Thousands of delicate greens—from arugula to basil—fill a once-vacant warehouse in a Chicago suburb. They grow without soil or sun, stacked in trays six levels high, towering 18 feet. Welcome to indoor urban farming.
These so-called vertical farms are touted as a better way to provide fresh, local produce in cities. “By 2050, 70 percent of the world population will live in metropolitan areas,” says Jolanta Hardej, CEO and founder of FarmedHere, whose Chicago greens travel less than 30 miles from farm to grocery and are delivered within 24 hours after harvesting. Vertical farms are sprouting up in cities around the world. In land-scarce and monsoon-prone Singapore, for instance, Sky Greens, a four-story vertical farm, supplies local stores with more than a ton of bok choy and Chinese cabbage each day. FarmedHere is the largest and only certified organic facility in the U.S., producing 20,000 pounds of greens each month, with a goal of 1 million pounds in 2014. That’s a lot of salad!
Vertical farming can seem strangely sterile. Plants grow without dirt in a closed loop system along with fish (usually tilapia), which provide nutrients. But it’s incredibly efficient: it reduces water use by 97 percent compared to traditional farming and because it’s indoors, no pesticides or herbicides are needed. Hardej plans to sell the tilapia too.
Vertical farming also provides healthier and tastier greens, Hardej says. Lab tests comparing FarmedHere salad greens to a national organic brand found higher nutrient levels in the FarmedHere leaves: three times as much C, 45 percent more iron. According to Hardej, the triple washing most packaged greens undergo depletes plants of nutrients and washes away essential oils. (Greens not grown in soil—and thus not as prone to contamination—don’t get prewashed.) Long storage times cause nutrient degradation, too—not an issue when harvests are delivered in the same city.
Nor is vertical farming limited by weather. “We grow 365 days a year,” Hardej says. Tomatoes are next on her list. A delicious, locally grown tomato in winter really would be something!