The Full History of Vertical Farming: When Did It All Start?


People are often surprised that something as revolutionary as vertical farming has a rich history that dates back to ancient times through the 1900s.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Aztec’s “Chinampas” were the first shadow types of vertical farming. In the 1900s, Gilbert Ellis coined the term “vertical farming,” which took true form in Armenia in 1951. In 1991, Dickson Despommmier articulated the concept as it’s known today.

Many are still skeptical of vertical farming’s potential to sustain a world growing by the billions. Yet, history tells amazing stories of how as a people, limits spurred us to create, not just wonders, but breakthroughs. As you read through, you’ll discover what the missing piece might be for this cutting-edge concept to take off globally.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

“The Hanging Gardens of Babylon” is the first known form of vertical farming. Built during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, between 605-562 BC, it was one of Babylon’s crowning glory. It was meant to be a gift for Queen Amytis, to serve as a beautiful reminder of her lush hilly homeland. 

Its grand structure reached up to 20 meters high and had levels of arched garden terraces which featured the finest flora. With their lands being dry, water from the Euphrates River was made accessible through their impressive engineering skills and ingenuity. For irrigation, the Hanging Gardens used one such engineering breakthrough known as the chain pump. This brought water from the foot of the gardens to a catchment or pool on the top floor. This efficient way to distribute and sustain water resources is clearly one of the marks of vertical farming. 

Chinampas – The Floating Gardens of Aztecs

Approximately one thousand years ago, the Aztecs followed suit, responding to scarcity with ingenuity. With the swampy borough of Xochimilco being inappropriate for farming, they used what nature had to offer – murky lands, dried plants, and a whole lot of shallow lakes. Using their amazing creativity, they came up with makeshift floating gardens. “Chinampas,” as they would call them, resembled ordinary rafts. The Aztecs were the first to apply hydroponics in propagating their crops in the hopes of feeding a community of 200,000 people.

What Were Chinampas Made of

Dried twigs, reeds, and the like were used to make the base of the rafts. This assured upward growth support as well as freedom to root out extensively through the raft into the lake. Reeds were used to frame the Chinampas, which prevented disintegration. Drifting was also addressed by anchoring them to the lakebed using reeds as well. 

New Homes

Muds were cleared out from the Canal’s base to ensure free flow of water to the lake. Dredging also helped enhanced water and soil quality. The result was better yields from the cultivated gardens, not to mention new homes for fish and birds.

Valuable Food Center

The Chinampas proved valuable not only to the people of Xochimilco. Due to its success, the rest of Mexico City turn to Xochimilco as one of its food centers. 

Coining the Term of Vertical Farming

In 1915, in the process of studying an alternative way to increase farm area and produce quality crops, American geologist Gilbert Ellis Bailey coined the term “vertical farming.” His idea of vertical, though, was a bit different than what you may expect. Instead of building farms up towards the sky, he wanted to use low-cost explosives to be able to farm deeper underground. This is understandable, considering that the world was at war at that time.  

First True Vertical Farm in the 20th Century

The concept finally took form in Armenia in 1951 with the building of tower hydroponic units. Although not much has been said of it, except that it was built when hydroponics and greenhouse systems were being extensively developed, and the use was primarily for space exploration. Simply put, it wasn’t vertical farming’s moment yet – the know-how and tech necessary would take decades to develop.

Dickson Despommier and His Thought Experiment

Vertical farming has great potentials to feed the world. Although in 1991, it was more like Professor Dickson Despommier stumbled upon the concept as the answer to a thought experiment. He was looking into bringing food production centers nearer the consumers as a way of decreasing carbon footprint. 

In line with this, he challenged his environmental sciences class of graduate students to find out if it was possible to feed the entire Manhattan population by growing food on 5 acres of available rooftops. The answer resulting from the experiment was – no, it could only feed 2%. 

However, pursuing the answer would lead the professor and his class to think out of the box. After 9 years, with 9 different classes’ collaborative work, the idea of using an entire high-rise urban building for vertical farm use came up. With it, the principle that a 30-story building entirely dedicated to growing food could feed 50,000 people. 

Essentials for the idea to take off were using lighting and hydroponics systems. Everything was aimed at sustainability and decreasing carbon footprint.  

In the process, he was drawing up in detail what was to be the blueprint of a commercial vertical farm facility. The rest, as they say, is history, as Mr. Despommier is known as the founding father of modern vertical farming. This time, the world was listening and was finally able to adopt this idea.

Creation of First Successful Modern Vertical Farm

Inventions of vertical farming essentials such as lighting, automation, and robotics, followed decades. 2011 saw the most successful modern vertical farm sprout up. 

The AeroFarms is a 70,00 square feet indoor vertical farm in Newark, New Jersey, USA, founded by Cornell University professor Ed Harwood, David Rosenberg, and Marc Oshima.

Layers of propagating tables filled with greens like arugula, watercress, bok choi, and others are stacked ceiling-high in this modern facility. Everything inside the farm is computer-controlled, with the aim of making the best environment for quality harvest by day 18. It uses aeroponics and only 5% of the amount of water it usually takes to grow plants. The air’s temperature, humidity, CO2 concentration, LED lights’ intensity, and the water’s overall optimum condition are all automated. 

Biologists and botanists monitor every plant data round-the-clock, through the on-site tech and even via phone app. The farm productivity is 400 times more per square foot than that of traditional farming. 

One of the keys to AeroFarms’ success is its proprietary grow medium and specially designed sprayer. Credit goes to Cornwell Professor Ed Harwood. The special medium is made of artificial fabric, specifically plastic bottles turned into fleece. This houses the seed through the germination phase and provides support for the plants as they grow upwards. The roots can freely grow through the cloth as well and are nurtured with nutrients through gentle mists.

To date, there is no stopping the upward growth of AeroFarms, which Mr. Rosenberg attributes to the science, the tech, and the people being at their optimum best.

Conclusion

Vertical farming is touted by some as the answer to an impending food crisis, as our population raises to billions of people more in the upcoming decades. History tells us that it was through unity that vertical farming stood the test of time. In modern terms, through collaboration as a global village now, this noble concept is bound to secure its place in the future. After all, “united, we stand…” is a time-tested truth.

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