Sustainability In Vertical Farming

For us, sustainability is a never ending process or journey. Our hope is to improve our business model each day, each month, each year, so that when we look back on the past we can confidentiality know that we are operating in a more sustainable way than before. When we first started this vertical farm, our hope was to create a more sustainable way to grow food in cold weather climates.

At Volcano Veggies, we approach this concept of sustainability through three channels:

  1. Planet
  2. People
  3. Profits

Planet

This is generally the first thing people think of when talking about sustainability. What is our impact on this Earth, and how can we minimize it as much as possible? Here are some things we are doing to help keep our planet thriving:

  1. Zero waste aquaculture
    1. Fish farming is notorious for producing large amounts of waste. We have developed a zero waste system that re-uses all the excess fish waste to grow plants. 
  2. Compostable Packaging
    1. All the packaging we use is made from plants and can be composted and turned back into hummus (plant soil). You can compost it at home or at an industrial center. The great thing is even if the package ends up in the landfill, if conditions are right, it will break down. 
  3. Energy Conservation
    1. Growing food on a traditional outdoor farm is not free of environmental impact. And in the case of energy conservation, It often requires lots of heavy machinery that creates a lot of pollution. Also, most farm land is located far away from population centers, creating long delivery routes and high food miles.
    2. LED lighting
      1. We use state of the art LED lightning which is extremely energy efficient.
      2. Even if you were growing in a greenhouse, in our area, you would still need supplemental lighting for the long winter. By bringing our farm inside a well insulated structure, our HVAC and dehumidification costs are much lower than that of a greenhouse. 
      3. We also use the heat generated by the lights to heat our fish tanks, where other fish farms would have to use a heater, without the added benefit of growing veggies with that heat.
      4. A comparison to greenhouses
        1. We have actually done a comparison of several greenhouses across the united states and found that our energy usage was about the same for the same output of crop production. 
      5. Also, all of our power can be generated by renewables, something a tractor cannot claim. 
    3. Food Miles
      1. Our farm is located in the heart of Bend, Oregon.  Most stores we deliver to are within a 2 mile radius and our produce arrives within an hour of being harvested.
  4. Water Conservation
    1. Because we reuse our water, our farm use 99% less water than traditional agriculture. Since we live in a “high desert” that is often experiencing drought conditions, we think that is a really big deal.
      1. Because we are indoors, we can recapture any water loss from evaporation and plant transpiration (plants releasing water into the air) through our dehumidification system.
    2. All outside agriculture has runoff. What is runoff? It is any water that is carrying fertilizer that the plants do not use. This water eventually ends up in rivers, streams, aquifers and reservoirs. This causes water pollution, algae blooms, and low dissolved oxygen that all lead to aquatic animal deaths and unusable water. 
      1. Because our system is closed loop, our water never makes it to the watershed and has no agricultural runoff
  5. Certified Organic
    1. We are one of just two certified organic indoor vertical aquaponic farms in the world. When we first started our farm, if we couldn’t do it organically, we were not going to do it at all.  You can learn more about the benefits of organic farming here.
    2. If a farmer tells you that they use “organic practices” and the only reason they do not get the certification is that it is too expensive, DO NOT BELIEVE them. They are hiding something. Organic certification is affordable and provides third party credibility.  Without that third party watch dog, a farm can literally say whatever they want with no repercussions. 
  6. Land Conservation
    1. We are able to build our farms in old buildings, turning vacant lots into a food oasis.
    2. Our systems take up only 160 square feet and produce 2 acres worth of organic produce. 

 

People

What good is saving the planet if the work environment is toxic? We strive to pay our employees a living wage and provide a workplace that they enjoy coming to everyday. Without our employees this vertical farm would not exist. We try our best to make sure every single worker is appreciated. Our motto is family and fun first, then come to work. It has created a culture that breeds independence, creativity and freedom, which then results in highly productive work hours. Why is this so important? It is with any business, but especially farms.

Most farms rely heavily on volunteer labor. And most farmers do not count their own hours as an expense. Both facets are completely unsustainable and can create unsustainable low prices for their product. 

Why is volunteer labor a bad thing?

Volunteering is not bad. A business that relies on volunteers as part of it’s business model to stay a float is not a sustainable business model. Yet this practice is common for small farms across the country. What other business can get away with not paying for labor? A business that cannot afford its operating costs is not a sustainable business and will eventually fail. That is why we pay all our workers and do not use volunteers. Volunteers are a band-aid on a much bigger wound. If not accounted for in your cost of goods sold, that wound will consume the farm. What is even worse is that farms that rely on volunteers can have lower prices than farms that do pay their workers. This race to the bottom of pricing can have a detrimental affect on not only the farm with volunteers, but also the farm that is trying to do the right thing by paying their employees.

Farmers who do not value their time

Most small scale farmers work lonnnnnng days and do not factor that into their cost of goods sold. Just like we state above, this practice is not sustainable. When you do the math, let’s say a farmer brings in $3000 a month, but had to work 344 hours that month (80 hours a week) that translates to $8.72. Hardly enough to live on in most areas, especially given how hard and long you have to work for that. And expenses still need to be taken out of that $3000. So once you take out rent/mortgage, fertilizer costs, insurance, packaging, gas, maintenance, etc, you get down to almost a $1/hour. Eventually the farmer runs out of energy and quits. Which we can all agree, is a bad thing for that local community and that farmer. However if they had just factored their labor into their cost of goods, and then charged the appropriate amount, then that farmer would have a great, long lasting, sustainable business.  Local, organic food is generally a higher quality product and it makes sense that it should cost more than commodity food. 

What does Volcano Veggies do?

We treat our vertical farm as a business and calculate every expense into the cost of goods, so we can keep our doors open 24/7 365 days a year. That includes paying our employees and creating a fun work environment.

 

Profit

Certainly not the most talked about aspect of sustainability, but arguably the most important. I address a lot of this already under the “People” section above, so I will keep this brief. If a farm, vertical or otherwise, can’t turn a profit, the company will fail. To have a sustainable business means to be able to pay your workers, pay yourselves, and save money in the bank. If all three are not happening, then that farm will eventually collapse.  We are happy and proud to say we are a profitable indoor vertical farm. This is a feat that no other vertical farm is claiming at the time of writing this. 

 

Conclusion

Sustainability can take many forms. For Volcano Veggies, we want to limit our impact on the planet, Create a fun and fruitful work environment, and grow our business. There is always room for improvement. This is a journey that has no end.  We are by no means perfect and still have a long ways to go, but know that by supporting Volcano Veggies, you are supporting a company that strives to be the most sustainable farm we can be.