Defining the Vertical Grow

by | Jan 9, 2019

Written by Kristina Etter

Kristina is a digital content creator and designer. She has a talent for creating engaging and informative content that resonates with our professional audience. Kristina’s passion for the cannabis industry stems from her belief that it has the potential to revolutionize the world in many ways, and has a personal testimony of cannabis success.

As sprawling commercial cannabis cultivation facilities crop up across North America, there’s no denying these facilities are expensive operations. From the real estate required to massive energy bills and significant staffing requirements, maintaining a cannabis grow isn’t cheap. Maximizing space and reducing operating costs is of utmost importance to most commercial cannabis growers. As such, single level, horizontal farming rooms, are waning as operators search for ways to improve yields, cut costs, and improve efficiencies.

With vertical farming techniques and equipment, cannabis growers are pushing the boundaries of innovation upwards, and into the realms of vertical growing. Whether the method requires soil, hydroponics, or aeroponics vertical growing operations can help cultivators expand their operation without expanding their footprint.

Vertical Farming vs. Stacked Farming

Many refer to stacked growing systems as vertical growing solutions. However, in reality, the typical stacked system is merely a horizontal farm, replicated, and placed on a secondary level. This new level, still requires a separate lighting source, the staff to maintain it, and generally some type of mechanics to move or rotate the plants down to a level where employees can easily reach the plants.

Soil-based and hydroponics systems are the most popular varieties of indoor stacked farming options. Setups are typically a series of automatic shelving units, with two to three vertical rows of plants. While these kinds of stacked systems improve the yield per square foot averages, they typically don’t do anything to help reduce costs. In fact, stacked systems may increase production costs because of the duplication of equipment and resources necessary for each level of cultivation.

The True Vertical

A true vertical operation takes the idea of upright cultivation to a whole new level. Vertical growing is a concept that literally flips the conventional wisdom of farming, on its head. There are many iterations of what a vertical operation can look like, but the principles of vertical farms focus on space-savings, energy efficiency, and increased yields. Depending on crop and specific set up, a vertical design can achieve 70 to 90 percent water efficiency over horizontal grows, and boost canopy space eight times over.

Vertical growing options for cannabis farms are evolving. From aeroponics to hydroponics to soil, cannabis producers are coming up with innovative solutions to “grow up” instead of out.

Hydroponic Vertical Farming – STEM Cultivation

Hydroponic systems use an alternative growing medium such as rock wool, coconut husks, or clay pellets. Not all hydroponic solutions are suitable for all types of vertical operations, but the concept revolves around removing the soil from the equation and to provide the plant's root system with direct access to a water-based nutrient mixture. Water resources are effectively targeting the plants, and water is recycled back into the system for reuse.

A hydroponic vertical set up improves profitability and reduces resource waste. Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) and Hydroponic Stairs are two systems which transition well into a vertical farming solution.

By using a true vertical SOG method precisely fed by closed-loop hydroponics, STEM Cultivation's all-inclusive platform claims to consistently yield more than 5 times the grams per square feet of real estate for a fraction of the start-up and ongoing operating expenses of an indoor grow operation with a similar footprint. Further, STEM Boxes exceed virtually every efficiency metric used by growers, including grams/watt; watts/sq. ft. (canopy); grams/kWh/sq. ft. (real estate); and cost/pound. Altogether, STEM Cultivation helps any grower can lower costs, sell for higher margins, and remain competitive when prices inevitably fall. (Photo courtesy STEM Cultivation.)

A Soil-based Vertical Farm by Green Living Technologies, Inc.

Believing soil-grown cannabis is superior to chemical-laden, hydroponic techniques, Green Living Technologies is changing the familiar “Sea of Green” terminology into a “wall of green.” By flipping growing pots sideways, GLTi’s system allows for efficient, vertical soil cultivation which increases yields, reduces cost and maximizes space. Using their proprietary Vertical Cultivation System, VCS, GLTi claims cultivators can reduce labor costs by as much as 70 percent, reduce wastewater, and recognize up to 65 percent in energy savings.

With broad function LED lighting, the vertical growing system achieves deeper canopy penetration, eliminates the need for separate vegetation and bloom rooms, and reduces operating costs by 5 percent. Additionally, the GLTi vertical system uses a proprietary, certified organic bio-soil. Using advanced biotechnology, the living soil reduces or eliminates the need for fertilizers or fungicides, which also reduces operating costs.

Aeroponic Vertical Farming of Cannabis – Tower Farms from Ibiza

The concept behind aeroponic farming removes the equation of soil altogether. Instead of submerging roots into a dense nutrient solution, like hydroponic techniques, the plant's roots are suspended and regularly misted with nutrients. This system has the best water saving capacity but has so far proven commercially less attractive. However, Ibiza Farms hopes to change that with their vertical aeroponic towers.

The stats from Tower Gardens vegetable crops are impressive. When compared to conventional farming techniques, a Tower Garden produces 30 percent increases in yields. It also recycles 100 percent of its water and reduces consumption of water by 90 percent.

The company, known for vegetable towers, has branched out into cannabis. Their tall cylindrical towers can produce up to 20 plants in a space that before held only a handful. Nutrients and water are delivered as the plants require, with absolutely no waste. In the company's own comparisons between aeroponic towers and soil-based growing, they were able to reduce nutrients costs from 50 EUR to 5 EUR per plant, a ten-fold reduction.

The cannabis industry is booming, but most operations already know it’s only a matter of time before the numbers catch up with them. As real-estate and resources are gobbled up by the industry, growing space will come at a premium. The future of cannabis, as with other crops in high demand, will surely move vertically to improve harvest per square foot of growing space, while also reducing operational costs.