Vertical Vegetables

I googled the word “farm” the other day. That sounds silly, right? We live in an agricultural community and just across the street from me is a farm complete with tractors, a cow pasture and a collection of vintage red barns. When I think about what a farm is, I think of what I am surrounded by: fields of green and gold, row by row, acre by acre, mile by mile. These are what our story books tell us a farm is – this is what surrounds us here on the Eastern Shore.

But, lately, I’ve been reading about different kinds of farming. Such as:

Aeroponics: a plant-cultivation technique in which the roots hang suspended in the air while nutrient solution is delivered to them in the form of a fine mist.

Hydroponics: the process of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid, with added nutrients but without soil.

Baywater Farms, located outside of Salisbury, specializes in growing greens and heirloom variety vegetables hydroponically.

Aquaponics: a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic animals supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which in turn purify the water.

Aquaculture: the rearing of aquatic animals or the cultivation of aquatic plants for food.

Organic Agriculture: a production system that is managed to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity (as defined by the USDA).

Permaculture: the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

All of these farming practices challenge our current methods. Through engineering and technology, our civilization utilizes giant combines and grows drought and weed resistant crops, all of which increase yields and production, and have increased our potential to feed more people, but in essence has decimated the land and provided us with pesticide laden produce. What if these conventional, high yield methods are already outdated? As the population increases, we need to advance our ability to not only provide food, but to protect the planet as well. What if we could adapt our farming practices as fast as they update the iPhone? Can farming keep pace with population growth? We may be able to if we go vertical. What if instead of row by row, we added columns?

In our corner of the world the idea behind vertical farming can be credited to Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University in New York. On the other side of the planet, Dr. Toyoki Kozai, a professor emeritus at Chiba University in Japan, has made himself the authority on indoor vertical farming systems.

Vertical farming methods can be applied to organic fields, greenhouses, aquaculture, aeroponic, hydroponic and aquaponic systems. By going vertical with our vegetables, space is maximized and yields can be increased exponentially. As with all brilliant ideas, visionaries, farmers, engineers, capitalists and everyday gardeners have taken this concept and tested their limits of originality and ingenuity to design sustainable and innovative ways to grow plants – vertically.

In Toronto, Canada, Waterwheel Farms is using aquaponics to grow kale and other greens. With utilizing vertical space in their system, kale can be harvested 17 times in one year compared to one or two harvests from a traditional farm.

In Houston, Texas, Acre in a Box is using 40-foot shipping containers placed on empty parking lots in the city to grow greens. It may seem counterintuitive that in the heart of a concrete city an indoor farm is thriving. Their 40-foot shipping container translates into 320 square feet of growing space that can potentially produce two to four tons of fresh greens a year, according to an article in Edible Houston, entitled “Cropping Space.” The containers are outfitted with a fully assembled vertical hydroponic farming system, complete with innovative climate-control technology, a stainless-steel workbench with seedling growth area, lightweight crop columns, high-efficiency LED lights and a “farmhand:” a software platform to monitor climate, water, and lights.

In Antarctica, the last place you would expect to have a farm, a grand experiment is taking place. A Popular Science article describes earlier this year how a greenhouse designed to be totally independent of its environment and run on an aeroponic model has been constructed. This system can potentially grow crops for 10 scientists at a German Antarctic Research station. It’s a work in progress but shows promise.

The Netherlands are way ahead of the curve; two decades ago the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry: “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” The Dutch are the world’s second largest exporter of food, yet their country is tiny (270 times smaller than the U.S.). How do they do it? Read the article, “This Tiny Country Feeds the World,” in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic.

While many of these ideas are not new, as aquaponics can be traced back to the Aztec empire in Mexico in 1300AD, their implementation and execution are just beginning to be fine-tuned by visionaries, famers, engineers, capitalists and home gardeners. Is the good ol’ Eastern Shore behind on farming innovations? Think again: Berlin Organics, in Berlin, uses organic vertical farming practices to grow strawberries and blueberries. Red Acres Hydroponics, in Worton, a sixth-generation family farm, has evolved to embrace hydroponics. Hummingbird Farms in Ridgely, grows heirloom tomatoes hydroponically. In Grasonville, the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center boasts an aquaponic grow dome. Making use of vertical space in the dome, it is, in essence, a mini biosphere. These are just a few of many farms in our area embracing a new concept of “farm.”

Dr. Despommier at Columbia University envisions cities, which are now parasitic in nature, becoming a balanced ecosystem and in the future being able to live within their means in terms of energy, water and food.

In addition to feeding ourselves, many cities, especially those in Europe, have embraced the concept of living walls. Greenery cascading vertically down the sides of skyscrapers is not only visually appealing but has positive environmental impact as well by helping to reduce the amount of air pollution, according to a 2013 National Geographic article written by Christine Dell’Amore.

The future of farming has its own hurdles. While new farming concepts leave behind pesticides and most use significantly less water, many are indoor models requiring building space and light, versus less expensive bare ground and free rain. With tight margins for the new models, increasing yields vertically, year-round growing seasons, and the use of solar power may offset the structural and energy costs. We are just beginning to test the viability of these farming concepts. With the world’s population on the rise and limited farmland, can we accept the new vision of farming? Will ground farming and tractors become as outdated as the pay phone?

So what did happen when I googled the word “farm?” The images that appeared were indeed Norman Rockwell in their appearance. There were scenes that included majestic horses, well-loved tractors, tall shiny silos, rustic red barns and seas of green and gold. I guess Google hasn’t caught up to the future of farming yet. However, when I googled “vertical vegetables,” I was stunned with what I saw. Thousands of designs – brilliant and beautiful, colorful and captivating. I asked myself, “Is this art? Is this science? Is it both?” I don’t know, but one thing is for certain, the future of farming looks amazing.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. Their family lives with multiple food allergies and intolerances, including: gluten, tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

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