However, there are as many differences between these types of farms as there are similarities. Each one serves a unique purpose; but, they can be compared in terms of efficiency. For a long time, it was thought that greenhouses were more efficient and profitable than vertical farms, due to the lack of a need for artificial lighting. But recently, a study out of Quebec showed that vertical farms enjoy a number of benefits over greenhouses–especially if the farm is operating for commercial purposes.
To understand what those benefits are, we first need to understand the reasons for farming indoors in the first place
Why grow indoors?
For most of human history, farming has been an outdoor operation. Plants need sunlight to live, and soil to get water and nutrients from, so it’s no surprise that the traditional farm is an outdoor farm.
But as agriculture developed, farmers gradually realized that there were benefits to farming indoors. For one, it allowed certain crops to be grown all year long. For another, it kept pesticides at bay. And finally, indoor farming in ‘hot’ greenhouses could cause plants to grow faster than they would outdoors. By the late Roman Empire, greenhouse-like methods were already being used for these and other reasons.
In the 1800s, Greenhouses hit their stride, as European farmers started using them to grow tropical plants that otherwise wouldn’t grow naturally on their continent. This fact illustrates the main benefit of indoor farming: it provides the ability to grow crops year round, in a controlled environment, free from pests.
The differences between vertical farms and greenhouses
Although vertical farms and greenhouses are both indoor facilities, the similarities end there. First, greenhouses rely on sunlight, while vertical farms rely on artificial light. Second, vertical farms have plants stacked in layers, while greenhouses have them arranged on one horizontal plane. Third, vertical farms can operate in urban areas, while greenhouses require a large amount of space and are therefore best suited for rural or suburban environments. Many people have argued that, because vertical farms require artificial light, they are necessarily less efficient than greenhouses. It is true that artificial light is a major cost at vertical farms. However, the paper “Comparing a Greenhouse to a Vertical Farm in Quebec” showed that growing lettuce in a vertical farm can actually be more profitable than growing it in a greenhouse, owing to two factors: increased yield per square meter, and centralized distribution.
When starting a farming operation, the first choice you face is what type of farm to start. The options are many: indoor vs. outdoor; arable vs pastoral; intensive vs. extensive.
The main advantage that vertical farms have over greenhouses is greater yield per square meter. Although vertical farms have higher light and heat costs, they have the benefit of more produce grown per unit of soil. This means that even though vertical farms cost more to operate, they produce more crops, with the end result being higher revenue.
The policy paper mentioned proves this through the results of a simulation, which showed that lettuce grown in a vertical farm has a slightly higher yield than that grown in a greenhouse.
Putting it all together
Vertical farming is the cutting edge of agriculture. Offering the ability to grow more crops, in a controlled environment, inside major distributions hubs (i.e. cities), it takes advantage of economies of scale in a way no other farming operation can. In the past, many critics have cited lighting costs as a stumbling block to profitability for vertical farms. But as the Quebec research paper showed, vertical farming can actually be more profitable than a conventional greenhouse operation. Especially when situated in major urban centers, and taking full advantage of the distribution benefits that come with that, vertical farms can be highly profitable. And when you add the benefits of automated labor into the equation, the benefits can be greater still.
- We see VF as the evolution of the greenhouseWe see VF as the evolution of the greenhouse
- Latest developments in LED (less consumption) and solar energy (higher efficiency) will reduce the biggest remaining cost factor (energy) during the next years
- Automation will increase the benefits of a VF even further