Vertical Farms and Surburbia/Exurbia

I’ve been interested in vertical farms since the idea was first kicked around. While there’s still a lot of pie-in-the-sky type thinking about vertical farming, it looks like it’s beginning to happen (boldface mine):

A former Grammer, Dempsey and Hudson steel plant in the Ironbound section of Newark is being razed by the RBH Group to make way for a giant custom-built complex for its sole tenant, AeroFarms, a company producing herbs and vegetables in an indoor, vertical environment. Instrumental in reviving parts of Newark, the RBH Group sees the venture as a way to create jobs, clear a shabby block and supply a healthy, locally grown food source….

Unlike urban vegetable gardens of the past that took advantage of empty lots or evolved in rooftop greenhouses, AeroFarms employs so-called aeroponics and stacks its produce vertically, meaning plants are arrayed not in long rows but upward. Because the farming is completely indoors, it relies on LED bulbs, with crops growing in cloth and fed with a nutrient mist.

Critics of vertical farming have complained that taste can suffer when food is cultivated without soil or sun, while proponents say vertical farms are extremely efficient and have a small environmental impact. They take up minimal space, grow round the clock and are near the markets that sell their crops, reducing the need for long truck trips. Vertical farms are also far less susceptible to the vagaries of unpredictable weather like droughts or floods….

One reason that Newark, and especially the Ironbound section, may be so affordable is its legacy of pollution. Crisscrossed by truck routes and flight paths, the Ironbound also was the home of a federal Superfund site where Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant, was manufactured in the mid-20th century; the site has since been cleaned up….

But while one parcel may still be a brownfield, most of the contaminated soil has been carted away, Mr. Curtis said. Besides, AeroFarms sits on land that has never been polluted, according to Mr. Beit, who added that its water supply would come from pipes, and not wells, anyway.

And because only four trucks will service the farm daily, AeroFarms is expected to have a light environmental footprint: “Every use at that site would have probably added truck traffic, but this will be far less than other uses,” Mr. Curtis said.

Called this five years ago. Shingy’s got nothing on the Mad Biologist. But I digress.

The one doubt I’ve had about urban farming is the land use: there are more productive uses of land in cities (housing, offices) than farms, with the exception of sites where no one is willing to build a house (e.g., ‘brown fields’).

But I think this misses the real opportunity for vertical farming: suburbs and exurbs. There are a lot of suburbs and exurbs that aren’t doing so well, and that have unused infrastructure such as dead or dying strip malls and shopping malls. These already have water, parking, and zoning taken care of, and the land is relatively cheap. In addition, when an abandoned mall ‘reverts to nature’, it really doesn’t: unlike wooden and stone farms of centuries past, the detritus sticks around for a long time (though ‘old time’ human effects can still last for centuries). Might as well put it to good use growing food–especially in areas where there isn’t a water shortage.

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2 Responses to Vertical Farms and Surburbia/Exurbia

  1. Laie says:

    I’m not convinced. Putting in a lot of artificial lighting and fertilizer in order to save on transportation? I suspect that carbon-wise, this is a very naive calculation.

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