High-tech greenhouses

Written by adam


Because I’ve been frequently critical of the half-baked notion of vertical farms, it seems only fair that I link to this article about high tech greenhouses that, at first blush, have a somewhat vertical farm-y feel to them.

Vertical farms, you may recall, represent the extreme of the local food movement: massive edifices sited in urban environments that use a combination of technologies, from water recycling to artificial sunlight, to feed a city’s population in a sustainable manner. Such farms are entirely hypothetical — and, I’ve argued, impractical, pointless, and even faintly ludicrous.

Say hello to the new $50-million complex in Ventura County, California:

> On a recent afternoon, [farmer Casey Houweling] was eager to show visitors clusters of plump, sweet tomatoes hanging overhead from vines that reach high into the rafters. This arrangement allows the farm’s 450 permanent employees to climb ladders to pick the fruit instead of stooping. The plants, which are fed individually through tubing that looks like intravenous hospital equipment, produce 20 times more fruit per acre than in conventional field production.

> Virtually nothing is wasted in this ecosystem. Workers have dug a four-acre pond to store rainwater and runoff. This water, along with condensation, is collected, filtered and recirculated back to each of the 20-acre greenhouses. That has cut water use to less than one-fifth of that required in conventional field cultivation. Fertilizer use has been reduced by half. There are no herbicides and almost no pesticides, and there is no dust.

> Five-acres of photovoltaic solar cells supply much of the electricity to run pumps and climate controls. Thermal systems collect solar heat and warehouse refrigeration exhaust to warm the greenhouses on cool evenings.

Cool! The system presently only makes sense for high-value crops that can justify the huge capital costs, but that cost disparity is shrinking as water, energy, and other inputs become more expensive.

Does this mean I was wrong to knock vertical farms? The answer is (surprise!) no. The article makes clear that the success of these high-tech farms, as with all farms, is exquisitely sensitive to input costs and food prices. It makes most sense to site them in California, because the sunny, temperate climate means more growing days and less need to spend energy on heating and cooling. And nothing about the new greenhouses addresses the sunlight issue that troubles multi-story designs.

In other words, technological advances may make future farms vastly more efficient, but these improvements won’t erase the comparative advantages of certain growing regions. This isn’t a problem; rather, it’s a good thing. Our farms will get better at producing food, our cities will get better at housing and moving people, and our environment will benefit.

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  1. Fred Magyar

    “This water, along with condensation, is collected, filtered and recirculated back to each of the 20-acre greenhouses. That has cut water use to less than one-fifth of that required in conventional field cultivation.”
    In an area where access to water is becoming ever more difficult this alone is a huge advantage.
    “And nothing about the new greenhouses addresses the sunlight issue that troubles multi-story designs.”
    If That’s true then raise mushrooms and insects…Light pipes maybe?
    Also how about wind and PV powering low power requirement LED grow lights.
    We now are able to get the photosynthetically usable radiation from a 75 watt light that is equivalent to that of a 250-watt 20,000K Metal Halide Lamp.
    I’m not saying vertical farms are a solution to all our food production issues but I also think that a little out of the box thinking about some of the issues they have can probably be addressed.

  2. martin mizera

    This is a not-yet (much) addressed technology, that could benefit from even a sliver of the attention that the alternative fuels are getting.

  3. Will Wright

    In response to: “Such farms are entirely hypothetical

  4. Adam Stein

    That “if” is doing an awful lot of work there. Another good option for Singapore is to buy food from places that do have lots of land and productive farming environments. I live in New York but eat lots of food grown in California, and that seems to be working out pretty well for me.

  5. Anonymous

    It might be working well for you, but what about the rest of us? The act of transporting your food from California to New York is completely unsustainable. The amount of energy and infrastructure required to transport your meal; the amount of packaging needed to protect it during transport; the amount of preservatives to keep your food fresh (since it takes time to reach you); the amount of ‘handling’ required and all of the energy such ‘handling’ requires: wouldn’t it be more effective to design a local source of food supply for you once the technology to do so becomes more available?
    We live in a world where the apples you eat are traveling over 2000 miles to reach you. That is something as a society we can no longer support.
    More food for thought:

  6. Adam Stein

    You could just as easily say that the act of building skyscrapers and generating artificial sunlight is completely unsustainable. People have taken a highly reductive view of food production, in which local = good. But in reality a fairly small proportion of the carbon footprint of food comes from transportation. Don’t eat food that flew on an airplane. Otherwise, it’s more important to focus on what you eat than on where it comes from.
    My food for the most part doesn’t require preservatives or packaging, because I cook it myself. I manage the climate impact of my diet by reducing my consumption of meat, which is by far the biggest source of emissions in the food production system.

  7. Darron Morris

    I truly believe this will eventually be feasable as new technology is developed. I have recently been reading about transparent films that can be applied to glass windows that turns windows into solar panels. Imagine if the building itself replaces the pv panels . Things like this will keep coming along and eventually available technology will not only make it possible but ecomonical as well.
    Darron Morris

  8. Fred Magyar

    I strongly believe that what we all take for granted as normal here in the USA and other so called first world countries is about to be seriously challenged. I don’t personally have a horse in the vertical farms race but I do think we need to think about a completely new paradigm for how we do just about everything.
    So I have one more for you to read and I won’t bother you any further with my comments.
    Ecological Economics and the Food System
    Posted by Jason Bradford on May 20, 2009 – 6:30pm in The Oil Drum: Campfire
    Topic: Environment/Sustainability
    Best hopes for a sustainable future.
    Fred Magyar

  9. Richard Easton

    I understand that it is possible to raise enough food on an average suburban house lot to feed a family of four all year. There is also vertical farming at ground level by using walls as the base for the plant soil. If one thinks there is plenty of water and food so that we need not consider improved methods of farming, one is mistaken. There is a world food crisis now, it will get worse, there is not enough water to permit wasting what we have. USA water shortages have taken place and will take place. Don’t knock new ideas, they are valuable because they are so rare.

  10. martin mizera

    Vertical hydroponics (kind of a vertical conveyor belt) are already commercially viable as of today. This resolves the problem of sunshine uniformity on crops. Needless to say, the most valuable crops will be the first candidates, based on simple economics.
    The one-time additional capital costs will be offset by the recurring transportation charges for the traditional (flat) agriculture.

  11. Joe Gorman

    What are the 75w lights you use?

  12. Christina Albert

    I think what Will was getting at is further research into vertical farming could bring crops to areas that cannot grow enough of their own produce to sustain it’s population in order to help cut down on cost and energy involved in transporting crops. A much more efficient and sustainable solution than transporting crops across the country or even from overseas.

  13. Fred Magyar

    The lights I was referring to are PFO’s Solaris LED lighting system. I know of them because an aquaintance has living coral reef aquariums and wanted lights that allowed him to use save energy on his chiller and lights.
    Corals have symbiotic algae that are very sensitive and need to be exposed to very specific wavelengths of light in order to flourish.
    He had sent me a PDF file on the spectral analysis comparing it to conventional metal halide aquarium lights. Im sure if you contact Solaris they can give you further information.

  14. will

    I was just in Indianaplis a couple of months ago and saw countless greenhouses on the Southside that are sitting unused but in good shape. If it was cheaper to grow it here than buy it from Central and South America these empty greenhouses would not have been abandoned.

  15. autoidea

    The abandoned greenhouses in Indianapolis have been abandoned precisely because they are more expensive than imports – BUT vertical greenhouses will be even more efficient. This is what this entire thread is all about. Some technologies are going away and the new ones are coming in. The environment benefits in the process through lower impact of unnecessary transportation.