From Field to Skyscraper: Tomorrow’s Farms

Posted May 5, 2011 in Blog, Learning. Tagged: , , ,

Imagine a world in which we could grow our food by sustainable methods, produce and distribute enough for everyone, and repair the heavy ecological damage inflicted by today’s farms. Can we realize this vision if we continue farming as we have for the past 10,000 years? Dr. Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm (, would respond with a firm “no.” But if you were to ask him whether such a world is impossible in the foreseeable future, his answer would be the same.

Despommier proposes moving agriculture from countryside to city, outdoor plots of soil to indoor multistory farms. His vertical farm model offers multiple advantages over current mainstream agriculture. Cities now import their food from rural areas, and the transport miles, often in the hundreds or thousands, are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. If farms were located within urban population nodes, the average distance from place of harvest to dinner plate would decrease dramatically.

Another pollution crisis has resulted from the agrochemicals used by many countries to increase yields. Runoff carries these pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to river and estuary habitats, taking a horrendous toll on many species. In vertical farms, cultivation through hydroponic methods would produce no runoff and would consume 70% less water than conventional farming. Hydroponic systems deliver water and nutrients to plants through piping, and are already used to grow a variety of crops. Vertical farms could also employ aeroponics, in which “nozzles located under the plants spray a nutrient-laden mist onto the roots,” conserving even more water than hydroponics. When combined with systems of plant-based water purification and transpiration, these techniques would make possible a “closed-loop” system that would ideally create no waste of any kind. Once we have stopped pouring toxic runoff into aquatic ecosystems, they can recover and become functional again. Vast tracts of farmland could enjoy the same return to nature—advanced indoor growing methods require much less space than today’s farms.

The Vertical Farm acknowledges that we have a long road ahead to make large-scale, sustainable urban agriculture a reality. As Majora Carter writes in her Foreword, “If the skyscraper farm is like a 747 jetliner, we are now at the stage of the Wright Brothers.” One predicament may be harnessing enough energy for these facilities: Despommier explores possible techniques to power them through alternative energy, but does not discuss whether renewable methods alone would be adequate. The energy demands could be considerable, if these large buildings are to remain warm in cold climates and incorporate the suggested high-tech protections against contamination.

Nevertheless, Desmpommier has strong faith in our ability to innovate and solve such predicaments. He maintains that “we should not shy away from the challenge of farming vertically simply because it requires cutting-edge engineering, architecture, and agronomy. All of this is within our grasp.” After all, key elements of vertical farming are already successfully in practice. We now grow a variety of commercial crops in greenhouses, including strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Urban agriculture is also a growing trend. Communities across the country are gaining interest in eating local and making fresh produce available to “urban food deserts,” poor neighborhoods with few grocery stores.

A different kind of hurdle will be obtaining funds for testing and development. Although vertical farms have enormous potential in the long run, the first ones will be expensive and imperfect. This is the one difficulty for which Despommier does not attempt a realistic solution, indulging instead in a “what if” fantasy in which the U.S. government would jump-start development with massive grant funding. In a country whose major economic players value short-term profits over human need, and whose government is intimately connected to these private interests, the greatest challenge to building vertical farms may be securing financial resources before their foundations are laid.



Bybee, Roger. “Growing Power in an Urban Food Desert.” YES! Magazine, Spring 2009.

Despommier, Dickson. The Vertical Farm. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010.