Everyone knows what’s coming: The agricultural sector will face enormous challenges to feed the 9.6 billion people projected to inhabit the planet by 2050. In order to do so, food production must increase by 70 percent in spite of the limited availability of arable lands. Another 8.5 million square kilometers, or land the size of Brazil, are needed.
Not only is land needed but there are also increasing needs for fresh water — more than 70 percent of the world’s fresh water already goes to agriculture. As Skyscraper Farm CEO Nick Starling puts it: “We don’t have a water crisis. We have a water allocation crisis.”
Society has responded to these challenges with three innovative shifts: new farming techniques, younger farmers to pioneer them and utilizing technology to make fulfillment easier. Vertical farming refers to the practice of growing crops indoors in vertically stacked layers or on vertically inclined surfaces inside structures like warehouses, shipping containers or even skyscrapers. These indoor farming systems are designed to maximize crop yields while minimizing environmental impacts. Moreover, by bringing farms closer to where people live, this farming method is expected to be both efficient and cost-effective by reducing transportation expenses and environmental damage.
Indoor farming has its challenges: Most methods consume a surplus of energy, calling into question the impact on sustainability, or are located too far from urban centers where populations need it most. Thankfully, one firm is ready to bridge the gaps.
Skyscraper Farm, LLC, is a Virginia-based business venture dedicated to vertical farming. Founded by Nick Starling, an Iraq invasion war veteran, its vision is to bring sustainable, cost-effective agricultural products to city centers and remote sites in the U.S. and abroad by combining cutting-edge vertical farming with high-end, attractive, mixed-use real estate.
Skyscraper Farm specializes in the construction of urban, mixed-use buildings that feature an indoor, vertical farm that uses primarily sunlight to grow plants and has the capacity to have 20 harvests a year. The Company has designed three types of buildings: a four-story facility that is solely outfitted for growing space, a mid-rise built on top of grocery stores, and a 52-story skyscraper that includes residential condos, commercial office space and restaurants.
COVERAGE: Agricultural Mixed-Use: Revolutionizing Farming
Skyscraper Farm plans to strategically roll out its first two buildings in Northern Virginia. The Company is in partnership talks with nearby institutions — such as the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation — to offer state-of-the-art laboratory space in each Skyscraper Farm building for development programs at the Advanced Evolution Lab (AEL). The AEL will focus on speed breeding to selectively breed for nutritious and delicious food varieties as there will be no need for these crops to have pest resistance or thick skins to survive stressful shipping conditions. This will facilitate input and output improvements to the world’s leading growing systems, and by partnering with leading agribusinesses (such as Archer Daniels Midland or John Deere) to develop robotic and/or mechanical vertical farming harvesting equipment, Skyscraper Farm intends AEL to serve as an incubator.
The global hydroponics market is projected to be worth $461 million by the end of 2023, according to several marketing forecast organizations. While the concept promises to be lucrative, the Company is concerned with solving the impending fresh food crisis with large-scale indoor farms. Skyscraper Farm has the ultimate vision of liberating both developed and developing nations from the ravages of food insecurity and environmental damage by securing sustainable food sources.
The benefits to each community are numerous — eliminating the need to truck and haul food from far away reduces fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This is an important advantage since 20 percent of U.S. oil demand is used for agriculture alone.
Another benefit of Skyscraper Farm is in energy usage. Traditional vertical farms use four times the energy of field farms due to their large lighting needs. In contrast, Skyscraper Farm’s specialized building design uses utility-patented technology to capture sunlight year-round; this will result in energy-neutral crop production.
Skyscraper Farm is also able to produce exponentially more output than horizontal farmers per acre while dramatically reducing environmental impact.
The standard mid-size Skyscraper Farm is 20 floors, equivalent to approximately 6.4 acres of farmland. However, the Company’s pace of production is exponentially higher than that of field agriculture, ranging between 2.2 million and 4.5 million pounds of food each year depending on the types of crops grown. The lowest vertical production output applied to corn results is 2,250,000 pounds of corn per year, compared to 11,980 pounds of corn produced through field agriculture. The 52-story Skyscraper Farm will be able to produce 4 million pounds per month!
• Light: To avoid reliance on artificial lighting, Skyscraper Farm uses a patented, overhanging design, combined with new glass technologies and controlled panel positioning, to maximize sunlight capture. Incoming sunlight is not blocked by upper floors, and the sunlight penetrates the inner areas and lights up all of the plants. In areas with at least 200 days of sunlight each year, a Skyscraper Farm will maintain energy neutrality.
• Water: Agriculture consumes 80 percent of U.S. fresh water supply. Skyscraper Farm’s water usage rate is 99 percent less than horizontal farming, making the Company’s vertical farm highly drought-resilient and ideal for water-constrained environments.
• Energy: The state-of-the-art integrated photovoltaic, geothermal and water turbine systems achieve energy independence, and potentially generate excess energy while mitigating the environmental impact of fossil fuels associated with power production.
• No poisonous chemicals: Skyscraper Farm’s vertical farming system uses zero pesticides, herbicides and fungicides and completely eliminates destructive agricultural runoff that causes acidification, dead zones and algae blooms in rivers and oceans.
• Advanced evolution laboratories: The first floor of office space in each building will be dedicated to lab facilities for flagship institutional partners such as the National Science Foundation, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and Virginia Tech. These spaces will be advanced laboratories where researchers can selectively breed plants for enhanced flavor and increased nutrition profiles in a much shorter period of time and with drastically less resources.
• Graying of Agriculture: The average age of the American farmer is 55 or older, and the age of farmers is rising across the globe. Few young people are interested in becoming farmers, choosing instead to move to the city searching for alternate livelihoods. Vertical farming offers exciting new farming practices, and the high technology requirements mean that Skyscraper Farms will create jobs for software designers, robotics engineers and greenhouse operators as well as laborers and farmhands.
• Urban jobs: Moving agriculture closer to population centers creates local job opportunities. Each Skyscraper Farm will create jobs from support and logistics and packaging and production line associates to supervisors and technicians. With an on-site training center, each Skyscraper Farm will act as a catalyzing center for community development by not only providing food but also supporting local economic growth.
• Fresher, tastier vegetables: The average vegetable travels nearly 1,000 miles before it reaches the consumer, and some crops sit in storage for months. This process adds environmental and financial costs as well as reduces the quality, nutritional composition and taste of the vegetables by the time they reach the customers. By bringing production into urban and suburban areas, vegetables can arrive to the customer faster, fresher and at the peak of flavor.
• Traditional impact on Environment to be eliminated by Skyscraper Farms:
Land conversion and habitat loss.
Wasteful water consumption.
Soil erosion and degradation.
Poor adaptability to changing climate.
Loss of biodiversity.