Vertical farming stacks at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. (Institute for Advanced Learning and Research)

Imagine a field of lettuce. 

Say the lettuces are all buttercrunch, and they dot the field like crisp rosettes. Each has been seeded by a farmer, kept free of pests, watered for weeks and finally cut at the base before being rinsed and packed for transport. Each is destined for a different meal: a lazy evening salad on the porch, an artfully arranged plate at a restaurant two-top, the vegetarian alternative at grandma’s 80th. 

Now imagine six of these fields, all stacked on top of one another. 

The idea isn’t far-fetched. In fact, it’s already a reality in Virginia, where a new, more technologically oriented form of agriculture known as vertical farming is quietly taking root. 

“There’s a lot of promise,” said Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “As we continue to watch urban encroachment and we have this demand to have food produced closer to where people actually live, we’re going to see more and more of it.” 

Since its inception at the turn of the millennium, vertical farming — which in its simplest form is any system where plants are grown in vertical stacks — has promised to revolutionize yields by allowing producers to multiply their crop outputs by six to eight or even more times without expanding their footprint.  

“You’re trying to use an area more intensively. Because you’re limited by horizontal space, you want to maximize vertical space,” said Leonard Githinji, a professor of sustainable and urban agriculture at Virginia State University who also works with Virginia Cooperative Extension. 

The concept is flexible and scalable. The stacks can be small, nothing more than a narrow shelf installed at a restaurant or in a convenience store to grow produce within a customer’s reach. Or they can fill a warehouse, bringing an industrial dimension to agriculture. 

“There’s a wide range. On one end, it’s almost you have a greenhouse that’s highly automated,” said Banks. “On the other end, you could be in a warehouse and everything is grown on huge assemblies of racks and you have complete artificial lighting and hydroponics.” 

The latter type of vertical farming is “high-tech manufacturing, essentially,” said Scott Lowman, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, where scientists and other experts are exploring the promise various types of indoor agriculture can hold for Virginia. 

Hopes are high, particularly in the historic tobacco region of Southside, where state officials have been working for several decades to encourage farmers who once depended on the golden leaf to diversify their enterprises. It’s no accident that the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center was sited in a region with a rich agricultural history and an abundance of old warehouses once devoted to tobacco and now empty. 

Nor was it an accident that in 2019, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office announced that vertical farming company AeroFarms had decided to build a $42 million facility in an industrial park jointly operated by Danville and Pittsylvania County. Virginia aggressively courted the project with some $1.5 million in state grant funds and incentives. In exchange, AeroFarms promised to build the facility, employ 92 people and purchase roughly $20 million of Virginia agricultural or forest products. 

But while AeroFarms’ Virginia location will be the largest vertical farm in the state once built, it won’t be the only one. Over the past few years, other operations have quietly been putting down roots. Shenandoah Growers in Rockingham operates a large-scale facility that grows herbs and lettuces. In Lorton, Beanstalk grows a range of greens. Fresh Impact Farms in Arlington, which grows herbs, greens and edible flowers, announced an expansion this spring in conjunction with the governor’s office. Babylon Micro-Farms in Richmond is developing sophisticated technology to spread small-scale vertical farms around the country. Other efforts are underway.   

“We’re in a great position on the East Coast in terms of population centers,” said Lowman. “And it’s a friendly environment for business, and we have a legacy of hard-working labor.” 

Controlled environment agriculture

While vertical farming is relatively new, its lineage is much longer, nesting within the family tree of controlled environment agriculture, which encompasses any type of production that takes place within a structure. 

From Roman orangeries to modern-day greenhouses, controlled environment agriculture offers the advantage embedded in its first descriptor: control. 

Outdoors, farmers are at the whim of the weather, plagued by pests and disease and caught in a never-ending struggle to keep water and fertilizer confined to their fields. 

Indoors, the equation changes. Because of the precision-engineered systems, controlled environment agriculture tends to require less water, less fertilizer and few or no pesticides compared to conventional agriculture. And, depending on a particular system’s design, it can allow producers to grow crops 24/7, 365 days a year. AeroFarms has said that its technology allows it to produce leafy greens “at a rate 390 times more productive than field-grown plants.” 

 “I can now schedule my crops,” said Michael Evans, director of Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “I can basically optimize the environment for that crop.” 

There are, of course, drawbacks. Everything nature once provided to a plant must now be provided by a human — or a machine. 

“With a greenhouse, you’re taking advantage of natural sunlight. You’re not paying for that,” said Evans. “But you’re paying quite a bit for heating and cooling. When you flip to an indoor vertical system, the disadvantage is that now you have to supply the light.” Other costs diminish at the same time: without the translucent walls of a greenhouse, “your heating and cooling can go down because it’s better insulated.” 

For years, prohibitively high energy costs boxed out vertical farming as a viable option for producers working in controlled environment agriculture. What would change the playing field was a technological innovation: the high-powered and highly efficient LED.

“The thing that really changed that made indoor vertical farming work and become an economic possibility was really the development of of LED lighting, because that changes the energy equation a lot,” said Evans. “It makes providing the light the crops need much economically viable.” 

Controlled digital lights help produce high density feed grass in a Grov Olympus vertical farming machine in Utah. The Olympus Tower Farm uses a controlled environment to grow sprouted wheat and barley grass in 857 square feet of space and uses 95 percent less water to produce 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of grass per day, replacing 35-50 acres of land. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

A new generation of farmers

Despite its promise, vertical farming won’t replace conventional agriculture, experts say. Many of Virginia’s biggest commodity crops — soybeans, corn, hay — are grown at such a large scale that trying to transport them indoors would be an exercise in absurdity. 

Where controlled environment agriculture has found a growing niche is in the produce most familiar to the average Virginian: lettuces, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, microgreens and more. Experiments in growing strawberries indoors are also underway, and Evans pointed out that once legalized, marijuana may not be far behind, although the federal government’s continued classification of the plant as illegal will keep institutions like Virginia Tech from working with it. 

For consumers of these products, the idea of local food grown only a short distance away is increasingly appealing. That can be an argument in favor of controlled environment agriculture and vertical farming, said Banks. 

“When we import food into this country, what we import is fruits and vegetables that require a lot of hand labor,” he said. “So there’s opportunity there to offset some of those imports and reduce our reliance on food produced overseas.” 

Both Banks and Evans also noted an unusual aspect of vertical farming: its allure for younger and often more urban Virginians. 

“It’s getting a whole new generation of folks interested in agriculture. It’s a different type of agriculture, but it’s getting a lot of students,” said Evans. At Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, he added, “we have to change our curriculum for what we’re teaching to prepare students interested in controlled environment agriculture.” 

For a younger generation increasingly concerned with social and political justice, the opportunity offered by controlled environment agriculture and vertical farming to fill food deserts and involve local workers in local food systems is an attractive prospect. Many students are eager to look beyond the existing agricultural structures, said Githinji, who recently received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. National Institute of Food and Agriculture to explore the use of “micro-farms,” which incorporate vertical farming systems, as a way to address food deserts in urban neighborhoods. 

It’s not unusual for extension agents to get calls in which people are saying, “‘As much as I want to grow more food, I can’t afford to buy even another quarter acre,” he said. “So you get people asking what they can do with what they have.” 

The other draw is the technology. While vertical farming can be small- or large-scale, its larger applications rely on evolving and increasingly sophisticated technology that has piqued interest among the startup community. 

“This is a really exciting industry that’s rapidly entering the mainstream,” said Alexander Olesen, CEO and co-founder of Babylon Micro-Farms, a Richmond-based startup that develops indoor growing systems for institutional food service settings, such as hospitals, schools and universities. Babylon, which in 2020 was the recipient of a $75,000 grant from the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund that aims to support small businesses in emerging research and technology sectors, builds small-scale vertical farms “as a sustainable amenity for these locations.” 

The field’s growing popularity is also driving a need for more workers, more expertise and more training, said many of the people interviewed for this story. The Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center in Danville, itself a recipient of $365,000 in state grant funds in 2020, is key to that effort. So too are plans announced by the governor’s office last month that will see hydroponic greenhouse startup Sunny Farms build a 1.2 million square foot greenhouse in Virginia Beach — one of the largest on the East Coast — and work with Virginia Tech and the Virginia community college system to develop educational training in controlled environment agriculture. 

“Our goal is really to support the controlled environment agriculture industry in Virginia, but we’re also working on creating an innovative controlled environment agriculture ecosystem in Virginia,” said Evans. 

These enterprises may be only the beginning. 

“Once people see that it’s working, we’re going to see them flourishing all across the commonwealth,” said Githinji. 

This story has been updated to correct the name of Shenandoah Growers.