vertical farming

iStock/Liyao Xie

The future of farming is going in a different direction – literally.

Interest in vertical farming is rapidly expanding, and at Michigan State University, a first-of-its-kind facility is helping with research to show the benefits of this production method.

The Controlled-Environment Lighting Laboratory (CELL) opened in the spring of 2017, after professor Erik Runkle of MSU’s Department of Horticulture championed the idea in order to begin studying the production of high-value food crops indoors.

CELL uses light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, developed in partnership with OSRAM Opto Semiconductors and OSRAM Innovation to manipulate the light environment so high-quality floriculture seedlings and leafy vegetables can grow indoors.

“Most vertical farms are completely indoors and use a hydroponics system to grow plants,” Runkle says. “They contain stacked layers of plants, with each layer consisting of a growing tray for a recirculating nutrient solution and some kind of lighting system above.”

The major benefits of vertical farming, he adds, are year-round production, almost complete control of the growing environment, reduced use of water and fertilizer, elimination of pesticides, potentially higher plant quality, and local production.

“CELL demonstrates the hydroponic production of leafy vegetables, such as lettuce, in an indoor environment, as well as how electric lighting influences various plant quality attributes, like yield, leaf color, leaf size and leaf texture,” Runkle says. “In addition to leafy greens, we continue to research seedlings of floriculture crops with the goal of developing indoor lighting guidelines for this valuable segment of the floriculture industry in Michigan.”

Currently, indoor and vertical farming is still a niche of agriculture, but Runkle says CELL and the research being done at MSU is important to help educate students, commercial growers and the public about its benefits.

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“Vertical farming is expanding because production is not influenced by uncontrollable factors, such as floods or drought; yields are predictable; and resources such as water and fertilizer are used very efficiently,” he says.

As for the future, Runkle hopes that CELL can influence Michigan’s industry to develop indoor lighting strategies for both edible produce and ornamental crops that can increase efficiency, yield and quality.

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