Skip to Content

Vertical Farm

Sharing is caring!

Vertical farming is the future of agriculture, though it’s not a new concept at all. The Babylonians did it long ago with a vertical farm most of us have heard of – the legendary Hanging Gardens.

We just need to figure out a way to do it economically and practically. There are many problems inherent with creating a vertical farm, however, two of those problems stand out above them all. Lighting and cost, and in that order.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon - early vertical farming

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The Economist questions whether vertical farming is a viable solution to our food woes. Scientific American supports vertical farming as a solution to the problem of a growing population and a  dwindling world food supply.

Most people, when they first hear about the concept of a vertical farm, get excited about the prospect. However, that excitement quickly wanes and turns to skepticism about whether it could work at all. Economical questions arise, and practicality comes into play.

The biggest problems with vertical farms:

Lighting and expense.

How do you get light to the center of the building so that crops can grow, and how do you build the farm in a cost-efficient manner?

It’s very expensive to build a building, especially one that will be a farm. Buildings were not originally designed to house crops. Buildings are built for people. Repurposing preexisting buildings is an option, but the problem of lighting the interior so the plants near the center of the building get enough light is still an issue.

Vertical farming expense solution:

If one could get past the problem of lighting, the expense would take care of itself IF you light the interior of the vertical farm naturally with sunlight. Over time, the increased crop yields would more than pay for the initial expense of repurposing older buildings into farms, or perhaps even the costs of building a vertical farm from the ground up.

Lighting the interior of the vertical farm with artificial light is very expensive and could be counterproductive.

Artificial lighting makes it difficult if not impossible to turn a profit. I mean, let’s get real, that’s what farming is about – money. Sure, we feed people. But, in the end, a farm is a business, and the bottom line is that it’s about the bottom line. Farmers don’t want to operate at a loss unless it’s temporary and there’s a plan to turn a profit at a later date.

Treehugger wrote Vertical Farms Aren’t Going to Solve Our Food Problems back in 2010.

Is vertical farming impractical?

Stan Cox and David Van Tassel wrote on Alternet “Why Planting Farms in Skyscrapers Won’t Solve Our Food Problems

“…For obvious reasons, no one has ever proposed stacking solar photovoltaic panels one above the other. For the same reasons, crop fields cannot be layered one above the other without providing a substitute for the sunlight that has been cut off. Even with all-glass walls, the amount of light reaching plants on all but the top story of a high-rise would fall far, far short of what is needed…”

And they conclude [incorrectly] that artificial light must be used to properly light the crops.

“…As a result, the lion’s share of a vertical farm’s lighting would have to be supplied artificially, consuming resource-intensive electricity rather than free sunlight…”

They say also that to light enough farms to produce the amount of wheat we already produce annually, light would need to be increased by 8 times.

Others have tried to solve the lighting problem with design. Repurposing an existing building might not be feasible with artificial lighting.

Vertical or Diagonal? In 2008 Treehugger wrote Vertical (Diagonal?) Farm from Work AC in NYC which showcased a few vertical farm designs that tried to use natural sunlight. One design was a stepped terrace, which from a design perspective is beautiful, and would probably be practical. However, it would not maximize the use of the total footprint of the land area it covers.

WORKac’s version of vertical farming combines migrant farmers’ housing in a series of stepped terraces with a farmer’s market and public space below. The terraces allow in-soil growing (and a small golf course), duplicating the surface of the site once. The entire project is supported, literally, by culture with sculpture-structures holding it up. This project was commissioned by New York magazine for a vacant lot in lower Manhattan.

Vertical farm concept pioneer Dickson Despommier claims that one acre of vertical indoor farming is equal to 4-6 acres of traditional farming because crops could be stacked in multiple layers on each floor of a building, thereby maximizing the yield of the land space which the farm occupies. This also should (if we solve the lighting problem) increase the economic benefit of a vertical farm and make it profitable.

Perhaps one could design a vertical farm building that takes advantage of available sunlight, such as the Pyramid Farm designed by Eric Ellingsen and Dickson Despommier.

"Pyramid Farm" by Eric Ellingsen and Dickson Despommier

“Pyramid Farm” by Eric Ellingsen and Dickson Despommier

Is this pyramid vertical farm design concept efficient with regard to space consumed versus the total annual crop yield? This design is gorgeous, but in this author’s opinion, may not be practical, and perhaps not cost effective.

Personally, I love the pyramid design and think it would provide a great feature at a park or attraction to showcase vertical farming, or in a “city gardens” type of environment. I think this one should be built and tested. What we could learn from it might just give us more insight on how to solve the problem.

Inhabitat did an article on this particular design back in 2009 titled “Pyramid Farm is a Vision of Vertical Agriculture for 2060“.

The problem is, we need vertical farms NOW! Not in another 48 years. In 50 years, if we don’t change, we may hit a point where our very society will collapse in on itself under the sheer weight of our 7 billion world population.

Vertical farming

How do you feed our growing population without more land to grow on? You go vertical. The concept is sound, the solution seems simple, but figuring out a way to fund it, and make it profitable and practical, is the question.

Use the available sunlight and “pump” it into the center of the building with water filled clear tubing, much like the water bottle lighting system people are using in third world countries.

Perhaps fiber optics could work, however, fiber is not cheap, and then you have to figure out an irrigation system.

Why not use one system to solve multiple problems?

Hydroponics and Aeroponics allow crops to be “stacked” in vertical columns and long rows. This is called High-Density Vertical Growth.

Growing vertically isn’t a new concept, and as mentioned in the beginning of this article, ancient Babylonians had it figured out.

Now we have better technology and materials and can create vertical farms like the world has never seen, and we can produce 100 times the food we produce now. More than enough to feed the world’s 7 billion people.

Here’s an idea that might be feasible, and that combines all the technologies listed above, plus a new system that not only lights the interior of the vertical farm but also provides the hydroponic irrigation system to water and provide nutrients to the crops.

Off Grid World concept for a vertical farm

Off Grid World concept for a 10-acre vertical farm

The building is almost cube-shaped. Geometrically, a square maximizes efficient use of space. The actual land area covered by the building’s footprint is just 1 acre. The building itself is 10 stories high, creating 10 acres of usable area.

The building is 208 feet wide 208 feet long and 100 feet tall (1 acre x 1 acre x 100 feet [10 stories] tall). That equates to 432,640 square feet of floor area, and approximately 4,326,400 cubic feet of space (less when you subtract the space the building materials consume).

Vertical farm concept by Off Grid World

Two sides of the building are covered in glass to produce light levels similar to traditional greenhouses, where more sensitive crops could be grown. These areas can be climate controlled for year-round growing of almost any crop.

The center core of the building is an open-air building, allowing airflow and sunlight directly into the sides of the building.

Vertical farm concept

Vertical farm concept - front of the building

Vertical farm concept

Crops can be grown via the High-Density Vertical Growth systems. This maximizes the efficient use of vertical space between floors. 6-10 levels of crops could be grown per row, per floor, producing 6-10 times the yield per acre for each floor. Meaning at maximum use of space, the yield of this building could be up to 100 times what traditional farming could produce on 1 acre of land.

I know. That’s a HUGE leap of faith. However, the fact is if you solve the light issue, you solve the food problem. Right?

Even with only 5 levels of crops per floor, that is 50 times the food production per acre of land in this 10-story, 1-acre complex. What farmer wouldn’t want to do that? Heck, what investor wouldn’t want in on a deal like that? Being able to produce even 50% of this amount of food per acre could more than pay for the initial expense of the building and allow for a quicker return on the investment.

So how do you provide the lighting?

By using really big water bottles, and clear piping to “pump” the light and the water into the core of the building.

Vertical farm roof: lighting system - Off Grid World

Vertical Farm Roof: Lighting system consists of a series of clear “water-filled” spheres which sit atop clear vertical pipes which should refract the light effectively directing the sunlight and water to the crops inside the building.

The lighting system is designed to provide both light and water. Nutrients can be added to the water and a mist can be used to water the crops. This solves two problems – getting light to the interior crops, and provides nutrient-laden water to the crops 24 hours a day.

Vertical farm concept - lighting system

Vertical farm concept – lighting system

Vertical farm concept - lighting system

Vertical farm concept – lighting system

NOTE: this system may produce too much heat through the lighting system to make it viable, or the light may not penetrate deep enough into the core of the building to provide enough light to the crops in that area. Also, these spherical light collectors appear over-sized on purpose for illustration purposes only, to demonstrate the concept. It’s possible to make them much smaller. The biggest question is how far the sunlight can be directed to the interior of the building’s core.

Vertical farm lighting system

Vertical farm lighting system

The vertical farm lighting system consists of vertical clear piping combined with a spherical “light collector” on the roof. There are also smaller horizontal tubes connecting the entire system into a grid-like structure.

Vertical farm concept - Off Grid World

Will the system work? Who knows… no one has tried it.

One thing is for sure. Vertical farming is possible. This is an attempt to make it more feasible economically and more practical.

Could this be a solution to the world’s food woes, or it could just be a crazy idea?

What do you think?

Vertical farming - the future of growing food

Andy Jenkins

Thursday 7th of February 2013

I found the Cox and Van Tassal document a few weeks back. The issues of lighting are extremely apparent. The fact is we can't rip off physics. If we could 'harvest' 100% of the light that falls on the roof and split it over ten floors we would only be delivering 10% of the light the area would be exposed to if it farmed traditionally. 10% lighting of plants will probably lead to very poor crops which renders the whole process pointless. 10% is better than nothing but maybe big buildings isn't the answer and smaller and shorter buildings offer a better answer. Also, I would not use water used for lighting to irrigate crops as both require different water chemistry. The bottles seen within the video have a few drops of bleach in each to keep them optically clear. Nutrients would promote growth and eventually render the lighting system worthless or require constant maintenance which would cost a lot of money. Again, rendering the project pointless. This is a very difficult area of research but I am confident if all the disciplines work together we can nail it!


Monday 15th of October 2012

We have been living off-the-grid in uptatse NY for 12 years now. Our home was a hunting camp in the state forest and we have been remodeling it and working on it ever since. You have been to my other blog, Homesteading On the Internet, where I write about our lifestyle. A lifestyle that I call Modern Homesteading. We use solar and soon will be adding a wind turbine. I believe the way we live will be the way of the future, high tech, with some old fashioned methods of long ago. My site Solar Baby details our system, which is affordable for most people. Little by little adding to it as we can afford it. Soon we hope to have running water in the house, and some other changes are coming also.


Friday 10th of August 2012

I completely agree with much of what is said here. I also see these designs a being innovative, attractive and inspirational.

From a hort perspective, it really only creates a couple of questions regarding light (assuming that our knowledge of what "light" plants need is correct.

1.) We know that plants require a certain light quality. How does the manipulation of natural light change the spectrum of light delivered to the crops? (Easily measured.) 2.) We know that plants need a certain amount of light. So, can one system work or will we need to design many different systems for different climates and geographies. (Probably.) And for a system to be maximized, we are most certainly looking a mono-cropping.

In regards to the readers comments about rising food cost. These designs will likely not have significant impact on food prices (as transport is a relatively low part of the cost in today's "food" supply channels.)

We also need continued development and innovation in fertilizers and automation. Fertilizers and labor are a huge factor in current food cost.

BUT, I think we need to be careful with trying to hold down food prices. If we are to find the financing, funding and expertise for these projects food prices will need to rise along with the salaries of those working at these new facilities.

My feeling is that we need to re-prioritize our spending and maybe our values.


Monday 15th of October 2012

SimpleHaven evolved into an exniremept in off-grid lifestyle choice. It has been almost 10 years now since I started. Some people invest in old cars which they work on every weekend. I have SimpleHaven. I was inspired by the book by Scott and Helen Nearing, Living the Good Life SimpleHaven is located on 40 dry high plains acres adjacent to state trust land at the base of a mountain on the front range of the Colorado Rockies. It started with recycling a ~950sqft cabin. Which was moved to this site. I designed a solar wind hybrid power system using my background in electronics and a book called Living on 12 Volts . It has been adequate and reliable. House was wired for 110v so DC is converted to AC for use on all house sockets. Parts were not so readily available as they are today. There are somethings I would do differently, with the knowlege I gained over the years. Water is hauled now, due to almost 10 years of drought, methane drilling pulling out ground water and two dry wells. The 1200 gal underground cistern gravity feeds to the house, where pressure is boosted via a 12 volt pump for faucets, shower, etc. Hot water is on demand, heating via a thermostatically controlled propane wood look stove and blower. I have posted a link to my FB album, hopefully it allows viewing access.


Tuesday 7th of August 2012

Went to bed thinking about this,... Adding a flat reflective material to divide the center of the light tube down it's length, with a reflective material added as a clinging pot holder for the plant, may amplify and help distribute light. Aeroponic misting and proper building insulation would help climate control issues. It looks like your plants are attached to see through plastic corrugated material? Which I find simple, cheap and brilliant! Will you have trickle tubes feeding the plants water? Would be cool if you could use a combo of HHO -solar-biofuel from plant waste (maybe sterling engine) to run supplemental lighting, and pumps. A slightly magnified dome over the top could turn a roof water feeding system into distilled water to feed- rejuvenate the HHO system. Puddling or slow moving water that sits between the dome and roof, and pools between your light tubes would also aid a temperature variant to climate control. If these variables could be measured, the plan could be sold to gain construction financing. Third world countries are hungry (pun intended) for answers, and are granted lump sums of money. If you could get one built, who knows where it might lead. Sorry if I'm rambling.


Monday 15th of October 2012

We live totally of grid in the bocdwaoks in Southern California.We have a small portable solar panel to charge our laptops and phones. We have satellite phones (there is no cell service here), nor is there electric service. We have a propane refrigerator. We have a wood stove for heat, cooking and to heat my fashioned iron. I have a treadle sewing machine, hand operated washing machine with a hand cranked wringer, and a clothes line to dry our laundry. We have oil lamps for lighting. When it is hot we cook outside. We have a solar showeroutside, and an outhouse bathroom. We have a well with handpumpfor our water. We have a garden and fruit trees. We hunt and fish and gather wild food too. We have a dog and a couple of horses. We are planning to raise some cattle in the future. We tried raising chickens, but the coyotes ate them. Our cabin has one very large room downstairs and a large sleeping loft upstairs. We have sky lights in addition to our windows for daytime lighting. My husband commutes to the city to work.I stay home and cook, sew, knit, crochet, tend to the garden, animal care, and when I have time I do leather work as my hobby. We have everything we need and want. We live a very happy life.


Tuesday 7th of August 2012

Yes, the plans could be sold, but this is an OPEN SOURCE design. Why sell it if it helps the world solve the food problem? I don't have the money to build it, and keeping the idea to myself doesn't help anyone. All my designs are made freely available to everyone for FREE, at no charge, under a GPL and Creative Commons share and share alike license. ;)


Tuesday 7th of August 2012

I love the idea. If food prices continue to rise at double digit rates it will become the norm. Building costs could be somewhat offset by distribution costs. Any idea how cheaply you can erect the building? I agree getting an equal span of light on all floors would be a challenge. You mentioned misting and water redistribution, though I'm not clear on your delivery methods. Normal electric pumps will of course be used but have you considered pulser pumps in your design? Multi floors may allow you to take advantage of their free energy delivery. Also how will you control the interior climate? I like the reliability of hydroponics, and aeroponics, but your tag line doesn't include aquaponics. To hard to control? I only bother you with questions because I believe in the idea. Cheers.


Monday 15th of October 2012

We are currently manikg the transition from a semi-. self-sufficient lifestyle to an off-the-grid lifestyle, which is involving the purchase of a lot of hand-crank household gadgets and many more hand tools. We will have gravity fed water from the spring to the house and barn and water power for electricity, maybe some solar. We are going as completely self-sufficient as possible (raising chickens, lamb, beef, grain crops, vegetables, fruit trees, berries, herbs manikg our own laundry soap and other cleaning products, shampoos, bar soaps, lotions, herbal medicines, breads, canning and drying all our food, sewing a lot of our clothes, knitting our socks, spinning our wool, hope you get the idea) would love to share more about our situation so as to encourage those who are also getting started or thinking about it.