The University of the District of Columbia is the nation’s only urban land-grant university, so it was a particularly appropriate setting for the Association of Vertical Farming (AVF) to host the AVF Summit 2017 on September 22. The summit was a mix of education, advocacy, and policy discussion about urban agriculture — vertical farming in particular — targeted at finding ways to broaden its adoption in cities around the country and around the world.
You’ve probably heard quite a bit in recent months about vertical farming — systems for growing food in stacked layers in completely controlled environments, applying inputs such as light, water, and fertilizer in precise amounts. While there’s some use of these systems in greenhouse settings, in many cases, urban farmers are repurposing abandoned buildings or even shipping containers. Match the availability of these facilities in most large urban areas with big cities’ limited access to fresh, local produce and you can see why interest — and investment — are growing.
Around 100 people attended the summit, a mix of researchers, suppliers, government employees, and potential growers. The overriding interest of most seemed to be in the potential of vertical farming not just as a business opportunity, but also as technology that can help solve some of the most pressing problems of getting nutritious food to people in areas where there’s limited availability. Techniques such as hydroponics or aeroponics can produce crops with a fraction of the water and nutrient resources required in traditional outdoor production.
“Vertical farming will be one pillar to help tackle these problems,” said Christine Zimmerman-Loessi, Chairwoman of AVF.
That said, the resources required to produce crops in completely enclosed environments where the grower supplies all the inputs — even the light — can be expensive. That’s certainly a limiting factor in adopting vertical systems to this point. A number of people at the conference suggested that as the technology advances and becomes more affordable, vertical farming will become a much more reasonable investment and business.
Sessions throughout the day covered issues from urban zoning and permitting to topics that are more familiar to experienced growers, such as the importance of having a good food safety program.
The concluding session, and possibly the most relevant for the longer-term adoption of urban agriculture and vertical farming, was a discussion of the upcoming farm bill negotiations.
Bob Van Heuvelen, CEO of VH Strategies, a legislative policy and strategic consulting firm, is working with the AVF for recognition of urban ag in the next farm bill through the Agricultural Innovation Alliance.
Van Heuvelen told the group there’s opportunity in a number of areas under the farm bill. For instance, vertical farming could:
- Win explicit recognition in the U.S. Code for promoting activities including urban agriculture, edible gardens, green walls, rooftop agriculture, and indoor vertical farms;
- Gain funding for data collection as part of a census of urban agriculture;
- Create an Office of Urban Agriculture;
- Earn competitive grants to support urban ag and get access to research funding for improving indoor production methods; and
- Fund market access and foreign market development programs.
Van Heuvelen was clear it would be a tough fight to win any of these points. The focus of the current administration in Washington, D.C., is on cutting the budget for farm bill programs, and placing more emphasis on rural agriculture than on urban ag. But, he said, the only way to have a chance to move things forward is to ask for it.