What can be grown in a vertical farm?
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Vertical farms have been heralded as the future of farming. But what can you actually grow in them? We take a look at some of the most common crops and where vertical farming may be heading.
Vertical farming quick wins: leafy greens
Lettuce, rocket and other salad types are some of the most common crops to be grown in vertical farms. In fact, 57% of indoor farms produce leafy greens. Why? Well, they’re quick growing, reliable and there’s plenty of demand (particularly in the warmer months).
Out in the field, salad crops are just too tempting for slugs and other pests. So they often require a lot of pesticides or are grown in glasshouses (or both). In a vertical farm, you’re eliminating the need for pesticides, which means you can charge a premium for organic produce.
Having that controlled environment also means that you can often produce crops with a superior flavour, by giving them exactly what they need. (Even if in some cases that means stressing them to increase the flavour, like with rocket.)
Common crops include:
Growing herbs in a vertical farm
Herbs are another popular choice for vertical farmers, due to many of the same reasons as salad crops. Again, many of them are ‘fast-turn’ crops, meaning that the time between sowing and harvesting is relatively short, so you can sell more product each year.
Basil is particularly popular with vertical farmers, as it’s in demand all year around. It also needs relatively high temperatures, so can’t be grown outdoors in the UK for more than a few months of the year. Basil does well when grown hydroponically as it ends up with a higher concentration of oils, which intensifies the flavour.
Common vertical farm herbs include:
You can also grow slow-turn herbs, such as oregano and rosemary. While you won’t have as much produce to sell, you can charge more per kilo.
Packing in the microgreens
The key benefit to microgreens is in the name. Their small size means that you can pack more in. Per kilo, they tend to command a higher price than leafy greens and are even faster to turn around. However, you will need to produce a huge quantity to make a decent profit.
Cannabis and other medicinal crops
The cannabis market has taken off in recent years. You can now find cannabinoids in everything from health products to face creams. While these plants take a lot longer to grow than salad, they come with far higher price tags, so are definitely worth the wait. They also need harvesting less frequently, which can reduce staffing costs.
Cannabis plants are notoriously temperamental and need finely tuned growing conditions to thrive. In other words, they need a controlled environment, such as a vertical farm. And it’s crucial to monitor that environment using high-tech sensors to minimise the risk of losing a harvest.
There are still relatively few growers compared to other crops, so it can be a lucrative business.
Here in the UK, we have a relatively small window for locally-grown soft fruit like strawberries, so it’s imported for most of the year. However, some vertical farms are looking to grow strawberries and other crops all year around. Again, there’s plenty of demand for soft fruit. And as it spoils so quickly there are added benefits to growing it locally.
Plenty, one of the US’s largest vertical farming businesses, has recently signed a major contract to grow strawberries at its Wyoming vertical farm.
Many of the flowers sold in the UK are imported. Locally grown flowers can be sold at a premium, particularly to customers keen to reduce the CO2 emissions associated with importing perishable goods. While it’s not uncommon to grow flowers in glasshouses, it’s not yet commonplace to grow them in vertical farms, although we expect that to change.
Fast-turn or slow-turn?
There are advantages and disadvantages to both fast-turn and slow-turn crops. Different crops have different requirements and price points, but generally speaking: Slow-turn crops…
Bring in a higher price (particularly certain crops, eg medical-grade cannabis)
Result in more harvests each year
Are less risky. If one crop fails you only have to wait weeks, rather than months, for the next harvest
Tend to be easy to grow
Are susceptible to pests outdoors so can bring in an organic premium
How many types of crops to grow in a vertical farm
While there’s no reason you couldn’t grow several types of crop at once, farms tend to focus on a small number as they’re easier to manage. This also makes it easier to create the optimum growing environment.
Depending on whether you want to export or sell locally, you may want to grow different crops at different times of the year to meet demand.
Farmers need to decide whether to focus on cut-and-come-again crops (like chard) or those where the whole plant is harvested.
Chard and kale, for example, can usually be harvested several times, while you only get one harvest from a cannabis plant.
There are pros and cons to both. Cut-and-come-again plants generally result in more frequent harvests, which can be beneficial in terms of turnover, but could result in greater staff costs. The same applies to strawberries and other fruit.
The future of vertical farming crops
Vertical farming is still in its infancy. At the moment, it simply isn’t cost effective to grow crops that can be grown easily and cheaply in the field. It also doesn’t make sense to grow crops that take up a relatively large amount of space for the amount of saleable produce they provide.
While technically you could grow anything from pineapples to sweetcorn indoors, it would be pretty impossible to make a return.
However, over the next couple of decades we are likely to see food increasing in price and vertical farming costs coming down. We’ll also likely see new technologies and biological advances. So, while it’s unlikely that we’ll see potatoes or avocadoes grown in a vertical farm in the near future, we may start to see a huge range of other crops coming through.
Deciding what vertical farming crops to grow
There is no ‘best’ crop to grow in a vertical farm. The right choice will depend on the size of the farm, the level of automation and where it’s located.
As with any product, you’ll need to look at how much it will cost you to grow your product and how much you can then sell it for. Those crucial OPEX costs will depend on a range of factors, including how much heat, light, water and nutrients your crop needs, as well as any staffing differences between different crop types.
You’ll also need to ask yourself questions such as:
How reliable is the crop?
Is there a UK demand for it all year around or will I need to export some produce?
Would it make sense to freeze it onsite?
How will I get my product to the buyer?
Should I grow one type of crop or different ones at different times of the year?
Does it justify the extra cost of growing indoors?
Creating the right conditions for your crop
Whichever crop you choose, you will need to create the optimal growing conditions for that particular plant. That’s where we come in. We can work with you to ensure that you’re giving your plant exactly what it needs.
We can create the perfect growing ‘recipe’, including a bespoke lighting system, to help you reduce both CAPEX and OPEX costs and increase yield.
We can also kit your farm out with sensors and interpret the data to ensure you’re minimising the risks of losing a harvest and keeping the plants (and your investors) happy.
Call us on 01332 410601 to find out more.