What is vertical farming?
When you hear the phrase “vertical farming” you might think of skyscrapers and high rises covered in greens. In reality, vertical farming happens on a much smaller (more practical) scale.
The most popular form of vertical farming uses modular towers to grow crops in an aquaponic or hydroponic system. This allows growers to use a volume of space rather than just one plane. When combined with a good business plan, this type of farming can take advantage of good markets, unique produce, and low operational costs. A key factor of that success is crop choice.
As vertical farming technology advances, the range of crops that can be grown expands. Vertical farmers can grow a huge variety of greens, herbs, and fruiting crops. To choose crops for a vertical farm, growers need to know its ideal conditions, selling points, and more.
The list below will prove helpful in deciding which crops to start out with and what you might decide to grow down the road to ensure the greatest chance of success.
Consider all of the factors
Before deciding the best crops to grow in your system, you must first consider four huge factors:
- Pricing and markets
- Climate and conditions
- Space and technique
- Pest risks
Pricing and Markets
When it comes to vertical farming, marketing can be one of the most difficult barriers that farmers need to overcome. Most growers do not find it as challenging to grow produce as it is to market a final product successfully. It is important to explore marketing before committing to a vertical farm to ensure that you have researched how you are going to sell your product as well as who you are going to market to. Direct to consumer marketing offers the highest markup on crops, but requires the most packaging, advertising, and cleaning to create a final deliverable product. Wholesale products are a lot more labour efficient but often return the lowest prices. We recommend exploring both avenues to make sure you are moving as much product as possible while still returning maximum profits on the crop you have poured your efforts into.
Climate and conditions
Greenhouse growing allows you a degree of control over your climate, since you can manipulate heat, humidity, and air quality. Research heating and cooling options before implementing, as the cost of climate control may be more than the revenue provided by the crop you want to grow.
Indoor growing gives growers much more control over growing conditions and crop choice. Indoor growers still have to plan for HVAC costs and methods, but have a growing group of technology (like CoolBar water-cooled LEDs) to choose from.
Regardless of facility, growers need to understand the best temperature, pH range, and EC ranges for their crops. This information can be found in guides like The Best Crops for Hydroponics.
Growers should choose a crop set with overlapping needs, or prepare to see reduced growth on one crop over another. As a rule of thumb, growers should always lean towards the lower end of the range than the higher end.
For instance: lettuce prefers an EC range of 0.8-1.2. Cabbage prefers 2.5-3.0. If these crops are grown in the same system, the farmer would run the EC at 1.2, thus optimizing the system for lettuce rather than cabbage.
Space and technique
Available space and growing technique will also impact your crop selection. Different crops grow to different sizes and take up space differently.
This can constrain crop choice in some cases; a root crop like potato, for example, would require so much space for the roots that it would be more cost effective to grow with a traditional technique. Tomato farmers get the best yield from vining tomatoes with two “leader” vines, so they want to have a trellising system in place.
Other crops, when combined with vertical farming, represent significant improvements in space use efficiency and labor costs. Read on for a few examples of good crops for vertical farms!
A member of the mustard family, Bok Choy (or Bok Choi) performs well in a wide range of climate conditions, but tastes best in cooler temperatures. This Chinese cabbage crop is perfect for beginners wanting to grow for their favorite stir fry dish.
Lettuce is best for cooler conditions due to the risk of flowering (or bolting) if exposed to high temperatures. Lettuce can be susceptible to pests such as aphids. If you have a strong IPM strategy in place to control for pests, however, lettuce can be a staple of CSA shares, grocery and restaurant sales, and more.
Several varieties of lettuce are popular in aquaponics and hydroponics systems. Leafy varieties may allow for multiple harvests, whereas head lettuce like romaine is harvested one time per crop.
Chard is a beautiful and nutritious crop. Rainbow Chard or Swiss Chard, this crop packs a nutritional punch, but can also produce large-statured leaves that can contribute to system shading.
You can harvest your chard multiple times by cutting the bigger stems on the outside of the plant. an leaving small leaves for future harvests. Like most greens, chard prefers cooler weather to prevent bolting. The bottom line: high yields, massive nutritional benefits, but fairly high space requirements.
Kales of all varieties (e.g. Tuscan, Dinosaur, Curly, or Red Russian) is also capable of multiple harvests. This crop grows quickly and heartily, and is tolerant of cold conditions and minor freezes. Some growers even argue that a touch of frost improves the flavor. Kale also tolerates dry conditions, so if your irrigation lines get clogged over night, your Kale will survive.
Kale can experience disease and pest issues, so a pest management plan is strongly recommended.
Growing herbs is a rewarding endeavor, as they are valued for flavor at home or at local restaurants.
Herbs typically grow heartily, have quick turns (a turn is the time period from when the seedling goes into a tower until the plant is harvested), fetch high dollars by weight, and can save a lot of time and money when compared to greens.
Herbs tend to be less susceptible to crop failure, which allows beginner growers to get familiar with system growing.
A source of antioxidants or and an enchanting Mediterranean flavor, fennel is a favorite in our greenhouse. Fennel needs a lot of sunlight to do well, so if you’re growing in cooler/more northern climates you’ll want to be aware of light and provide supplemental lighting as needed.
You can harvest fennel tops and let it grow back out before you take the entire bulb.
Basil (e.g. Sweet Basil, Dwarf Basil, Lemon Basil, Cinnamon Basil, etc.) provides consistent demand in almost all markets and brings in high revenue. Beginner growers may see nutrient deficiencies with their basil plants so be sure you’re staying on top of those plant nutrients
Chives grow like crazy in ZipGrow™ systems.
Chives are also a great beginner crop because they are forgiving and often repellent to pests. Although they can take longer than other crops to get started, once they are established they are capable of producing multiple harvests. You can space plants close together and continually harvest for months. Check out the photo of one of our chive harvests below.
Mint grows like a weed and is a great crop for beginners. Sell a couple ounces to your local bar for their mojitos or juleps. Mint is very easy to produce and tolerates quite a bit of abuse, being tolerant of poor water quality and low nutrient levels.
Parsley is another easy crop to grow. Not only is it tasty, it is also tolerant of both cool and warm weather, although extremely high temperatures can cause flowering. When grown correctly, parsley flourishes in aquaponics systems and is capable of multiple harvests like chives or basil.
Fruiting crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries require different nutrient ratios than greens and sometimes require hand-pollination. We recommend growing fruiting crops only after you’ve had some experience with the easier greens and herbs as they can be trickier to manage.
Strawberries are one of the most popular hydroponic crops and can produce a lot in vertical farms. The crop does require more maintenance like pollination, introduction of bumblebees, pest control, and pinching.
This is often worth the effort because strawberries can fetch a considerably higher price than leafy greens or herbs.
When choosing your crops, it’s important to think about all the factors. When vertical farmers research crop selection in the context of a business, they can see great returns.
It is always important to do sufficient market research before settling on a crop to farm vertically to make sure once the crop is harvested you can also move the product and get returns on your investment.
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