Growing organic food, cannabis and medicinal plants: overcoming the challenges of vertical farming


The vertical farming market has been growing exponentially in recent years, and though the industry is proving to be increasingly more profitable, the practice of vertical farming is not without its challenges.

Accelerated demand for organic produce as well as rising concerns about sustainability have certainly paved the way for the development of an industry that shows incredible promise, and not just because it addresses consumers’ concerns.

Here, Ian Hart, business development director at adi Projects, a division of the multi-disciplined engineering firm adi Group, gives expert advice on the engineering solutions businesses need to adopt in order to be successful in the vertical farming field.

The advantages

When it comes to solving some of the problems associated with growing crops on soil, including cannabis and medicinal plants, vertical farming has a real role to play.

It is a well-known fact that environmental factors – particularly extreme weather events – can significantly affect the growth of crops, and climate change is an issue too, with experts predicting that rising temperatures might just cause certain types of crops to become extinct.

Vertical farming gives businesses more control over the growth of products, with producers no longer being forced to rely on seasonal changes, weather conditions and other factors that can easily cause disruptions.

Just as valuable in vertical farming is the ability to stack crops, which saves a considerable amount of space, as it is estimated that just one acre of a vertical farm can grow roughly the same amount of product as 10 to 20 soil-based acres.

Though vertical farming can efficiently eliminate some of these risks and concerns while also having a positive environmental impact, not being equipped with the right knowledge and systems to operate in the right way can result is a significant waste of money and resources.

The requirements

Vertical farming facilities have to maintain a delicate indoor environment that satisfies particular conditions.

This chiefly involves the presence of purified air that allow crops to grow without being contaminated by pests, spores and yeast that could easily harm produce.

“Growing plants and vegetables indoors requires specialist watering systems,” begins Ian.

“The plants themselves release large quantities of water as they are growing, so the main issue involves controlling that water within a closed loop air chain system inside the room.

“Air needs to be treated first to remove the contaminants that are present in the air stream, with the added challenge that the air itself will become wet due to the water evaporating from the plants – and this air can’t simply be let out through a window,” continues Ian.

In order to avoid waste and the added costs of cleaning air to such a high standard more times than what is strictly necessary, businesses need to rely on efficient technology that can de-water the clean air and feed it back into the overall system.

What’s the solution?

Using desiccants, which absorb the excess water contained within the purified air, is an effective yet expensive solution.

More convenient and efficient long-term is relying on systems that can exploit the air’s dew points and allow the water to condense back out again, as well as effectively deal with pressurisation and temperature.

“It’s all about facing up to specific challenges and designing bespoke solutions that can keep the environment within those facilities as pure as possible,” says Ian.

“You will naturally experience at least a small percentage of untreated air accidentally making its way into your facility, as well as some purified air escaping, and the ideal engineering solution should allow you to get the balance just right.

“There are multiple process elements that come into this, but getting the overall design correct is crucial,” he adds.

Being mindful from the onset will ensure continuity throughout, removing risk during the planning and construction stages and for the duration of the facility’s lifecycle.

Inefficiency and carelessness will result in waste of energy and ultimately of product, so relying on first-class systems and solutions is crucial.

Why are high standards required?

Though the majority of vertical farming facilities are dedicated to cultivating food crops, being able to grow products of a consistently high standard is particularly important in the context of medicinal plants such as cannabis.

Failing to control air circulation efficiently can lead to a build-up of harmful contaminants inside vertical farming facilities that, left uncontrolled, will inevitably damage the crops.

When it comes to growing products for the pharmaceutical and medical industry, higher standards need to be upheld in order to comply with MHRA regulations.

This is where the aforementioned design factors become even more relevant, as even minor miscalculations can cause producers to be unable to sell their product.

Ultimately, vertical farming provides a number of real opportunities to help brands forge solid reputations as innovators and helping create circular economies.

However, there are obstacles to overcome if vertical farming is to fulfil its potential. Partnering with professionals who have the experience to face these challenges and devise bespoke engineering solutions may just hold the key.

adi develop tailor-made solutions no matter how ambitious the project is, providing assistance every step of the way and integrating quality at every level.

For more information on vertical farming solutions, get in touch with adi today.