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MAXIMIZING SPACE: Fresh food from a convention center? James Coffman, director of Tower Farms, stands among the food towers of a setup at the Orlando Convention Center, where fresh greens are used by the facility for events.

Going vertical for food

Tower Farms uses a aeroponic system that can be placed indoors or outdoors to raise a variety of food year-round.

In the world of agriculture, there’s a lot of technology exploration going on. One area that’s getting greater attention is the use of non-ag spaces for producing fresh food. But how might that look? What tools could be used?

During this year’s Commodity Classic in Orlando, Fla., Farm Progress got a chance to see what “vertical farming” might look like for the future. In the Orlando Convention Center, there’s a 83-tower indoor vertical farm raising fresh greens for use by the facility’s chefs for events. While the facility produces just a fraction of the greens, it does show what’s possible for the future.

James Coffman, director, Tower Farms, described how the system works, and a North Carolina electrical contractor shared how he got into farming with this system.

“This is an aeroponic system,” said Coffman. “Nutrient-rich water is pumped into each tower for three minutes every quarter-hour.”

Grown in pockets in the 10-foot towers, the plants thrive in the nutrient-rich water provided. Coffman explains that the tech was first developed in 2007, and it has seen growing interest as consumers demand more fresh, local foods. Going vertical reduces the footprint for raising plants.

“You can grow 44 plants in 5.8 square feet of space,” he said. “That’s more product using 90% less land.”

He pointed out one grower, who laid in a half-acre of towers and produces as much as he would on 5 1/2 acres of ground. And with this system, you can go from seed to salad in about six weeks. The water in the system is recycled, maximizing its use during the growth cycle.

These towers are getting the attention of researchers and universities, too. The University of Southern California has 88 towers at work; the University of California, Los Angeles, 50. The University of Colorado, Boulder, has 138 towers on the roof of the student cafeteria building, providing fresh food year-round, Coffman added.

“One person can manage 100 towers working about 32 hours per week,” Coffman said. “That includes seeding, maintaining and harvesting the crop.”

At the Orlando building, the towers provide a small portion of the greens used, but they can offer flexibility or options for on-site chefs. “The growers work with the chefs to coordinate menus five or six weeks out,” Coffman said. “That way, the towers can provide specific plants as needed by the kitchen.”

Gary Hughes stands among food towers
RESIDENTIAL TO COMMERCIAL: When Gary Hughes found success raising food in towers for himself, he saw a bigger opportunity. Today his vertical farm is a year-round income-generator.


More than lettuce and basil

Tower farms, indoor farms and vertical farms sometimes get a bad rap, too. Often they’re seen as a source off just lettuce and perhaps an herb or two. But Gary Hughes, Waynesville, N.C., tells a slightly different story.

“I started with a residential kit with six towers,” he said. “We grew tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, watermelon, strawberries, all kinds of fruits and vegetables.”

The idea of watermelon and zucchini growing in an indoor farm may surprise some, but Hughes explained that it worked for him — and it still does. But a few years of raising food in the smaller residential system showed what was possible, so he invested in a bigger setup.

Today, he is “farming” 70 towers in a 1,500-square-foot greenhouse and serving locals with a Community Supported Agriculture system, as well as chefs from five local restaurants year-round. “And we do a tailgate market, too,” Hughes said. “We’re using 5% of the water that you’d use in a traditional greenhouse.”

Hughes, who by day is an electrical contractor, has a thriving food business these days. The winter CSA provides lettuce, often not associated with that time of year. “Our winter CSA is better subscribed than our summer program,” he noted.

While those towers are in the greenhouse during the winter, in summer Hughes will move them outside — which is simple to do. “We’ll take 12 of the towers outside and grow eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and zucchini,” he said. “Our farm is a mile from Main Street in town.”

His WNC Urban Farms is thriving by providing locally grown produce that meets a growing consumer need. For commercial corn and soybean farmers, vertical farming is a foreign concept, but it does show how food is being perceived by consumers.

Tower Farms is offering landowners a different avenue of profit. Cost for a tower, which would include all the support hoses and water supply, is about $550. One tower can support 44 plants; there is a microgreen version that can support 208 plants and is often used for propagating seedlings.

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