Spotlight on Vertical Farming
By Diane Welland, MS, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 26 No. 1 P. 34

Boom or Bust?

Over the last few decades, urban farming has become increasingly popular. Inspired by a quest to feed more people with less land, reduce food miles, connect with community, and create a more sustainable food system, urban farmers have proven themselves to be innovative and adaptable, quietly evolving from rooftop spaces and community gardens to now indoor operations using controlled environmental agriculture (CEA).

CEA is a high-tech approach to farming. Although not limited to urban settings, it’s designed to protect and control the environment and provide optimal growing conditions for plants.1 One of the most promising and popular CEA systems is vertical farming. A type of indoor farming that marries technology and vertically stacked agriculture, experts say vertical farming has the potential to revolutionize the industry.1,2

Over the last decade or so, vertical farms have enjoyed rapid growth, popping up in urban cities, not only in the United States but all over the world, including in the United Kingdom, Japan, Singapore, China, and the Netherlands.3 Nevertheless, not every one of these operations will succeed. Recently, several high-tech vertical farms such as AppHarvest and Upward Farms have closed up shop, and some are struggling financially, leading many to question whether vertical farming is a viable option for the future.

What Is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming is a novel way of farming where plants are vertically stacked or layered in a highly controlled environment indoors. Farms can be located in the middle of a city in warehouses, former meatpacking facilities, empty office buildings, and old shipping containers, and produce can be grown 365 days a year. They’re generally soilless operations using hydroponic systems, where plants are grown in nutrient-rich water. Other options include aeroponic systems, in which plants are grown in the air and are regularly misted with nutrient-rich water, and aquaponic systems that involve hydroponic systems using fish (aquaculture) to recycle the water to create a closed-loop system. The environment is carefully monitored and controlled for temperature, humidity, CO2, and light to optimize growing conditions.4

While the idea of vertical farming dates back to ancient times with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Chinampas of the Aztecs, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the term “vertical farming” would be coined and several more decades until the development of hydroponics, and still a few more decades for CEA systems to take hold. Later, in the late 1990s, Columbia University Professor Dickson Despommier, PhD, modernized the concept and popularized the idea of vertical farming and hydroponics in an urban setting in the United States.5-7 By the early 21st century, advances in technology combined with the growth in urban farming and concerns about climate change, food waste, and food security set the stage for the first modern commercial vertical farms to emerge. Fueled by tech-savvy operators and investors eager to help the planet, vertical farms boomed. In the United States alone, there are estimated to be more than 2,000 vertical farming operations.3 Early newcomers, such as SkyGreen in Singapore, Plantlab in the Netherlands, and Aerofarms in the United States, were quickly joined by other vertical farms all over the country and the world.

The biggest reason behind advocating for indoor vertical farming is to produce food efficiently and consistently in an urban setting while managing resources and controlling the environment. At Jackson, Wyoming-based Vertical Harvest, a controlled environment vertical farm specializing in a variety of microgreens, baby greens, and lettuce blends, the goal is to “feed locals first.”

“Traditional agriculture is facing some significant challenges largely due to the effects of climate change,” says Nicole Bojic, chief marketing officer at Vertical Harvest Farms. “We’ve learned [from industry studies] that by 2050 experts predict 80% of our population will be located in cities, and as the population grows there’s also a need for more food. At the same time, there will be 25% less water and 30% less arable farmland.”

Vertical farming uses less land, less water, and no pesticides to produce high-quality yields. According to USDA scientists, for some crops, this could amount to as much as 10 to 20 times the yield per acre compared with traditional open-field crops.8 In a hydroponic system, water also is significantly reduced due to recycling only about 10% of the amount of water typically used in open-field agriculture.

“At Vertical Harvest, we will be producing 2.2+ million pounds of greens annually on 1/2 an acre of land in each farm. This is the equivalent to what we would see produced on 100 acres of land on traditional farms, which are primarily located in rural settings. Not only does the vertical nature of our farms allow us to be right in the heart of urban city centers, but the proximity of our farms also ensures we are closest to the consumer, allowing for the availability of the freshest, most nutritious greens,” Bojic says.

There are limitations, however, regarding the types of crops grown. While some vertical farmers are experimenting with berries (strawberries), tomatoes, and mushrooms, currently, leafy greens, herbs, spinach, and microgreens are the most popular and commercially viable options for vertical farming since greens usually grow quickly and adapt well to this CEA system. “The truth is there are some crops, like soybeans and wheat, you can’t grow indoors,” says Marianne Edge, MS, RDN, LD, FADA, FAND, founder and principal of The AgriNutrition Edge, a company that improves dialogue and understanding between the food and agriculture industries and consumers through strategic consulting, policy counsel, and communications, in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Lettuces, in particular, don’t travel well and often have high food waste. The hyperlocal nature of vertical farms means their produce can be processed and distributed quickly to the people who need it, leading to less waste in the retail sector as well as longer shelf life in the home. Bowery, one of the largest New York-based indoor vertical farms, delivers a variety of greens to more than 2,500 grocers and e-commerce platforms. “So much traditional produce racks up food miles as it’s trucked cross-country, losing nutritional value and flavor along the way,” says Stephanie Jack, director of product marketing and innovation at Bowery. “Our greens are fresher, reaching customers faster, and traveling fewer food miles. This also means that our greens have longer shelf life, which limits food waste and ensures that when you pull a package of our salad greens from your fridge, they’ll be crisp and fresh—not soggy.”

Because fewer nutrients are lost in transit due to shorter transportation time, many vertical farms boast better nutrient content. But perhaps one of the biggest benefits of vertical farming is related to food safety. First, the plants are grown without pesticides, which protects consumers as well as farming staff, and second, because most vertical farms are soilless operations with a closed water system, there’s less risk of contracting foodborne illnesses such as E. coli.

While vertical farming presents numerous benefits, it still has a fair share of challenges. There are high start-up costs. Creating the right infrastructure, technology, automation, and space requires a large amount of capital as well as time to progress. Moreover, such an investment requires a good commercial strategy and economic model which looks at long-term profitability.9 “Some companies were so focused on the technology that they forgot about the agriculture side,” Edge says. “You’re growing lettuce.”

Another issue is energy consumption, which is the main reason detractors say vertical farming isn’t sustainable. Although vertical farming uses less land and water, it does require more electricity, mainly due to artificial lighting and climate control. Over the years, advances in LED lights have significantly reduced cost, but this is an ongoing challenge. Some companies are experimenting with renewable energy as one strategy to help reduce their carbon footprint. According to Jack, “[At Bowery,] not only do we grow with 100% renewable energy but we’re laser-focused on continuing to reduce plastic use.”

Finally, there’s a gap in skilled labor. Like traditional farming, which combines technology and agriculture, vertical farming also needs to find the right balance between technologically savvy and agriculturally oriented individuals. However, many of the skills used in traditional farming don’t easily transfer over to vertical farming. For this reason, vertical farming requires a new set of talent, one that likely needs to be cultivated with learnings fostered over time.

Creating Powerful Partnerships
Despite these challenges, demand for vertical farming continues to skyrocket, and many successful operations are expanding rapidly. Several vertical farms have formed partnerships with retailers such as Walmart, Albertsons, Kroger, Whole Foods, and Gelson’s, not only on the supply side but also as investment partners. “Vertical farming offers a consistent source of product, and this is extremely important to retailers, especially with all the supply chain issues,” says Phil Lempert, editor of and food industry analyst. “Taste, quality, and nutrition are other factors, as well as reducing food waste.”

Then, there are the consumers. Like retailers, consumers are concerned about taste, quality, nutrition, and cost. Many are willing to pay a higher price for the boost in flavor and value. Nevertheless, large scale operations strive to be cost-competitive. “In California, vertically farmed produce prices are comparable to organic produce prices,” Lempert says. Many times, this produce is combined in a variety of attractive blends of petite greens, microgreens, or lettuces and sold in the same section as organic produce. Other times, unique leafy green blends are included in meal kits. These meal kits have become increasingly popular as a quick lunch or dinner option. On the foodservice side, vertical-farmed products are making inroads with upscale as well as fast-casual restaurants, foodservice distributors, and suppliers. The colorful lettuce blends offer variety, texture, and excitement and are a welcome addition to
the menu.

Building Community Ties
In addition to creating partnerships, developing ties with the community they service is a priority that many indoor urban farms take seriously. Social responsibility is especially important to Vertical Harvest, which strives to employ individuals with physical and/or intellectual disabilities. “Forty percent of our workforce will include individuals with a disability,” Bojic says. “When we bring a farm into a city, we want to ensure that we are in service of that community—an integral part of the civic infrastructure. We also work to ensure our local produce is available and accessible to all members of the community, including food banks, schools, hospitals, restaurants, retailers, and local co-ops.” Vertical Harvest currently is in the process of opening two new operations in Westbrook, Maine, and Detroit.

Government initiatives also have helped move the needle. Many states have mandates for government-funded food programs, requiring schools and hospitals to buy local. Incentives for adopting CEA, such as the issuance of research and education grants and loans to US farmers, also are on a national level. In the 2018 farm bill, Congress specifically includes a provision for expanding support for innovative and emerging agriculture like CEA.

What Does This Mean for Dietitians?
Due to the demand and growth of vertical farming, dietitians will continually be presented with several opportunities. Here are some examples of how they can get involved.

• Work directly with vertical farming operations. As the field begins to mature and evolve, many vertical farms will be looking to dietitians to help them translate nutrition information and communicate the benefits of their products to consumers. For example, Bowery has an in-house sensory panel that tests attributes across flavor, texture, appearance, and aroma to understand how its products will connect with consumers, and the company hopes to work with RDs in this space. Vertical Harvest also plans on working with RDs to communicate to consumers.

• Develop partnership programs. Dietitians who work directly in foodservice or with distributors or commercial operations in schools, hospitals, cafeterias, or restaurants, may want to consider building business relationships or working directly with vertical farms on special projects or as part of their buy local incentive.

• Educate consumers. Vertical farming offers dietitians the opportunity to educate consumers not only on what to eat but also on the many ways food is grown and produced in rural and urban settings. Discussing vertical agriculture also may offer dietitians another way to encourage consumption of unique and interesting leafy green blends.

Room for Both
Vertical indoor farms are a new and innovative type of agriculture, and while they have potential for growth in the future, farmers stress the need to work together alongside traditional open-field agriculture to help provide consumers with a variety of healthful produce picked at their peak of freshness.

“One of the most important things for a dietitian should know is how food is grown and produced,” Edge says, who comes from a family of six generations of farmers, “from both an agricultural perspective and an economic perspective. Dietitians need to understand the importance and benefits of both traditional open field farming as well as closed environmental agriculture.”

— Diane Welland, MS, RD, is a freelance food and nutrition writer, author, and consultant based in the Washington, D.C., area. To learn more about her, visit


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