Type out the term vertical farm on Google and you might be surprised at the number of hits. The last time I did (11:21am July 16th, 2018), there were 165 million of them. Global awareness of the term “vertical farm” has hit the big time, as they would say in show biz. What does this mean for the fledgling industry of vertical farming? All one has to do to find that out is to keep going online and typing out vertical farm,and the News section of Google will happily identify the day’s leading stories on the establishment of VFs. In short, investment is up and construction is booming in places like the Middle East, Europe, and The United States.

For example, Emirates Airlines in Dubai is constructing a 150,000 square foot vertical farm facility to supply fresh leafy greens for the salads on all it flights originating from that city. Not to be left out, the city of Dubai has announced plans to construct twelve vertical farms to enable Dubai to become more independent of the food system that currently supplies over 90 percent of the imported fresh produce its citizens consume. Companies have also stepped up their R&D on indoor farming technologies, as evidenced by the growth of industrial trade shows such as Green Tech in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Seeds and Chips in Milan, Italy.

A closer look at what has changed over the past few years in vertical farming technologies tells the same story. For example, Philips was primarily known as a company whose clients included municipalities (LED-based street lights and stop lights), and the biomedical research community (a wide variety of sophisticated electronic devices). Within the last three years, however, Phillips has turned its attention to enabling the indoor farming industry to employ more efficient LED grow lights. To do so, they have established an experimental vertical farm (VF) located within their research headquarters in Eindhoven, in which they test out the latest LED grow lighting system developments (BTW, that term recently garnered over 70 million Google hits) from their research laboratories. The employees benefit from enjoying freshly prepared lunches derived from the VF, and the company gets unsolicited endorsements from them, as they brag about how great it is to work for such an altruistic management team.

In the meantime, the training of new indoor growing experts is beginning to emerge onto the VF scene from places like The University of Arizona (Biosphere 2 is their newest training facility for the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center), C. Davis, and Penn State University in the US and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. New employment opportunities are popping up all over the developed world, as the idea of indoor agriculture becomes more widely accepted.

Therein lies the rub. What about the less developed world and their dire need for clean drinking water and diseases-free produce? Financing has to be one of the main reasons VFs have not been established in places like Bangladesh, Sub-Saharan Africa, or in many countries in Central and South American. On top of that, all this new VF activity comes at a time when there is a shortage of qualified indoor growers. Without this essential workforce, VFs are bound to fail. Education is key. In Shanghai, city planners are seriously considering establishing a state-of-the-art urban agriculture training center. Sasaki architects have submitting a detailed set of plans for just such a facility. If they get the go-ahead from the powers that be, then Shanghai will instantly become an important player in indoor farming education and could become a world leader in helping the rest of the world establish the next generation of vertical farms. The expectation is that the current rate of growth in the vertical farm industry will likely continue or even increase over the next 5-10 years. If this proves to be the case, then a sustainable, resilient future for the built environment will be assured, as urban agriculture becomes commonplace for city dwellers shopping for their food anywhere in the world. It is also anticipated that the natural world will experience a similar renaissance, as abandoned farmland returns to its original ecological function.


A Message from Plantagon

December 20, 2017

Dear everyone,

We’ve now come so far with Plantagon that we can finally involve more friends and allies. This letter feels as one of the most important ones I have sent since being part of founding Plantagon 2008 and I ask you to help me spread the word. Not only because it´s a cool thing happening, it´s also very important for putting food on our plates in the future.

In February 2018, the first Plantagon CityFarm® will start its production in Stockholm. As always, we strive to make a significant impact by innovating new sustainable systems and business models. This one, located in the same building as the Plantagon HQ, is just the first of ten such projects in and around Stockholm on the next 3 years! We will produce up to 70 tons of food, save 99% water compared to traditional farming and we could claim that we do it with zero CO2 emission – and we developed resource-efficient systems and supply chains that also makes the food affordable and the projects economically viable.

The first, second and third Plantagon CityFarms® in Stockholm are fully financed. But, to accelerate the expansion both in Sweden and globally and to get as many people as possible involved in our mission of Feeding the City, we launched a crowdfunding campaign today. Some of you receiving this letter have been following us for many years, and we want you to be among the first to know about it: We are excited to be able to invite you to become a shareholder in our new Swedish subsidiary; Plantagon Production Sweden AB.

We know you have influence and when you share something, people pay attention. So how can you help?

  1. Sign up for information on the crowd-funding campaign, maybe even consider investing: www.fundedbyme.com/plantagon
  2. Like and follow us in social media (links below)
  3. Share this news with friends and family that might be interested by email, in social media or in person.
Here you can download pictures that you can use in your own social media: http://plantagon.com/social

Please use the hashtags #feedingthecity #buildingthefuture if you want.

Thanks for taking your time, and please get back to me with any questions you might have.

Warmest regards / Hans


The Next Big Thing(s)

October 27, 2017

Shanghai VF Training CenterProgress towards establishing long-term, sustainable, local, safe food systems based on indoor farming (CEA) has taken several important steps towards that goal over the last two years, most notably with the establishment of AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey, and more recently, with the financing of Plenty, a San Francisco-based vertical farm business, that succeeded in raising $200 million US in startup funds. In both cases, investment capital has come from a variety of sources – Goldman Sacks, The Prudential Life Insurance Company, SoftBank of Japan, and Amazon.com. It is likely that these two entities will establish themselves as major players in the indoor farming industry over the next few years. Europe has recently experienced a significant amount of activity in the establishment of CEA facilities, as well. INFARM is a vertical farm located in Berlin with big ambitions, and they are well on their way to achieving their goal. Their slogan says it all:

We are the new farmers and the city is our farm.”

Their vision includes the construction of vertical farms combined with wholesale grocery stores as single building complexes. Food on demand is their ultimate goal, and with the help of the German government, including assistance from the German Space Agency, they may just get their wish. Many others are at various stages of planning/fund-raising, and will surely announce their presence within the next few years. In fact, there are currently so many VF startups that a shortage of qualified workers is now the main impediment to accelerating the establishment of new indoor farms.

To address the labor shortage issue, The University of Arizona Center for Controlled Agriculture is in the midst of establishing an experimental vertical farm in association with the defunct Biosphere 2 complex. Drs. Gene Giacomelli and Murat Kacia will serve as its co-directors. The training center will ultimately serve as a nexus for graduate research aimed at improving technologies that further the development of indoor agriculture. Other universities have also established research programs in vertical farming (e.g., University of Nottingham, Ohio State University, and Cornell University). The city of Shanghai has embraced CEA as a major part of part of its long-term solution to insuring a sustainable, healthy food supply. City planners have let it be known that Shanghai will become the epicenter for creating a cadre of indoor farmers by constructing a comprehensive training center (designed by Sasaki Architects) in the newly industrialized Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District along the banks of the Yinjiabank Canal. This modern Chinese city promises to become the “gold standard” for urban centers that express a desire to become independent of the global food system. The Vertical Farming Institute located in Vienna, Austria, functions by helping design and plan new VF facilities throughout Europe.

Over the next ten years or so, I have every reason to anticipate, given the rapid growth of the concept of vertical farming, that Vfs will become a part of the skyline of most large cities, world-wide. When that becomes the norm, our grandchildren will live in a world that provides them and their families with a reliable, safe, abundant, varied food supply, and at the same time, allowing them to enjoy the beauty and wonder of a restored natural environment. Rejoice. The process of re-wilding has begun!


Cleaning up muddy waters

July 27, 2016

1c269d6034e06d9b76a9c6432bd81efdI get a lot of phone calls (mostly media interviews), requests for on-camera appearances, and a ton of e-mail, all asking me to define (usually in a simple, declarative sentence or two) what I mean by the term ”vertical farm”. Forget that I have written about this concept ad nauseam, and in much detail in my book, The Vertical Farm. In fact, I have only ever given one reply to that question. A vertical farm is nothing more complex in concept than a high-tech greenhouse that is stacked on top of itself, transforming it into a multi-storey growing space. Certain single-storey buildings also meet that criteria, as well, but are not divided inside to reflect floors. For example, some re-purposed warehouses with inside growing spaces that frequently exceed 30 feet in height also count as vertical farms (for examples see: Aerofarms, Green Sense Farms, Green Spirit Farms, FarmedHere, Spread). Single-floor buildings with a ceiling height of 10-12 feet are greenhouses, regardless of what goes on inside them. They have been around a long time, and while the strategies for growing indoor crops have evolved, many into to multi-layered systems (e.g., hydro-stackers, Tower Garden), i.e., “vertical farming” methods, the basic concept of a greenhouse has not changed much over the last 30 years. I do not include any version of them in my vertical farm concept.

The vertical farm concept is about maximizing plant density to enable large numbers of people living in the built environment access to healthy, fresh vegetables year-round that are herbicide and pesticide-free. Skyscraper apartment buildings allow us to live comfortably in densely-populated urban settings. Vertical farms need to address the same density issue regarding how much of the edible plants we consume can be grown within the urban environment. Oh, and by the way, when the first skyscraper was proposed, it was accompanied by much controversy as to what actually constituted a skyscraper. OK, my definition of a vertical farm sounds easy enough to get your head around, but some may still have trouble distinguishing between a vertical farm and farming vertically inside a one storey structure.

A brief history of space flight might help by analogy to eliminate any remaining confusion as to what I mean by the term vertical farm. After WW II, the United States “inherited” a number of confiscated V-2 rockets, a single-stage weapon of mass destruction. We played around with them a while and got the feel of how to do rocketry before setting our sights on going to the moon. It was obvious that a one-stage rocket, no matter how big, was not going to do the job. But it wasn’t until the 1960’s that funding and political will combined to support The National Aeronautics and Space Administration in their development and deployment of a propulsion system that would finally free us from the pull of Earth’s gravity. After many failed attempts and some remarkable successes, the Saturn rocket, a massive three-stage affair, emerged from NASA’s R&D to do the job. The entire world was watching when, on July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar lander module and into the history books.

So, how does this example apply to the vertical farm concept, and why do I insist on multi-storey greenhouses? You might still ask: “But doesn’t growing food indoors in a single-storey building in a stacked configuration qualify as a vertical farm”? In my view, the answer is still an emphatic no! Greenhouses do not achieve the plant densities needed to supply food for the millions of city dwellers that go to bed hungry each night, or for those that are actually starving. Insinuating hyper-dense food production facilities inside the city limits or just outside them is a game-changer, and if employed world-wide, would alter forever the way we access our food supply. Vertical farms offer the promise of finally being able to free up large swaths of land from traditional, soil-based agricultural practices, allowing abandoned farmland to return to their original ecological function of providing ecosystem services that promote healthy lives for all living things on Earth, including us (see: Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold). In my own book, I advocate for skyscraper farms. I hope this corrects some widely-held misconceptions and allows us to re-focus on the real reason why vertical farms are essential if we are to live balanced lives, and not, as we are still doing, continue to live at the expense of every other creature on our fragile planet.

Image: Confluence of Rio Negro and Amazon Rivers (credit).


Growing Up: The Vertical Farm

November 16, 2015

During the Disruptive Innovation Festival, Dickson Despommier will present a webinar on 18 Nov 2015 18:15 – 19:00 GMT. You can go to this link at the specified time, or register at this link.

With a growing world population, and shrinking space for growing crops, some argue that cities of the future must generate their own food supply. Dickson Despommier’s elegant and simple answer for achieving this goal is ‘vertical farming’. Dickson is a futurist, and in this webinar he makes the case that urban agriculture can go vertical as well as horizontal. His book The Vertical Farm has been widely acclaimed. In this session Dickson reviews the state of play with vertical farm enterprises at scale and provides his perspective on progress. He’ll discuss the positive stories but also give his view on the future challenges and constraints.

For some background, see his Urban Agriculture podcast with Ed Harwood at AeroFarms (Aerofarms is one of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Circular Economy 100 business partners)

“Despommier has quickly become the central figure in what could be a worldwide revolution

Scientific American


I was about to give my rehearsal talk at a recent TEDx conference when a rather distinguished looking older woman (another presenter at the same conference) approached me, and with a stern facial expression that one could only interpret as constrained hostility, stared directly into my eyes and confronted me: ”Please stop this foolish crusade advocating for vertical farms in cities. A man with your amount of influence and education should know better”. She stopped just short of poking her index finger deeply into my chest as she ranted. Having finished her tersely delivered directive, she pivoted smartly in military fashion and walked off into the empty darkened auditorium to await her turn at our practice session. I barely had the opportunity to thank her for being so forthright, candid, and above all fearless about expressing her opinion of urban agriculture, and in specific for my role in propagating enthusiasm for it. Remarkably, I resisted following her to her seat and getting into a heated argument/discussion with her about climate change and the demise of agriculture in general. Instead, I went on about the business at hand and gave my eighteen minutes on the virtues of urban agriculture and the role that vertical farming might play in its development. It occurred to me upon much reflection that what she really might have meant to say was that vertical farming will never be able to replace outdoor farming so why bother trying. In her own talk, she spoke passionately of the population explosion and too many mouths to feed, but did not expound even a little as to what she might want do to alleviate the situation. Her primary concern appeared to be about her newly arrived grandchild and the depressing future it and the next few generations of humans will have to face. Very depressing, really. Her message was not dissimilar from that of Al Gore or James Lovelock as to the state of the planet; lots of depressing data and no apparent solutions on the horizon. In all my experience as a public speaker I do not recall ever having expressed the idea that vertical farming should replace all outdoor farming as the only solution to the ills of the world. Nonetheless, I think that was her take on what I was all about. Suffice it to say that since then I have endeavored to give better reasons for insinuating agriculture into the build environment.

Lets begin the argument in favor of urban agriculture by admitting that cities are the main reason we are in such a bad state of affairs with respect to rapid climate change and its deleterious effects on traditional agriculture. In 2011 for example, the United States lost some 110 billion dollars worth of grain crops due to a protracted drought throughout the American Midwest. Unless a miracle happens, it appears almost certain that the state of California will be the next victim of drought in 2014. This could affect virtually every US citizen, with significantly higher food prices and may even affect food availability, as well. Cities only occupy some 2-3 percent of the Earth’s landmass, but emit over seventy percent of the atmospheric carbon dioxide. Nearly fifty percent of us now live in cities. Seven billion people require farmland equivalent in landmass to the size of South America. This calculates out to an astounding 6,890,000 square miles! That means that cities need some 3,440,000 square miles of land to satisfy their daily caloric needs. From 1950s to the present, the Brazilian rainforest has been negatively impacted by encroachment, mainly for the sake of agriculture, sacrificing some 700,000 square miles of hardwood forest for farmland to feed its own growing population. Hm, you might say. Up to this point, the facts I’ve just presented seem to support the outlook forecasted by the doomer gloomers. But the built environment need not shoulder the entire burden of food production for there to be real hope for straightening out the mess we have made for ourselves. If cities produced just ten percent of the ground crops they currently consume, by employing sustainable indoor vertical farms and greenhouses to do so, then nearly half of the damaged portion of the Brazilian rainforest could theoretically be restored (340,000 square miles worth) and a significant amount of carbon would be sequestered as the result. This calculation is based on the fact that indoor farming is carried out year round and is over ninety percent efficient at producing food crops. By the way, outdoor farming is, at best, only fifty percent successful (insect pests, plant diseases, adverse weather conditions) and can only occur at temperatures that consistently average 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Enabling cities to be productive centers for locally grown vegetables, herbs, and fruits, might be all that is needed to turn the corner to a more sustainable future.

Ultimately, I strongly believe that we should work towards the creation of eco-cities that mimic in every way the functions necessary for sustaining an intact ecosystem, using our creative intellects and cutting-edged technologies to get the job done. Primary productivity is an essential feature of all ecosystems, so why not start with this activity as the basis for creating the eco-city? Today, it is easy to do, witness all the new varieties of vertical farms and rooftop greenhouses going up inside the built environment. Generating just ten percent of our farm production within the world’s cities just might be enough needed to slow down our runaway climate regime and give us some much needed time to figure out ways of dealing with rising sea levels, as the climate continues to challenge our quality of life on Planet Earth.


Big news: a new vertical farm just opened in Bedford Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, the current epicenter of vertical farming in the United States. And it’s not just an ordinary vertical farm (if that term can be used at this early stage of this fledgling industry). It’s a really big commercial vertical farm, encompassing some 90,000 sq. ft. of growing space inside a two story-tall, windowless, abandoned warehouse. Called Farmed Here, it is designed to occupy the full extent of the indoor space of that facility – 150,000 sq. ft.! It currently produces oodles of tasty leafy greens (basil, arugula, etc.) and one value-added product, a vinaigrette. What’s more, Farmed Here will eventually employ some 200 people when it finally reaches its full production potential. With that much room to fill up with edible plants, and no outside sunlight to help it along, the energy budget might intimidate faint of heart entrepreneurs, but Farmed Here’s forward-looking CEO, Yolanta Hardej, expects that within just a year from now, her enterprise could be deriving most of its energy needs from composting, generating methane gas. A similar energy scheme will soon be employed by the highly successful vertical farm The Plant, located in the heart of the abandoned stockyards district of Chicago and run by John Edel and colleagues.

One gets the distinct impression, and correctly so, that the “City With Big Shoulders” is about to burst onto the global scene as a major player in urban sustainability, encouraged by a rising number of urban agricultural initiatives. Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel has repeatedly endorsed urban agriculture as an integral part of that city’s push for long-term sustainability in several press conferences he has presided over within the past few months. Bloomberg Weekly News in January of 2013 declared that vertical farming would be a sound small business investment for the near future (images.businessweek.com/slideshows/20101105/20-small-businesses-of-the-future#slide20); Yahoo News agrees (http://smallbusiness.yahoo.com/advisor/five-careers-future-031453252.html).

A recent workshop I attended in Berlin, organized and sponsored by a branch of the German government exploring the prospects of federal funding for the developmeynt of vertical farms, attests to the fact that some countries (Korea, Japan, China, Germany) are getting wise to the fact that vertical farms may be the answer to many environmental issues, such as a rising atmospheric temperature and an out-of-control climate regime. Meanwhile, back in the U.S. of A., several other new vertical farm initiatives have been announced: “Green Girls” in Memphis, Tennessee, and Green Spirit Farms in New Buffalo, Michigan. Gotham Greens, a commercially successful high-tech 2,000 sq ft. greenhouse operation in Brooklyn, just announced that construction of another facility of theirs has begun (20,000 sq ft), and will be located on top of the new Whole Foods supermarket in the Gowanus section of that same borough of New York City. I can only hope that when that new facility achieves maximum production several years from now, but consumer demand for fresh, local produce still exceeds their capacity to provide for everyone in that neighborhood, then perhaps another floor’s worth of greenhouse will be added to Gotham Greens already existing structures, turning them into true vertical farms! This would naturally lead to the emergence of a friendly competition between The Big Apple and The Second City in promoting vertical farming as an integral part of all urban agricultural initiatives. Onward and upward!


Newest Kids On The Block

February 23, 2013

With the advent of the first commercial examples of vertical farms now up and running, the vertical farm industry is now officially a reality. Over the last two years, it has emerged into the light of day from its virtual womb, the internet, and has taken its first deep breaths. Vertical farming is now in the earliest stage of its growth and development, a place comparable to all the other industries that preceded it, beginning with the very first ones that appeared on the scene in Manchester, England at the beginning of the industrial revolution.  Like all the others, the vertical farm industry will undoubtedly undergo remarkable evolutionary changes over the next few years, but in a more rapid and streamlined fashion than its immediate predecessor, the high tech greenhouse industry. This is due largely to the advent of sophisticated computer-controlled indoor environments (hydroponic nutrient delivery systems, efficient, spectrum-specific LED grow lights, innovative, energy-saving HVAC systems, etc., and a robust application of automation), and cutting edge manufacturing technologies, witness, over just the last ten years, the rapid advancement of the cell phone, the hybrid car, wind power, and the latest versions of plasma screen TVs. Examples of vertical farms can now be found all over the globe.  Here, then, are the newest kids on the block.


The island country of Singapore announced last month that a commercial version of a vertical farm was now in operation (Sky Greens – skygreens.appsfly.com). It is a four-story, transparent structure fitted with A-frame growing systems that produce leafy green vegetables. It uses sunlight as a source of energy, and captured rainwater to drive a clever pulley system to move the plants on the grow racks, ensuring an even distribution of sunlight for all the plants.

U.S.A. – Bedford Park:

Farmed Here (www.farmedhere.com) opened in 2013 as a commercial-level VF that is housed in a 90,000 square foot post-industrial building in Bedford Park, IL. It produces three products; arugula, basil, and sweet basil vinaigrette.

Canada – Vancouver:

Local Garden (www.localgarden.com) is a newly constructed two-story tall, 6,000 sq. ft. transparent building located on a parking garage rooftop in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is outfitted with an innovative growing platform system (Verticrop: www.alterrus.ca/verticrop/the-technology/) that produces micro-green salad ingredients, baby spinach, and baby kales.


Plant factories – aka vertical farms – have been up and running for at least two years, and some have been operational for a lot longer than that. There are some fifty of these indoor vegetable farms spread out over most of the country (e.g., Nuvege –www.nuvege.com; Angel Farms – www.anglefarms.com). Half of them employ sunlight as the sole energy source for growing crops, while an equal number use some variety of LED grow lights. Most of those using grow lights resemble large, windowless warehouses. All of them produce a wide variety of high yield leafy greens. One Japanese online web site estimates that the plant factory industry will grow by over 70 billion yen over the next 5 years, mostly from private investment, and whose progress is largely driven by consumer demand for healthy, radiation-free food in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown event.

It is anticipated that over the next year or two, the number of viable commercial vertical farm operations the world over will increase at a rate commiserate with city dweller’s demand for safer, reasonably priced, locally grown food. At the same time, severe weather patterns around the world continue to increase in frequency, from extreme droughts to massive floods, and the price of oil remains high. As the result, the availability of food, no matter what the crop, has become more and more problematic, as costs related to production and shipping skyrocket.  Thus, it now appears likely that vertical farms of a wide variety will become a common feature of the global urban landscape over the next decade, as a global industrial-level response to our ever-changing climate.


Several weeks ago, a remarkable meeting was held on the University of Maryland campus in Hyattsville, Maryland sponsored by the National Science Foundation entitled “Challenges in Vertical Farming”. It was well-organized by Dr. Sanjiv Singh and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University. In attendance were over seventy people from a wide number of disciplines that converge on the concept of vertical farming – LED grow lighting, robotics, aeroponics and hydroponics, rooftop greenhouse crop production, agricultural economics to name a few. There were several scientists from national space agencies (USA and Germany) in attendance, and many others from various universities (e.g., U. Arizona, Chiba University, Kyoto University, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University). In addition, there were several commercial controlled environment growers (Gotham Greens and AeroFarms) to offer their take on the practicality of growing crops indoors. The theme of the conference was to identify issues that needed to be addressed before commercially viable vertical farms could be contemplated. Sixteen speakers presented their views on numerous subjects over the course of the day. As the conference progressed, it became obvious that many of the perceived impracticalities of vertical farming were already being addressed, and remarkably some had even been resolved. None of the participants in attendance, nor the 200 or so who had logged on to the live feed streaming online, offered the view that vertical farms were impractical and or unrealistic (a common opinion offered by numerous early critics of the concept). To the contrary, everyone who spoke identified numerous technological solutions to bottleneck issues such as efficiency of LED grow lights. Current LEDs are commercially available at only 28% efficiency, but they need to be around 50-60% efficient when considering the economics of operating an indoor farm. One participant offered that he had attended a conference the week before on LED lighting and a physicist attending that same meeting announced that the theoretical efficiency for LED lights is an astounding 100%! We learned also that at least one large internationally recognized leader in LED lighting technology had already invented an LED system that was 50% efficient, but the company was not yet willing to make it commercially available. If true, this would greatly alter the perception on the part of some skeptics of vertical farming that it’s the excessively expensive energy needed by any indoor farm that is standing in the way of commercial development. The second day of the conference was devoted to brainstorming for ideas to address the issues identified the day before. All of the four groups of speakers agreed that efficiency of LED lights needed to be far higher to advance to the commercial stage of the concept. Let’s challenge the LED manufacturers to form a consortium and make high efficiency LED grow lighting systems available now! Bring on the urban high rise farming industry!

For a link to the presentations: http://challengesinverticalfarming.org


…but it’s a dry heat

August 23, 2012

Drought is defined as a period of extreme dryness bracketed by two periods of rain. The length of a drought period can last for a week, a month, or even a year. Some droughts have lasted even longer, witness the 1920-1930s in the American Midwest. During a drought, there are just three choices: move, die, or pray. Praying did not bring on the rain in the 1930s, though many a Midwestern dirt farmer got calloused knees from trying, none the less. Actually, some life forms that cannot move (mostly plants) can go into a form of suspended animation. Desert plants are really good at this (surprise, surprise)! Throughout our brief history of living on earth, droughts have been the single most important environmental issue responsible for determining where we can live. In deserts, water is available, but it is extremely limited in quantity. That is why very few cultures have adapted to this harsh environment.

Every ecosystem can be characterized by knowing just two physical parameters: the annual temperature profile and its precipitation regimen. Freshwater is crucial for all terrestrial life forms. That is why it should be valued above all else as nature’s premier natural resource.

When we begin to alter our world in ways that alter the distribution of freshwater resources, we are asking for trouble. In the United States, there are over seventy five thousand dams that have created lakes, most of which are used as sources of drinking water and irrigation. In most years, this scheme has allowed farmers the luxury of growing crops that, if no irrigation was possible, they would surely fail.  Other farming communities (particularly in the flat, grassy plains states) must rely on underground sources of water for irrigation and drinking water. Regarding surface water, the amount of precipitation that fell in that year will determine the outcome of agriculture in that region. For those agricultural situations that rely only on ground water, annual rainfall does little to help provide enough for extended periods of time. In our Midwest, the Ogallala Reservoir is the primary resource for irrigation water, and its been drawn down to levels that require oil-driven pumps to get enough to allow their crops of wheat and corn to thrive. This year, the price of oil was so high that farmers elected not to irrigate. The result was disastrous.

In early August of this year, as I drove back home from my annual fishing trip out West, I had the “luxury” of surveying the season’s crops from Utah to New Jersey, and all the states in between via US routes 70 and 80. The USGS estimates that 2012 will go down in the record books as a very dry year, perhaps even the driest on record. Last year, Texas was devastated by drought, loosing over 5 billion dollars in crops and livestock. This year, it looks like Texas will take another big hit in crops lost to drought. In the case of the American heartland (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio), I witnessed field after field of what looked like golden wheat that upon closer inspection, turned out to be abandoned cornfields! The soybeans did not look so great, either. No corn or soybeans means no animal feed. President Obama recently declared that the federal government will buy livestock from drought-affected ranchers and set up an inventory of frozen meats to help them get by until the droughts break. What this will mean for the price of food remains to be calculated, but its certain that the consumers in most urban centers will pay a lot more for the basics of what constitutes the American diet; beef, chicken, fish, milk, flour, bread, vegetables and many fruits. A recent estimate of the amount of money this year’s drought has already cost the U.S. farmers is between 18-20 billion dollars. Some 40-50 per cent of the entire country has now been declared a disaster zone, so extensive is this year’s drought. At least indoor farmer’s crops are safe this year, having opted long ago to grow their crops in a more secure, predictable fashion in greenhouses.

Vertical farming promises to expand this approach, so that perhaps in the near future, food prices will not fluctuate with the uncontrollable weather patterns. Dare I remind us all that climate change issues will continue confound and disrupt this already seriously flawed system of outdoor food production. What a different world this would be if we could produce most of what we needed year round in vertical farms located inside cities. I know this sounds a bit preachy, but I think the concept of the vertical farm is the only viable option we have to a long-term solution to the world food crisis. Why, I’ll bet we could even work out a way to produce animal feed this way, too. Who knows, maybe some day soon a Texas billionaire will step up to the plate and start that ball rolling!