The Complete Guide to Vertical Farming Systems

The Complete Guide to Vertical Farming Systems

Population growth today outpaces our capacity to feed it. In the coming three decades, climate change will make it tougher to provide food for 10 billion people with shrinking resources of water and land. To succeed in nourishing the world, we must utilize more efficient methods of cultivation. One of the most promising ways to do this is to implement indoor vertical farming.

In this article, iFarm deeps dive into the most popular vertical farming systems and innovative technologies that make indoor year-round production of crops and greens possible.

Vertical farming: what is it?

Vertical farming is an innovative method of growing crops and plants by stacking them on vertical multi-level racks inside a controlled-environment building. Each rack has space above that allows vegetation to grow upwards. These high-tech farms drastically reduce the space needed to grow foods, as they can be housed in warehouses, industrial buildings or even skyscrapers rather than using farmland or traditional greenhouses.
Source: Shutterstock.
The ability to install vertical farms close to consumers in urban areas reduces the costs of transportation, storage and handling of foods. Smart growth systems and LED lighting provide the crops with all the necessary nutrients no matter the season, so farmers can grow fresh greens all year round.
In vertical farms, a possible crop yield can be 1,300% higher than in a greenhouse.
The crops produced on a vertical farm are free from chemicals since the indoor farm is a completely enclosed, sterile environment where there is no risk of insects getting in. That’s why the foods produced on a vertical farm are 100% organic and do not contain pesticides or herbicides.

Controlled-environment agriculture in vertical farming

Vertical farms are fully controlled indoor environments based on controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technology. This ensures that the crops grow in a perfect microclimate, enabling high yields all year round.

The harvest cycles are much faster than in traditional agriculture, and the yield is predictable: CEA excludes uncertainties like flood or drought, which are impossible to predict in outdoor agriculture.

CEA technology regulates all the essential variables of a vertical farm’s ecosystem to provide the optimal conditions for the plants:

  • Lighting
  • Temperature
  • Climate control
  • Watering
  • Nutrition

Artificial lighting

Properly balanced artificial light is crucial for plants since there is no natural sunlight in an indoor environment. On a vertical farm, LED lights are normally used to provide artificial light for sustainable plant growth. The LED lamps are located above the plants on each of the racks of a vertical farm facility.

Source: iFarm.

Light is the most important and usually the most energy-intensive element of indoor plant cultivation. iFarm offers proprietary highly-efficient LED lights as a part of its indoor ecosystem.

The costs of the power usage from artificial lighting depend on various factors, including the type of crop. For example, strawberries need almost twice as much light as Romaine lettuce.

Temperature and climate control

Climate control is absolutely necessary for plant growth in an indoor environment. That is why vertical farms are equipped with heaters, coolers, CO2 enrichment and air-conditioning units, humidifiers and dehumidifiers to create and maintain the optimal conditions for crops.

Vertical farm system providers like iFarm use a closed-loop ventilation system that includes all of the above. To control the optimal climate balance on a farm, the iFarm Growtune SaaS Platform has a special precision agriculture tool for remote control of climate, lighting and other parameters.
Find out more about iFarm Growtune management systems for your high-tech vertical farm here.

Smart water harvesting and plant nutrition

Over 70% of water resources worldwide are used by the agriculture sector. To reduce the ecological footprint, controlled-environment agriculture opts for a smart water harvesting system. CEA uses water-saving technologies that significantly reduce water consumption in farming.

Depending on the method, crop cultivation on a vertical farm requires up to 95% less water than in conventional, highly water-dependent agriculture. Limited water resources, climate change and population growth make vertical indoor farming a sustainable food production method for the future.

Vertical farms normally use hydroponic irrigation systems, where the plants are immersed in special nutrient liquids. iFarm provides balanced nutrition for plants grown in vertical farms. The macro- and microelements are similar for all irrigation methods, though the way they reach the roots may be different. The water that is not absorbed by each plant falls down to the next tray in the stack until it reaches the bottom rack.
Plants retain only 8,5% of the water used for nutrition in the form of weight gain. What happens to the rest? Plants evaporate it. Smart water harvesting on vertical farms includes dehumidification systems that collect this water and reuse it in production.
Read more about iFarm engineering solutions that help save water and reduce food production costs in vertical farming here.

Contact iFarm to learn more about controlled-environment agriculture in vertical farming.

Do you want to start your own vertical farm?

What are the types of vertical farming systems?

There are three most common indoor vertical farming systems: aquaponics, aeroponics and hydroponics. All of them use soilless cultivation methods to provide healthy nutrition to plants.
What are the vertical farming systems

Source: iFarm.

Read more about the advantages of soilless crop cultivation technologies in this article. Precision agriculture allows farmers to define the exact amount of nutritive elements needed for each plant and make the food production efficient and balanced.

Aquaponic vertical farming

In aquaponic vertical farming, fish farming is combined with a hydroponic system for growing plants. In other words, aquaponics is the co-cultivation of fish and greens.

During this process the waste water from fish tanks is collected, filtered and supplemented with needed elements by a pump system. Then, this water is circulated up to the plants located above the fish unit. The plants, in their turn, get all the essential nutrients from this water, while oxygenating it. After that, it is pumped back to the tank with the fish.
Aquaponic vertical farming

Source: Shutterstock.

One of the largest indoor farms based on aquaponics is located in Pennsylvania in the US. Upward Farms produces greens like broccoli, kale, kohlrabi and mustard, as well as hybrid striped bass.

Aquaponic farming is a "win-win": the greens are provided with all they need for healthy growth, and the fish get water with high oxygen levels. Another advantage of aquaponics is that such farms do not need much space, since the trays with plants are located above the fish unit.

Aquaponics functions as a self-contained cycle, so if one part fails, the entire system fails. This is the biggest disadvantage of this vertical farming system. Setting up and expanding an aquaponic farm is expensive because it’s much more intricate than hydroponics and even aeroponics.

Aeroponic vertical farming

Like hydroponics and aquaponics, aeroponics allows growing plants without soil. In such farms, the plants are submerged in a nutrient-rich mist solution. At first glance, it may appear the plants in an aeroponic vertical farm are simply hovering. But it is a much more intricate process.

The plants are cultivated on foam, and the roots penetrate a mesh lid, extending into the fog chamber. The roots are showered with a nutrient-rich solution, providing the plants with sustenance. A timer is attached to the pump to make sure the roots are kept sprayed with water and nutrients at regular intervals.

AeroFarms is one of the top businesses utilizing vertical farming with aeroponics. The company has farms around the world growing over 550 kinds of vegetables, fruits, and greens. Tower gardens and farms have also been built with aeroponics, and can be constructed atop urban buildings, offering amazing sights.
Aeroponic vertical farming

Source: Shutterstock.

Aeroponics has the downside of being expensive to set up and requiring specialized equipment; hydroponics, on the other hand, involves investing in nutrients and adding them to the water supply, and the system then takes care of the rest.

Hydroponic vertical farming

Hydroponics is the most optimal vertical farming system because of its market efficiency (the farm can pay off in less than 4 years!) and versatility: it can be used in both industrial and retail settings.

With hydroponics, a larger variety of crops can be cultivated, and the initial costs are much lower than with aeroponics. The system is less complex, as there’s no co-cultivation of fish and crops like in aquaponics. The main challenge of running a hydroponic vertical farm is setting the right automation which would reduce costs and prevent production risks.

In hydroponics, plant roots are submerged in substrates such as perlite and rockwool, usually along with a nutrient-rich water solution. Hydroponics farming systems employ diverse techniques of cultivating plants in simulated settings, such as wick, drip, flooding and nutrient layer.
iFarm hydroponic vertical farming system
Source: iFarm.
iFarm vertical farms use automated rack growing systems and hydroponic irrigation systems (e.g. NFT, deep flow, flood & drain, drip) to produce greens, microgreens, and berries.

For instance, to generate microgreens like radish or mustard, iFarm relies on hydroponics based on the flood & drain irrigation system, which recycles the nutrient solution. The plant pots are filled with nutrient solution and the liquid is then gradually returned to the storage tank according to a schedule.

Thanks to iFarm Microgreens technology, the plants receive precise nutrition for better flavor and earlier yields, while iFarm Growtune automatically chooses the ideal nutrients for each growth stage and crop variety.

Interchangeability is the core concept of our technologies. iFarm offers a unified system with all elements and materials, including multi-level structures, nutrient solution preparation and recirculation, automation, and CO2 feeding systems, custom-built for your needs. The modularity transforms a vertical farm into a high-tech and cost-effective launchpad for indoor agriculture.
To choose the perfect vertical farming system for your farm, it is important to take into account your company’s needs, location, market and available capital.
Contact iFarm to discover the best system for building your own indoor farm
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