With population growth and environmental awareness creating greater demand for locally grown foods, vertical farming is emerging as a viable and sustainable option.

July 12, 2021

Vertical Farming Emerges as Viable Source of Locally Grown Produce

For companies entering the market, a partner with design-build expertise in manufacturing, such as Haskell, will help drive return on investment.

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In East of Eden, Adam Trask invests his fortune in the dream of transporting fresh produce from the fertile Salinas Valley across the continent during the winter months. Delays in crossing the Rockies resulted in railcars full of rotting lettuce arriving in New York, costing Adam a chunk of his wealth and making him the laughingstock of Salinas, Calif.

Transporting fresh produce has become safer and more reliable in the century since this scene took place. Now we can get not only fresh fruits and vegetables from across the country but also bananas from Ecuador, avocados from Mexico, and onions from Peru throughout the year. This convenience, however, comes at the expense of the environment, which is affected by the worldwide distribution of what was once grown locally, and people are once again looking toward local options.

“There's an enormous amount of transportation and heavy labor from the center of the United States or the Central Valley of California, where the majority of crops are grown, to the population centers of the United States on both coasts,” said Matt Williams, Regional Director in Haskell’s Livermore, Calif., office. “It doesn't make sense to grow food where it's farthest away from the people who are going to be eating it.”

With population growth and environmental awareness creating greater demand for locally grown foods, vertical farming is emerging as a viable and sustainable option.

Thoughts of farming conjure images of fields as far as the eye can see. In vertical farming, the fields are floor-to-ceiling vertical walls of cells holding plants. Instead of soil, plants are grown in organic cells that are nourished aeroponically, with water and nutrients are delivered through misting, or hydroponically, in which plants are grown in nutrient-rich water.

“You don't necessarily have to have huge, multimillion-square-foot facilities; you could have hundreds of small vertical farms that can serve city blocks versus an entire city,” Williams said. “Vertical farming works great in urban centers. You can have an acre of produce in hundreds of square feet, so you don't necessarily need to have that big footprint. With advances in technology, the more automated that process is becoming, the more efficient it is to grow indoors.”

The appeal of vertical farming, beyond providing local produce, is that it could increase food production to meet the needs of the growing global population, which is expected to top 9 billion by 2050. Currently, the United States has more than 2,000 vertical farms, encompassing both small and large growers. The practice is also spreading throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, where water scarcity is a challenge to finding arable land. The global vertical farming market, currently at $781 million, is expected to reach $1.5 billion in the next 10 years, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.85%.

Vertical farming also solves the problem of growing seasons, weather and pests by offering a controlled environment for growing food.

“During the growing process, you're able to control the environment that your food is grown in,” Williams said. “You're using specialized lights so produce can grow 24 hours a day. You don't have to rely solely on the sun. You can reduce the amount of water loss and use of pesticides because the growing area is enclosed.”

Startup costs for vertical farms are not insignificant and vary by growing method and size of the operation. Some companies use proprietary technology that must be able incorporated into the building’s design. In such cases, choosing an architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) partner with extensive design-build experience in the manufacturing space, such as Haskell, can prove invaluable in maximizing return on investment.

“As you're going through the design process and trying to figure out the technology and what type of space is needed, understanding the capital requirements for the project is crucial to making sure you’re spending their investors’ money wisely,” Williams said. “Through our design and construction background, Haskell is able to provide cost feedback in the early phases to help provide a certainty of outcome and understanding of what it's going to take financially to build these projects.”

Vertically farmed plants are grown in organic cells that are nourished aeroponically, with water and nutrients are delivered through misting, or hydroponically, in which plants are grown in nutrient-rich water.

While a vertical farming space has unique design aspects, it closely resembles other types of food manufacturing facilities.

“When building a vertical farm, you have to make the best use of space that can provide the highest yield while optimizing people and product flow within the facility,” Williams said. “A lot of the knowledge we have from work in other food-manufacturing markets is applicable with vertical farming. They have special technology that needs to be supported by the facility, whether that's structurally supported or supported by utility systems, water-distribution systems, fertilizing systems or electrical requirements. There's a lot of synergy between our typical food manufacturing and indoor farming.”

Vertical farms are starting to supply fresh produce to Michelin-starred restaurants, farmer’s markets, and grocery stores. Consumers in New York will still be able to buy fresh strawberries in the middle of January, but now they’ll be grown down the block instead of shipped from thousands of miles away.

“It’s a growing market, and it’s on an upward trend,” Williams said. “If even 25% of the produce for a major population center is grown locally, it's pretty impactful, and it's a step in the right direction. It won't necessarily replace all traditional farming, but it can definitely have an impact as populations continue to grow.”

Haskell delivers more than $1 billion annually in Architecture, Engineering, Construction (AEC) and Consulting solutions to assure certainty of outcome for complex capital projects worldwide. Haskell is a global, fully integrated, single-source design-build and EPC firm with over 1,800 highly specialized, in-house design, construction and administrative professionals across industrial and commercial markets. With 20+ office locations around the globe, Haskell is a trusted partner for global and emerging clients.

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