Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a three-part series that looks at the vertical farming industry and the role engineers can play in developing the technologies to make it more scalable, inspired by the element14 Community’s new Vertical Farming Design Challenge. Read part one here.
By definition, vertical farming involves large, industrial buildings growing hundreds of plants using the latest technologies and systems. However, vertical farming has also flourished in residential settings and, with the right tools and support, the home-based indoor farm can thrive year-round.
Introducing vertical farming into the home poses many of the industrial challenges we outlined in the first post of our series. Like those challenges, many of the solutions to home-based vertical farms lie with the engineers. These engineers can bridge the gap between industrial and residential environments with simplified solutions anyone can take up and make their own.
Lighting and Energy
Lighting and energy efficiency are critical to growing and harvesting crops in industrial environments. They are also the two biggest limiting factors to the widespread adoption of home-based vertical farms. From a lighting perspective alone, vertical farms can quickly become very expensive for the average homeowner.
An apartment in New York City, for example, is unlikely to have enough window space for sufficient, consistent lighting to grow even four or five plants. The challenge for engineers is to devise creative, small-scale solutions that give homeowners access to lighting without eating up costs. Blinking LED technologies, which we discussed in our introductory post, can promote photosynthesis through short, controlled bursts of light. For those on a smaller budget, the solution may lie in the placement and design of their plant systems. Flexible LED units can provide light in even the most cramped units or spaces and offer more flexibility in the location and setup of the vertical farm.
For those in search of an out-of-the-box solution to this problem, there are several notable domestic growing systems on the market to help individuals get a jump start with vertical farming. Countercrop is a desktop veggie garden that uses an automatic watering system and remote-controlled LED lights to grow plants in a clean, dirt-free environment. INFARM’s Indoor Farming Module uses stackable, stainless steel growing trays and built-in LED growing lights ideal for growing a variety of roots and herb vegetables.
From planting and harvesting to cleaning and maintenance, running a home-based vertical farm can quickly become labor- and time-intensive. Unlike industrial vertical farms, residential vertical farms don’t have the resources or workers to dedicate to the constant monitoring and upkeep that is often required.
For novices and experienced home-based farmers alike, automation can eliminate much of the guesswork and minimize the margin for error. The solution to this problem is one most engineers are already very familiar with. Open-source microcontrollers like Raspberry Pi and Arduino can assist with nutrient delivery, regulating pH levels, watering, irrigation, lighting and oxygenation. For temperature control, starter kits like the one from Silicon Labs let users wirelessly connect to, monitor and alter the atmosphere of their indoor vertical garden.
These small-scale platforms are perfect for the home environment, both for individuals who want an easy-to-integrate system and for individuals who want to devise their own system using those products. Both platforms also boast strong online communities that can provide step-by-step guides, project ideas and peer-based support regardless of experience level.
The foundation of the vertical farming movement is more intelligent food production. The success of a vertical farm – both industrial and residential – depends on a two-way system of feedback. Vertical farmers must be attuned to the needs and proclivities of their crops, and change their approach accordingly. For individuals without an agricultural background, this is where data capture plays an important role.
Data capture can take one of two forms. The first, and most simple, is support from a community. Growers should never go it alone, and the long-term success of this industry as a whole will depend on individual farmers’ ability to share recipes, growing experiences and resources. The Association for Vertical Farming and element14 Community are two examples of organizations trying to connect individuals around the world under this common purpose.
The second, and perhaps more fascinating, form of data capture lies in the Internet of Things. Smartphone-controlled growing systems are helping individuals tap into all of the rich data being harvested by the microcontrollers and sensors mentioned above. For those in search of a more user-friendly, turnkey solution, apps like NIWA provide real-time updates on living condition, temperature and lighting straight to your mobile device without any heavy programming required.
Creating a successful residential vertical farm can be done in two ways. Some will prefer machines and devices that are as self-contained and plug-and-play as possible. Others will seek out technologies that can be integrated into objects already in their homes. Both approaches can help engineers and everyday individuals alike address some of the biggest obstacles facing home-based vertical farms today.
In our final post of the series, we’ll take a look inside some notable facilities around the world that are redefining traditional notions of vertical farming.
About the Author
Henry Gordon Smith is The Association for Vertical Farming Regional Manager in North America and an adviser in the element14 Community’s new Vertical Farming Design Challenge. Learn more at www.element14.com/verticalfarming.