What do you see when envisioning a farm? A rustic house in the countryside, surrounded by tilled fields with healthy crops wavering in a light breeze? While this romantic image might be preserved in the minds of many, the future of agriculture looks a lot different.
Vertical farming is a new, efficient way of growing crops. It uses soilless farming techniques and aims to optimize plant growth by controlling all the aspects of the process. The gist of vertical farming is that it enables farmers to grow more produce in smaller areas than regular farms, since the crops are grown in stacked layers rather than on expansive fields. It is a step towards a more sustainable future—and one that’s been taken by VAXA.
Sci-fi setting in an industrial area
Located within a 10-minute drive from central Reykjavík, VAXA farm holds court in a grey industrial building next to Bauhaus. Looking at the building, it’s hard to imagine it houses one of Europe’s largest vertical farms. Nothing suggests that this place is home to an ample amount of greens.
When stepping inside the building, you can’t help thinking that the place must be a backdrop for a sci-fi movie. It feels like you’ve entered a space station orbiting the Earth.
Upon entering the growing room, visitors are equipped with lab coats and shoe covers. Hands are required to be sanitized before going into the area, and many doors need to be opened before reaching the destination.
That’s when that ingrained image of a farm goes through a complete metamorphosis: farming at VAXA is on a whole new level–quite literally. Growing the produce takes place indoors, without even the slightest sight of sunlight. The plants are grown on multiple floors, stacked one on top of the other. Each floor is divided into two levels: the upper one carries the greens and the lower is filled with water, which the plants then absorb. Sunlight is replaced with countless LED lights, while heat and humidity are adjusted with air conditioning, and dozens of fans mimic the wind. The process is meticulously controlled to create ideal conditions for the greens to grow.
The result is shelves overflowing with healthy heads of lettuce, baby leaves, herbs, and micro greens, all packed with flavour. VAXA produces only greens at the moment, though they have experimented with growing kohlrabi and parsnips as well. Each month, the farm cultivates a hefty amount of greens, which are sold to Icelandic restaurants, grocery stores, and individual customers who have signed up for a weekly farm box delivery.
Solutions For The Future
Walking between the flourishing shelves, Íris Ósk Valþórsdóttir, the Chief Operating Officer of VAXA, describes the benefits of vertical farming. As the world’s population grows rapidly, field spaces will only decrease. Vertical farming makes it possible to grow considerable amounts of produce in smaller spaces. “This place is 600 square meters, but we’re actually growing on 1500 square meters, because we aren’t growing the plants on one level. It’s a no-brainer for areas that have limited amounts of land to utilize vertical farming,” she says, looking up at the high shelves filled with greens.
In addition to its space efficiency, this new way of farming is much friendlier to the environment than greenhouses and fields that are out in the open. The water that’s used to grow the plants in VAXA farm is reused by pumping it out to a container, cleaning it and then pumping it back inside the plant shelves. “That means we can grow a kilo of salad using only a liter of water,” Íris explains. In a traditional greenhouse, the amount of water required would be at least 15 times higher, not to mention the fields outside, where growing one kilo of greens requires an astonishing 250 liters of water. “A lot of the water goes to waste in the fields, when it’s absorbed by the soil,” she says.
So why isn’t vertical farming more popular if it checks all the boxes from efficiency to eco friendliness? Íris thinks that one of the reasons might be that the method is quite far ahead of its time. “It’s been a bit of a struggle to fit into the system,” she recounts. Because VAXA isn’t a conventional greenhouse, securing government grants and down payments has been a challenge. “We can’t even get certified as organic, because we don’t do things by their standards, although it doesn’t get more organic than this,” she adds.
Visionaries Of Farming
Because VAXA believes in what they are doing, they continue their work—even if society is lagging behind. “We want to be cutting edge,” Íris remarks. She implies that VAXA has bigger plans as well: “This here is supposed to be a proven concept, just so we know that it works, in case we want to do it somewhere else.”
Though modest about it, VAXA is certainly bringing us closer to the future. “People think we work with sci-fi products, but at the end of the day, we’re just growing salad,” Íris laughs.
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