Vertical farms are finally branching out

By experimenting with more efficient lighting, vertical farmers are also finding that they can sustain new crops.
Trays of basil under purple UV lights at a vertical farm

Basil grown at PlantLab in Amsterdam goes from seedling to supermarket shelves in two weeks. Teake Zuidema

Teake Zuidema is a writer and photographer based in Savannah, Georgia. This story originally featured on Nexus Media News, a nonprofit climate change news service.

On a sunny day last August, Daniel Malechuk opened the door to a 77,000-square-foot warehouse just outside Atlanta.

Inside, under the soft magenta glow of LED lights, grew five varieties of hydroponic lettuce stacked nine levels high. A handful of employees were busy harvesting the greens. Their pace matched Malechuk’s ambition: to grow 10 million heads of lettuce by next spring.

If they succeed, Kalera, the vertical farming company that began operations here in April 2021, will not only have the largest-yield vertical farm in the Southeast, but will also be Georgia’s largest lettuce producer. 

“This facility will produce 12 times as much lettuce in one year as the entire state can produce in the same amount of time,” Malechuk enthused. (According to Georgia’s department of agriculture, the state imports more than 99 percent of its lettuce).

Masked vertical farm employee holding a tray of leafy greens
The world’s population is projected to swell to nearly 10 billion by the middle of the century; global food production will need to double by then to keep up with demand. Photo: Teake Zuidema

These farms, not dependent on specific weather patterns or terrain, can thrive almost anywhere, cutting down transportation costs and associated emissions. And importantly, they operate more cleanly, without producing runoff from fertilizers or pesticides.

According to PitchBook, investors poured nearly $1 billion into indoor farming companies in 2020, more than twice what they invested the year before.

Masked vertical farm employee checking shelves of greens under a purple UV light
As the planet grows hotter and drier, and arable land scarcer, food producers are looking for new ways to farm that require fewer resources. Vertical farming, which requires less land and water than traditional agriculture, offers some promise. Photo: Teake Zuidema

But there’s a catch: indoor farms rely on the artificial light of tens of thousands of LED lights. Add to that the energy needed for climate control, water circulation and other operations, and a farm like Malechuk’s can consume massive amounts of energy.

“The single largest hurdle facing the industry is that it uses a huge amount of electricity,” said Julia Kurnik, director of innovation startups at the World Wildlife Fund. She said vertical farming involves a series of economic and environmental tradeoffs. “It may not make sense everywhere, but if you’re in, say,  the Middle East and you don’t have much land, but you can use renewable [solar] energy to power your farm, this may be a huge boon.” She said the source of the energy is crucial to determining the net environmental impact.

Lowering vertical farms’ energy costs is one of the main goals at Signify, a Dutch LED lighting company, said Udo van Slooten, a business leader in horticulture. “Our goal is to find the most effective way to turn watts into biomass,” he said.

LED systems have become much more efficient since he began working in the field 15 years ago, but additional gains will have to come from improving the entire growing system: optimizing light recipes, spacing and nutrients, and determining which varieties of plants produce the best results.

Vertical farm staff member in a black t-shirt and gray jeans and sneakers walks through shelves of flowering strawberry plants
As these farms become more energy-efficient it will start to make more economic sense to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, and many other products indoors. Photo: Teake Zuidema

As the price of renewable energy continues to fall, proponents of vertical farming say it can become a more accessible, greener way to put food on the table.

Malechuk, of Kalera farms, has said making his greens affordable is a top priority and that a head of Kalera lettuce retails for less than $3 in most stores. At the farm, Malechuk picked a sampling of romaine, red oak leaf and signature Kalera Krunch lettuces, fresh off the tower. All were bright and crunchy; the Kalera Krunch was slightly sweet.

“Welcome to the future of agriculture,” he said.

Vertical farm staff member checks strawberry plants in a tray by hand
Vertical farmers inspect strawberries at Signify in the Netherlands. Photo: Teake Zuidema