A Look at the History of Vertical Farming

Although vertical farms have only begun to appear on the agricultural scene in the last decade or so, the concept behind these innovative farming facilities is hardly new. Read on for a look at some of historical theories, discoveries, inventions, and prototypes that have led to the evolution of the modern vertical farm.

Pre-20th Century

600 BC — Perhaps the earliest example of a “vertical farm” is the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built by King Nebuchadnezzar II more than 2,500 years ago. According to some scholars, the gardens consisted of a series of vaulted terraces, stacked one on top of the other, and planted with many different types of trees and flowers. Reaching a height of 20 meters, the gardens were likely irrigated by an early engineering innovation known as a chain pump, which would have used a system of buckets and pulleys to bring water from the Euphrates River at the foot of the gardens to a pool at the top.

Hanging Gardens | Fantasy ArtFlickr

1150 AD — Nearly a thousand years ago, Aztec people used a form of hydroponic farming known as “chinampas” to grow crops in marshy areas near lakes. Since the swampy soil in these areas was not suitable for agriculture, the Aztecs instead constructed rafts out of reeds, stalks, and roots; covered the rafts with mud and soil from the lake bottom; and then drifted them out into the lake. Due to the structural support provided by the rafts, crops could grow upwards while their roots grew downwards through the rafts and into the water. Often, many of these individual rafts were attached together to form expansive floating “fields.”

1627 — The first published theory of hydroponic gardening and farming methods appears in the book Sylva Sylvarum, by the English scientist and statesman Sir Francis Bacon. In this book, Bacon establishes and explores the possibility of growing terrestrial plants without soil.

1699 — English scientist John Woodward refines the idea of hydroponic gardening with a series of water culture experiments conducted with spearmint. Woodward finds that the plants grow better in water with impurities than they do in distilled water, leading him to conclude that the plants derive important nutrients from soil and other additives mixed into water solutions.

20th Century and Beyond

1909 — Life Magazine publishes the earliest drawing of a “modern” vertical farm. The sketch shows open-air layers of vertically stacked homes set in a farming landscape, all cultivating food for consumption.

1915 — The term “vertical farming” is coined by American geologist Gilbert Ellis Bailey in his book of the same name. Interestingly, Bailey focuses primarily on farming “down” rather than “up.” That is, he explores a type of underground farming in which farmers use explosives to be able to farm deeper, thus increasing their total available area and allowing for larger crops to be grown.

1929 — William F. Gericke, an agronomist at the University of California, Berkeley, is credited with developing modern hydroponics. In his article “Aquaculture: A means of Crop-production,” published in December 1929, Gericke outlines the process of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid, using added nutrients but no soil.

1937 — The term “hydroponics” is coined in an article published in Science magazine. Derived from the Greek words “hydro,” or water, and “ponos,” or labor, the term was suggested to Gericke as an alternative to “aquaculture” (which was already in use to describe fish-breeding techniques) by his University of California associate, botanist William Albert Setchell.

1940 — World War II sees hydroponic growing systems used on a large scale for the first time in modern history. More than 8,000 tons of fresh vegetables are produced hydroponically on South Pacific Islands to feed the Allied forces stationed there.

1964 — At the Vienna International Horticulture Exhibition, a vertical farm in the form of a tall glass tower is displayed.

1989 — Architect and ecologist Kenneth Yeang created a vision of mixed-use buildings that are seamlessly integrated with green spaces, allowing plant life to be cultivated in buildings in the open air. Yeang described this as “vegetated architecture.” Unlike many other approaches to vertical farming, this vision is based on personal and community use rather than large-scale production and distribution.

1999 — The concept of the modern vertical farm is developed in a class led by Columbia University environmental health sciences professor Dr. Dickson Despommier. In an effort to figure out an effective way to feed the population of New York using only urban rooftop agriculture, Despommier and his students developed the idea of a multi-story building in which layers of crops could be grown on each floor: in other words, a contemporary vertical farming tower. (Despommier has since gone on to become the world’s foremost expert on and proponent of vertical farms.)

2006 — The Japanese company Nuvege develops one of the essential ingredients for indoor vertical farms: a proprietary light network that balances light emissions in order to increase the return rate of vegetables.

2009 — The first modern vertical farm is built. Sky Green Farms’ Singapore facility consists of more than 100 towers, each of which is 9 meters tall, that grow green vegetables using sunlight and captured rainwater.