shorter amount of time and it can be adapted to any size, vertically or horizontally.”
(Caraccioli Farm, Salinas, CA; Courtesy Amber Sandoval-Griffin)

Where there are doers, who have made farming a career and live by the traditional methods of crop production, there are also dreamers, who want to push farming to the next level. There are architects, economists, engineers, and ecologists who believe in the plan, having created designs and business models based on the vertical farm project.

Andrew Kranis, was the first to design a model for what a vertical farm would look like back in 1999 when he was a graduate student at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. Since then, more than 10 other individuals from all over the world have created there own designs for the project. This includes Despommier who collaborated with Eric Ellingsen to create a “Food Pyramid” model as a possible structure for Masdar City.

People like Bejamin Walmer, Johsua Klein and Stefan Boubill are working on similar projects that revolve around the idea of vertical farming. These visionaries behind the SEED/BED project plan on retrofitting an Airstream trailer (the SEED) into a livable garden and traveling around the U.S. to spread awareness for self-sustainability. The BED will be a roof top garden located in a location in New York City that is still to be determined, and will attempt to be a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) for the occupants below. Like a vertical farm, the BED will use recycled wind power and solar power and recycled storm water to sustain itself.

Walmer, who is very familiar with Despommier’s project, believes that the SEED and the BED will raise awareness for urban farming. He also thinks the BED could serve as a small-scale model to test how well a large vertical farm would work.

“People have got to try this out and start to work out the wrinkles and the kinks and the technologies and the techniques for growing a significant quantity of high quality food in an urban environment,” says Walmer. “If we went out and built a 70-story building right now, it could be disastrous.”

Keith Agoada developed his own form of farming vertically and made it into a business before he ever heard of Despommier’s model. In April 2008, during his senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Agoada won an entrepreneurial contest for developing a business plan of building greenhouses on commercial rooftops.

His idea consisted of building gutter greenhouses on the roof spaces of commercial buildings, specifically those with a grocery store underneath. The greenhouse could use soil, hydroponics, and aeroponic growth systems and would include rainwater storage tanks with an aquaponic system that utilizes fish waste as a fertilizer for the plants. The plan would also incorporate solar panels and a wind turbine for energy efficiency.

“A lot of people said it was a really bad idea until I went to Bret McCoun, my old professor who is the director if integrated agriculture,” Agoada said. “He told me, ‘Keith, you’ve got a million dollar idea.’ I was like ‘yeah right, you’re joking right?’ He was like ‘no, this could actually work.’”

And so far, it has worked. Agoada, 23, turned his college project into his first business, using the money he won from the contest to create a website,, and attract potential investors. Though his company, Sky Vegetables, has yet to build a physical structure, they have several large grocery chains, who request to remain unnamed, that are interested in the project. Agoada also has an investor that is backing the project who he cannot name due to legal reasons.

 “There have been people who see the concept and understand the value and understand that it is not too far-fetched to think, ‘We could be growing food on a rooftop,’” Agoada said. “It might be quirky, it might be silly, but it’s not like creating the internet.”

As silly or quirky as it might be these people are making urban farming a reality and opening a window to the vertical world. Despommier has been called everything from a dreamer, to a visionary, to a radical, but he is not going to stop promoting the idea of farming vertically any time soon. He has heard the pros and cons and takes both sides very seriously, but at the end of the day, he just wants to provide people with an alternative way to survive and live long, healthy lifestyles.

“Why not enable a country to produce food in another way?” says Despommier, with a grin, his eyes beaming. “Wouldn’t this be a wonderful gift? Yeah, I know,” he adds with a shrug and as he throws his hands in the air. “Lots of luck on that one. Hey, I’m an academic type of person. I can dream. I can dream.
Amber Sandoval-Griffin is a journalist and photographer who currently resides in Birmingham, AL.  To read more from her and to contact her, visit her website.


  1. read
    Towering Lunacy
    Posted August 16, 2010
    Green enthusiasm for vertical farms shows that no one is untouched by magical thinking.

    By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 17th August 2010