Grow Up

Vertical farming startups offer eco-friendly agriculture alternatives

With fears abounding that the global population will outgrow the food supply, some experts are predicting that we’ll soon need to cultivate insects as a source of nutrition. Fortunately for those who abhor the prospect of bug-based meals, a number of entrepreneurs are investigating ways to supplement the food supply without overtaxing natural resources. One solution, vertical farms, may be the “waves of grain” of the future.


Brooklyn may not seem like a hotbed of farming activity, but it happens to be the headquarters of Square Roots, a vertical farm startup from Kimbal Musk (brother to Elon Musk) and Tobias Peggs. The venture operates as an incubator program for agricultural entrepreneurs, and Musk and Peggs are accepting business plan applications. The facility, a disused factory, holds 10 shipping containers, each of which will house a mini-farm. Those who are selected for the program will be granted a crate in which they can grow their choice of greens and herbs, and they will also gain access to the founders’ coveted network of mentors.


Local Roots vertical farm startup also leverages shipping containers for the cultivation of lettuces and greens. In only three such boxes, it manages to match the output of a four-acre farm while using less water. In addition, the custom growing units allow the company to track growing conditions—including temperature, light levels, and carbon dioxide amounts—to determine the optimal settings for each and achieve the most efficient plant production. The business hopes to be even more eco-friendly in the future, exploring options such as solar to reduce its power needs; the LED lights feeding the vegetation currently consume the same amount of electricity as seven households.


In a converted steel factory in Newark, NJ, AeroFarms is pioneering vertical farming based on aeroponics, a technique used to grow food on the International Space Station. The concept is similar to hydroponic growing that leverages water rather than soil to deliver nutrients, only in this case the plant food is served up through mists of air. AeroFarms’ growing platforms use recycled materials to hold the plants in place and custom-designed rows of LEDs to provide light. The sophisticated system is designed to take images of the plant leaves and assess growth, using algorithms to adjust the wavelengths of artificial “sunlight” to result in healthy, high-yielding greens.