Evolution of Indoor Vertical Farming Webinar with MJBizDaily
The Past, Present & Future
What does evolution mean? One definition of evolution is the gradual development of something, specifically from a simple to a more complex form. As humans, we grow to adapt and change to our environment. As we see the effects of climate change slowly integrating into our daily lives, we must start thinking ahead and change how we operate.
The adaptation of indoor vertical farming has become the new norm for many growing operations. Primarily due to the success of allowing cultivators to maximize their production capability, reduce operating costs, and increase their overall revenue per square foot. Utilizing vertical racking systems has further enhanced the efficiency of indoor vertical farming, providing a space-efficient solution for optimal plant growth. Additionally, incorporating vertical air solutions has proven to be instrumental in maintaining an ideal growing environment, contributing to the overall success of indoor vertical farming operations.
Michael Williamson, Director of Cultivation, and Anders Peterson, Cannabis Operations Specialist, recently presented a webinar with MJBizDaily where the team discussed the Evolution of Vertical Farming. From the early adoption of multi-tier nurseries by legacy growers to the cutting-edge vertical farms of today, viewers gained valuable insights into the progression of vertical farming equipment and designs and our predictions for the future.
Brief History of Vertical Farming
Today’s vertical farming is a relatively new concept, yet we’ve seen people use aspects of vertical farming for thousands of years. The first example of vertical farming dates back almost 2600 years ago to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Anders explains the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as “a man-made oasis in the middle of the desert, almost 60 feet tall, with advanced irrigation systems that could pump water 60 feet into the air to plants from around the world.” While just 1000 years ago, we learned that the Aztecs used floating gardens called chinampa. These gardens were one of the first hydroponic raft-style forms of agriculture, correlating to a technique of the Iroquois and the Cherokee use, referred to as three sisters or three sisters’ agriculture.
By 1915, an American geologist, Gilbert Bailey, coined Vertical Farming and studied an alternative way to increase farm area and produce quality crops. The events of World War One drove this experiment – with Gilbert creating a way to grow plants underground. By “blasting holes into the ground, with low-cost explosives produced during World War One, and growing plants underground in tunnels,” created a way to “protect them, shield them from the war, and locate them closer to dense urban areas.” Modern vertical farming concepts were developed by the 1950s, at the beginning of the Cold War. Many greenhouse and hydroponic systems were introduced and developed during this time.
In the 1990s, Columbia Professor Dickson Despommier, the father of modern vertical farming, “saw vertical farming as the answer to bringing food production closer to the consumers and reducing the carbon footprint, increasing sustainability,” Anders explains. Professor Dickson was interested in learning about New York and how we can help feed dense urban areas. For nine years, he taught experiments at Columbia on how to run calculations and scenarios of how tall skyscrapers would need to be for vertical farming. How many people could we feed if we planted food on every rooftop across New York? The experiments and concepts created then would evolve into what we see today.
How Cannabis Legalization Spurred
Adoption & Innovation
In the early 2010s, Vertical Farming was discussed and implemented into modern farms for non-cannabis crops but had not yet been adopted for cannabis. Anders explains, “It wasn’t until we saw adult-use cannabis legalization around 2014 in Colorado that the innovation kicked off and started to surge.” Due to the cannabis crop having a high value, growers were used to growing indoors due to the prohibition. They had a very high value and margin, allowing for innovation in the market.
From 2010 to 2015, more grow room designs were static, single-tier benches with HPS lights. Once 2013-2015 came along, we started seeing growers looking at horticulture systems and practices, adopting these practices, and having access to vendors and technology. From 2015 to 2018 – Larger racking manufacturers began entering the space. Pipp Horticulture joined the horticulture space in 2017 with our first indoor multi-level mobile vertical racking system. This system was installed in flower rooms at Fog City Farms. By the end of 2018, Pipp had 40 installed locations. Now Pipp Horticulture has quickly become the industry-leading provider of Mobile Vertical Growing Solutions with installations in 45 states/provinces, 450 facilities, and over 2,500 grow rooms worldwide.
Progression of Vertical Racking Designs
One significant change to the vertical farming industry was the introduction of Fluence, an LED lighting company. They created their first Spyder light with a low profile, no fans, and a full spectrum white light LED, grabbing much attention from cultivators. Michael explains, “A common theme for the most significant limiting factor for good yields, plant health, and phenotypic expression in these rooms was a lack of environmental controls. We saw an industry shift within 2020-2022 where the ancillary equipment and services innovation showed significant improvement.“ We now see HVAC systems with integrated hot gas, reheat, and dehumidification much better suited for the indoor vertical farming space.
Anders explains, “in terms of modulating controls, and sensors, they’re not running off thermostats on the wall; they’re running off canopy sensors in the room. We also started seeing purpose-built in-rack airflow systems, such as Vertical Air Solutions.”After the first double-stacked mobile vertical racking system was installed in Fog City Farms, James Cunningham quickly realized he needed a purpose-built airflow solution to move air through the canopy of the multi-level racks. James and his partner, Matt Bogner, created Vertical Air Solutions, which provides increased, consistent airflow control while integrating filtration and CO2 delivery.
As the indoor vertical farming industry continues to advance with discoveries and lessons learned from prior trials, the following questions come to mind “how do we make the labor more efficient? How do we make employees happier working in a multi-tier room” while also advancing in “the developments in the racks themselves?” Anders brings up the TRAK-FREE™ Carriage System, having the option to remove tracks on the floor for a more flexible work environment while also developing the ELEVATE® Platform System, allowing easy access to the top tiers of your vertical farm. Michael, who was involved in the development of the ELEVATE® Platform System, when touring facilities has asked who has adopted the platform system and how it’s helped their daily operations. Their answer almost every time is, “Game Changer.” Instead of having one row to service and one side of the canopy to utilize, growers can now run two of the ELEVATE® Platform Systems on the “canopy that they’re working on, putting workers on both sides. It dramatically reduces tasks while improving safety and ergonomics,” Michael states.
Where We Are Today
Where are we today with cannabis? “Much more competitive as more markets are opening,” Anders states. Production is at an all-time high in many mature states bringing the price per pound lower. What is the trick to the market today? Efficiency. Anders brings up that “a common thing discussed today in vertical farming facilities and single tier facilities is quantifying the performance metrics of these facilities.” Cultivators are now looking at a vertical approach. Michael brings up all the factors involved with a new build, “new facility, a new state, new laws, new building, new equipment, new team, new LED lighting; it takes a while to understand new technology. People have had time to work out the mistakes made and are now pushing the envelope of what’s possible. Growers are finding the balance of the design, and builders are figuring out the balance of how to build inside these systems.” Seeing an increase in yield metrics today. Anders states, “We’ve built enough facilities to learn these lessons.”
Prediction for the Future
We now see lessons learned in the cannabis industry translating to the non-cannabis sector. Non-cannabis vertical farm applications to consider would be leafy greens, strawberries, and herbs. As Anders would say, “closing the loop coming full circle to where we started.” Locating facilities closer to dense urban areas limits the food distance of transportation. We’re now seeing a move to indoor vertical farming in the Middle East, growing vertically in Abu Dhabi and Dubai due to climate and moving the plants from where they’re grown to where the consumers are, growing these plants at a much lower cost all year round. Michael states, “People realize today, more than ever, how unstable our food supply chain is. With our ever-growing population, some really difficult challenges exist to overcome.”
As far as cannabis and predictions for the future, technology keeps advancing and can be taken advantage of in the indoor cultivation market. Michael predicts, “Between the implementation of AI and robotics that exists today, I anticipate that you’ll be able to call trays from whatever tier, whatever room, whatever level, and a robot will go grab those for you, bring those to a centralized headhouse or processing building, where workers will be basically in line.” Those workers in the headhouse could even be automated robotics. Limiting the number of times we touch plants helps limit the spread of diseases. Humans tend to be the spreaders of pests. The more we can keep human interaction to a minimum, the fewer pesticides used and fewer diseases and pests spread. Because of this automation, Michael states, “We’ll start seeing more tiers in cannabis going higher, even more vertically, occupying that cubic footage.” Also, with the federal banking reform, cannabis operators have “more traditional access to capital and loans. This will help spur the next phase in the evolution of vertical farming.”
In conclusion, vertical farming has come a long way over the years. It has evolved rapidly due to various factors, such as technological advancements in indoor vertical racking designs, cannabis legalization, and the efforts of companies like Pipp. The history of vertical farming has shown that it has the potential to advance how we grow our food, and it has already started to impact urban areas significantly. Pipp Horticulture has been at the forefront of this evolution of vertical farming, offering innovative solutions to improve the efficiency and sustainability of indoor vertical farming.