The Best Crops For Vertical Farming
Written by Chris Michael | January 17, 2017
A vital question: "What are the best crops for vertical farming?"
"Vertical farming is not about how much production you can possibly cram into a space. It’s about growing better food closer to market and maximizing your production as a function of the resources you invest, such as capital, light, water, energy, and labor." - Chris Michael, Bright Agrotech
What can you actually grow on vertical planes?
It's a vital question! Anyone considering a vertical farm should be planning out their crops as part of the process. As a farmer, you have to make sure that you can actually sell what you grow and that your production costs won't be too high.
Part of that is good crop choices.
Although choosing crops should be part of a whole feasibility study for your farm, we thought a guide on some of the best vertical crops for vertical farming would be helpful to people in the middle of the planning process.
What can you grow vs. What should you grow
With the right set-up, you can grow almost anything in a vertical farm.
Just because you can, however, doesn't mean that you should. Here are several factors to choosing an appropriate crop for your vertical farm.
1) Economic viability
Even if a crop is biologically viable (you can grow it) it might not be economically viable (you can't make money on it!).
If you can't make money on a crop, there could be several reasons:
Lack of demand (no profit)
Inappropriate technique (high production costs)
Climate (high heating, cooling, light costs)
Of course, each of those factors require a little balancing to master. "High" cost is relative to the margin that you're getting on the output.
Once you understand your demand, budget, and climate requirements, there are a few other factors to consider with your crops:
2) Timing and liability
A "turn" is the time it takes from the seedling going into the system to the mature plant coming out and going to market.
Focusing on crops with really fast turns (lettuce, mustard greens, collard greens, basil, mint) allows you to minimize your liability by never being more than six weeks or so away from production.
Slow-turn crops (like herbs and fruiting crops) are typically a bit trickier but can have higher margins than greens, depending on your local markets. We typically recommend a high greens-to-herbs ratio. For example, a new farmer could start with 80% of his space planted with greens and 20% planted with herbs.
When you know what you do and don't want, you can start browsing through crop lists and seed catalogues! Here are some of ours and our farmers' favorites:
Lettuces (Romaine, Butterhead, Red Leaf, etc.)
Lettuces have fairly consistent demand across much of the world and throughout the year. There are dozens of varieties of lettuce, making it fun to grow and offer to customers. One of our favorites is Amish Deertongue Lettuce (pictured in the photo above).
Kales (Tuscan, Winterboar, and Dinosaur)
Kales are fairly easy to grow, although the crop requires extra care when harvesting if farmers are to get the highest yield. Each type of kale has its own variation on the rich taste and dark colors. The Tuscan kale above is one of the most popular varieties.
Chard & collard greens
Collard greens are like a thicker, deeper version of spinach. They can get quite large in the proper conditions; in the picture above, Sam gets ready to chomp down on a foot-wide collard green leaf!
The gentler version of collard greens, chard is a French green that cooks like spinach. Like kale or collard greens, chard can be harvested multiple times (taking only 30% of the plant each time) and grows back for larger yields later on.
Chives and mint
Chives and mint are some of the best crops for beginners. Although categorized with herbs, both chives and mint have a quick turn and grow densely like a grass. It is also easy to harvest. Here, Dr. Nate prepares to harvest chives by cutting all the way down the face of the ZipGrow Tower.
Basil (Sweet, Lemon, Cinnamon, etc.)
Basil is possibly the most loved ZipGrow crop. It grows better in the ZipGrow Towers than any other technique in the world, and creates demand almost everywhere it goes. While a bit trickier to grow, harvest, and store, many farmers include basil in their crop offering. Some farmers even specialize in the popular crop.
Small woody herbs
Small woody herbs like rosemary and it's kin, thyme and oregano, represent a rather picky group of crops. As woody herbs, they prefer "dry feet", and have a relatively slow growing cycle. Since the shrubby herbs are so potent and unique, many farmers still find the traction to sell them in their markets.
Learn more about crops
Want to learn more about individual crops? Learn more at Upstart University:
OR see which crops farmers like you are growing all over the world through their own pictures and posts.
Get help building your crop list
The Best Crops for Hydroponics introduces the best crops for hydroponics so that growers can be experts on their produce.
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Plant lifecycle from seed to harvest
Common pests and diseases