2 min read

Getting High on Vertical Farms

Dickson D Despommier (someone’s parents didn’t like them) has been drinking some pretty strong Kool-Aide based on his recent NYTimes article. He advocates building vertical farms directly in cities, as a way to reclaim farm land for nature, feed billions more people, use less water, green cities, and allow for more people to eat local. Sounds great, but after reading the article, I am less inclined to believe this works.

Among many of his anecdotal and ill supported (though humorous) thought gems:

We have the technology — now we need money, political will and, of course, proof that this concept can work. That’s why a prototype would be a good place to start. I estimate that constructing a five-story farm, taking up one-eighth of a square city block, would cost $20 million to $30 million. Part of the financing should come from the city government, as a vertical farm would go a long way toward achieving Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s goal of a green New York City by 2030. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has already expressed interest in having a vertical farm in the city.City officials should be interested. If a farm is located where the public can easily visit it, the iconic building could generate significant tourist dollars, on top of revenue from the sales of its produce.

via Op-Ed Contributor — A Farm on Every Floor — NYTimes.com.

Some questions: Why would people come visit a farm in a building? Would I rather have pesticides or tourist sweat on my food?

But don’t get the wrong idea, Mr. Triple D believes in private ownership too:

But most of the financing should come from private sources, including groups controlling venture-capital funds. The real money would flow once entrepreneurs and clean-tech investors realize how much profit there is to be made in urban farming. Imagine a farm in which crop production is not limited by seasons or adverse weather events. Sales could be made in advance because crop-production levels could be guaranteed, thanks to the predictable nature of indoor agriculture.

If it’s so cost effective to build these, why aren’t they everywhere already? If you don’t need a government hand-out to build it, why even mention that in the first place? Don’t futures contracts already allow sales to be made in advance?

Dickson discloses that he has started a business to build vertical farms, and is righting a paper on it. Generally, you don’t disclose your brilliant new business model in the NYTimes, unless it’s not so brilliant. Again, why is he playing a public relations game rather than just doing it? If I had to guess I would think that the costs are through the roof, because throughtout the article, Dickson does not mention the cost competitiveness of vertical farming once, and only gives one thin example of possible profit.

In the end, Dickson comes off as a hopeless hippie high on his optimism and love for all things green. Not the type of person you trust to bring real answers to tough problems.