In a TEDx Mile High Talk, former three-time Olympian and health expert Jeff Olson described the call of duty during World War II, when Americans bonded together to grow more than 40 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables in victory gardens. The premise was that larger agriculture ventures could go toward feeding our troops overseas.
But, when the war was over, the gardens withered, and during the next two decades, when the American family working-dynamic began to shift, there was another more toward agricultural imperialism. This imperialism birthed a larger global agriculture, as the U.S. government emphasized to its small farmers to “get big or get out,” for high-production and low-margin growing.
Olson warned that modern “industrialized food is a tragedy of human health, an irony of ecology and a paradox of economics.”
Olson elaborated that the solution to this terrible trifecta is the future of “closed-environment agriculture,” or greenhouses with a vertical twist.
Pioneered by the Dutch and now adopted by most industrialized nations — including 2.8 million acres of greenhouses in China — greenhouse growing is, indeed, feeding the world, and sadly, the U.S. is dead last in this effort. We used to be a net exporter of fruits and vegetables, and we are now a net importer of produce.
While greenhouses can be a viable solution, a better solution could be indoor vertical growing — a marriage of Jetson-like food technology with design wizardry of Steve Jobs.
We stand at the convergence of humanities and technology, and vertical aeroponics serves as nature with aerodynamic design. Imagine 43,000 square feet — about an acre — of your favorite greens. Vertical aeroponics can do it in 4,000 square feet. That’s 90 percent less space, with 90 percent less water, giving three times the nutrient density in the plant. Used by NASA and studied by universities around the world, vertical growing has proven efficient time and again.
I recently traveled to Florida to see the start of this revolution at Living Towers Farm, just north of Orlando. For more than six years, Jan Young’s organization has been growing “beyond organic” food for those in need, teaching the techniques of vertical growing to students and in-home gardeners and selling quality food that “doesn’t have to cost the Earth or have a negative impact on it.”
Even though Florida has the weather for outdoor gardening, it does not have the soil for it. Growing vertically yields more and healthier plants. Young’s eggplants, for instance, yield 8 to 10 fruits on a regular basis — about 30 percent more yield than traditional gardening.
Seeing the vision of Living Towers in person and pondering the economics of vertical growing spins my imagination to what this could mean for a local economy. For example, an acre of commodity corn earns a farmer $1,200; an acre of traditionally grown, organic food earns $12,000; and an acre of vertical aeroponics earns a quarter of a million dollars in revenue for one harvest, according to Olson.
Bringing the concept of Victory Gardens full circle, Olson has teamed up with an organization called Veterans to Farmers, which turns protectors into providers with an urban agricultural training program, creating “agropreneurs.” One of the program’s graduates launched the first vertical growing farm on the Front Range that sold out within a year of production, selling produce to fine dining restaurants on the Front Range.
“People are hungry for beautiful food,” Olson said.
Despite being known as an agricultural state, 97 percent of Colorado’s leafy greens are imported from thousands of miles away. With only a 25 percent increase in Colorado-grown food shift, we’d see 31,000 new jobs, generating more than $1 billion in new wages.
In my own home, we have two commercialized, state-of-the-art vertical growing systems, as do many other friends and peers in town — the Tower Garden has been around six years and is fairly well-known by now as an in-home solution to one of the shortest growing seasons on the planet.
However, it’s the larger installations that now inspire me. The vertical farms popping up around the country are something I would like to emulate. For several years, I have been inspired by the O’Hare Airport installation — more than 100 vertical towers in terminal D that outgrew their mission to feed the restaurants so quickly, they now offer a farmers market for travelers, as well.
I have brought this inspiration to several local nonprofits to start working on a project I hope will soon be growing local food on a larger scale, both for families in need and for those who want fresh produce. For more information, contact Andy Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view Jeff Olson’s full TEDx Talk, visit youtube/ttvIeugcigk.
Andy Kennedy a member of the Northwest Colorado Food Coalition.