Ideal for China. The Vertical Harvest Project in Jackson Hole
By Paolo von Schirach
May 17, 2011
WASHINGTON – Jackson Hole, a small Wyoming town of about 10,000, is known for the Annual Economic Policy Symposium hosted by the Reserve Bank of Kansas City, a gathering that includes top world economic policy makers. But in the future Jackson Hole may also be known as the location of an experiment in urban farming promoted by Vertical Harvest, a local group that received the official go ahead from the Town Council to produce design and specifications for a rather novel building: a multi-storey greenhouse in the middle of the town that will grow fresh produce for local consumption. This vertical greenhouse is a way to address lack of arable land near the town and a very short growing seasons in the area due to the prevailing cold climate. If successful, this local, small scale vertical farming experiment may have very significant reverberations.
Vertical farming solutions
Vertical farming is not a new concept. It has been discussed and tinkered with for quite some time. Academics like Dickson Despommier of Columbia University in New York City have studied it for many years. There is also a South Pole Food Growth Chamber, a customized greenhouse with its own artificial lighting system located in Antarctica to provide a supply of fresh greens to scientists deployed there.
But up to now vertical farming is still mostly an idea. Interesting and fascinating, but more science fiction than industrial proposal. And yet, beyond the curiosity inspired by a totally novel concept, let’s see why urban farming could be so significant.
Why this idea?
Very simply, human kind is running out of land and water, while we need more food as total world population is increasing thus placing more stress on whatever natural resources we have. Vertical farming would resolve the issue of agricultural production without need for more arable land and water –an increasingly scarce and precious commodity. If we do not have any alternatives for growing food, the existing land will need to be exploited even more. Farmers will use more fertilizers. Increased cultivation will cause more soil erosion, more water consumption, and so on.
A lot of produce wasted
Besides, now and even more so in the future, food is harvested in one place, then stored in another and finally transported to cities where it will be distributed to supermarkets and restaurants. This long chain from the farm to the dinner table is complex and expensive, not to mention wasteful. While cold storage and other food preservation techniques have improved, a lot of produce is still wasted on its way to the consumer. In developing countries it is much worse, as many lack these technologies.
Vertical farming means growing plant food in urban areas by creating vertically stacked greenhouses, even skypscrapers, where plants will be grown hydroponically, that is using water and a blend of minerals, as opposed to soil. The water used can be easily recycled, with minimal waste, thus diminishing the stress on limited supplies.
So, you can begin to see the advantages of producing plant food right there where the consumers are. No soil erosion, no fertilizer run off, limited water consumption due to hydroponic methods, no added transportation cost, no waste due to spoilage.
Production, logistics constraints gone
You could literally harvest your produce and deliver it to the market or restaurant located in the next city block. So, with urban farming one could significantly augment food production, limit or eliminate stress on the land and water supplies, while saving the energy otherwise needed to transport agricultural products from the farms to the city.
In fact, if the technology would really work on a large scale, one could envisage halting farming altogether, at least in some areas. The land no longer farmed could be reforested, augmenting natural habitat space for many species and increasing the surface of natural carbon sinks in which trees would absorb much greater quantities of man produced CO2.
Think of China’s urban population
And, if this is good in general, consider more extreme but increasingly prevalent circumstances in which vertical farming would make a huge difference. Think of China, a country with more than 1.3 billion people. China has limited arable land. A great deal of its surface is arid and unsuitable for cultivation. China has also limited water supplies. And, due to frenetic industrialization, many of its rivers are highly polluted. At the same time, urbanization continues. In China there are now 34 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants, of which 12 have more than 2 million. Super cities like Beijing and Shanghai exceed 20 million.
In China’s case one can easily see the cost effectiveness of vertical farming. In one stroke one could eliminate water and land constraints, while vastly simplifying food storage and distribution logistics for tens of millions of urban consumers.
What are the obstacles?
Well, if vertical farming is such a good idea, why are we not doing it yet? Apparently there ares still a number of unresolved issues. A major one is energy use, especially in regions of the globe that do not get the abundant sun light necessary to grow plants. If these vertical greenhouses need to have constant artificial lighting, this becomes a significant additional cost that may doom the whole idea as economically impractical. In more favorable climate conditions we can do without artificial lighting. But sun exposure needs to be even. Experts are tinkering with solutions such as placing plants on moving belts that would guarantee that all plants get an even amount of sun light.
Besides, modern very low consumption lighting, plus air flow and other control systems may provide cost effective solutions for other technical problems. If this is so, then it may very well be that soon enough the urban vertical greenhouse may graduate from the concept department to becoming a real business.
The challenges of feeding billions are real
Whatever the unresolved issues of this proposed technology, the very real challenges represented by a growing and increasingly urban world population, and by the scarcity of both arable land and water create a pretty compelling case for new solutions. Vertical urban farming could be one of them.
As The Economist suggested, (Vertical Farming, Does it Really Stack Up?, December 9, 2010), may be before we get to the lettuce skyscraper we can have a range of intermediate steps that will test some of the basic technologies and assumptions about the cost effectiveness of urban farming. For instance, it is quite possible to set greenhouses on top of supermarkets, or on top of large buildings in cities. These would not be multi-storeyed greenhouses, but they could provide insights as to how practical and economically viable urban agriculture can be.
Will Jackson Hole be a mile stone in vertical agriculture?
In the meantime, the small town of Jackson Hole may solve its own problem of lack of arable land and a very short growing season. And if its relatively small Vertical Harvest project works out, this success may be remembered as a critical mile stone in urban agriculture.Print This Post