Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers. I have covered two of the techniques used in vertical farming before hydroponics and aquaponics. Today I will look at it as a general farming technique.
I have been following the vertical farming industry for a while now and it is still in its very early stages from a commercial farming perspective. It reminds me of the early days of the renewable energy industry, particularly the solar industry. When solar wasn’t really taken seriously (the sun replacing fossil fuels used to be scoffed at by many) and was looked at as a novelty, it took many, many years (and a lot of money) for it to be developed and seen as a cost-effective electricity generation technology.
Vertical farming finds itself in that same position, it is mainly used in novelty applications, a skyscraper wants to be more green, builds a vertical farm, restaurants growing the greens they use using vertical farming where patrons can see it etc. In recent years vertical farming has been taken more seriously in particular from the venture capital community. What this means is that there is now more and more money available to put into R&D (research and development) to make vertical farming a viable business (there has been some game-changing research into special LED lights). This in turn will benefit smaller businesses as the technology will be commercialised.
Now while vertical farming is not yet profitable as general-purpose farming, there are some current opportunities particularly in leafy greens, lettuce, micro-greens, herbs. That being said it won’t be as cost-effective as soil grown. Does this mean it has to be a premium product? Not necessarily, you see in conventional farming there is a lot of middlemen in the supply chain (as well as transport/logistics) by the time it arrives on your doorstep this all adds to the cost. There might be instances where vertical farming can compete especially in a country like South Africa where most people buy from retailers where the prices are insane compared to what the farmer gets.
That being said, there might still be more money in the B2B (business-to-business) market in vertical farming, the supply of the raw materials, seeds, nutrients, selling started plants, but also the building (and even maintenance) of the “farms” within. Vertical farming is novel and some restaurants and even buildings want to build it where the public can see it, for these people it is not about producing a crop at a certain price, it is part of their image and might even come out of their marketing budgets. It is awesome to see a well maintained vertical farm within a concrete building.
So we know that it currently does not compete with traditional farming, I mean it’s still cheaper to farm in outlying areas and transport the produce to the big cities. So what are the benefits?
The biggest advantage is increased crop yield that comes with a smaller unit area of land requirement (building up); this is more beneficial in countries where there is not a lot of arable lands. But the whole point is you don’t need any land. You can start vertical farming using metal shelving the size of a bookshelf. There has been vertical farming in shipping containers, tunnels and even abandoned mine shafts.
Another advantage of vertical farming is the ability to cultivate a larger variety of crops at once because crops do not share the same plots of land while growing. If you look at some pictures of hydroponics and aquaponics you will see each plant has its own little apartment.
There are some negatives for South Africa in that it is electricity-intensive because lighting (and other electric powered equipment) plays a big part in crop yield and we have both an unreliable supply and an expensive supply and coupled with sufficient arable land this might be forever a niche industry in SA.
But remember our food security future is in serious doubt, expropriation without compensation is coming, Africa has seen this movie before. People will have to grow their own crops just like they are generating their own electricity. EWC it is going to set off a feeding frenzy (excuse the pun) among politicians and their cronies. You are going to see politicians and their friends with 20-30 farms each and those farms are going to be neglected, I mean, they can’t even run a single farm. So it might be something to look into, supplying the consumer market with equipment so people can grow their own crops. Because even though traditional farming is cheaper than vertical right now, EWC might be the Eskom moment. Should our traditional farms no longer be productive, two things will happen: demand will exceed supply, pushing up the price, the rest will have to be imported not only in US dollars but the traders, shipping and logistics (international and local), retailer profits has to be covered as well. So familiarise yourself with it.
And to those upset about what I said about EWC if you think this government cares about you then you are seriously delusional. If COVID-19 has proven one thing, they don’t care about you, they don’t care about your livelihood and they don’t care about your life.
Main image: Satoshi KINOKUNI