Vertical Farming

Controlled-environment agriculture

Third-year bioresource and agricultural engineering major Anna Wescott kneels in the upper level of the indoor vertical farm transplanting lettuce that was moved just minutes prior from the plant propagation chamber next door. On the first level below, Ethan Chea, also a third-year bioresource and agricultural engineering major, adds nutrients to the water that will sustain the 800 lettuce plants for the next two weeks before they are harvested. The students are working with Assistant Professor Sara Kuwahara at the BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department’s first hydroponic vertical indoor farm – which is inconspicuously housed in one of the department’s lab areas.

The students, guided by Kuwahara, spent the summer assembling the structure which includes three horizontal levels and three sets of vertical towers for growing plants, which were donated by Plenty, a company that specializes in vertical indoor farming. In all, the department’s indoor farm has six independent hydroponic systems built by students and faculty for research and production instruction.

Wescott also participated in the college’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program studying the first trial of plants grown in the hydroponic system – doing research to determine if plants flourished better when grown horizontally or vertically. For now, her findings are leaning toward horizontal. “Living in California I have seen how much land and water are needed for farming,” Wescott said. “What we are doing here is giving growers options.”

Chea said he is interested in controlled-environment agriculture because of the ability to control inputs and outputs — something he said is applicable to a lot of things. “In vertical farming you know what is going in and you can predict a certain outcome,” said Chea. “The hands-on experience I am getting here is going to help me for my whole life.”

Both Wescott and Chea are managing the project while working with students from the department’s Grow Club to handle daily chores, monitoring and upkeep. The indoor farming unit will be used by Kuwahara and these students to further her research of using ultra-fine bubbles to improve water use efficiency in soilless indoor plant production.

Controlled-environmental agriculture is often looked to as a sustainable path to the future of food production. Because it optimizes growing conditions by closely regulating environmental factors within a controlled space using technology-driven solutions, it addresses the growing demand for nutritious, locally-sourced food while minimizing the environmental impacts.

However, it is not without challenges. Initial startup costs are high, as are energy costs. Kuwahara said investors are often stymied at the inability to turn a large profit, making it difficult for farmers to find the financial support they need to get started. “This is not a widget that turns into a million dollars,” said Kuwahara. “This is agriculture and the competition is high as vertical farmers try to compete against land-based producers who can do it for less.”

Yet one outcome is proven: lettuce plants can grow from germination to harvest in just four weeks in controlled environments indoors – significantly less than the 40 to 60 days needed in the field. Kuwahara strives to increase the yield of indoor crops even further with her research using oxygenated microbubbles to nourish plants grown in controlled indoor environments. The CSU Agricultural Research Institute recently provided a grant that will provide for two years of operating the indoor farm, including two paid student techs. “So far it is improving yields by as much as two times,” Kuwahara said. “Our goal is to make that even more.”


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