These Vertical Farmers Claim They’re Revitalizing Agriculture

And they’re growing underground

Jeremy Reynolds
Heated
Published in
6 min readOct 29, 2019

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Bethany Thurston photos

Dozens of feet below ground might not seem like the best place to cultivate plants, considering the lack of sunlight, but a small yet growing number of entrepreneurs are exploring subterranean sites for potential farms.

Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier kickstarted scientific, agricultural, technological, architectural, and even political interest in futuristic growing techniques with his 2010 book “The Vertical Farm.” In the years since, vertical farming, which increases growing efficiency by stacking rows of plants in greenhouses under LED lights, has flourished as an industry.

Many of the world’s major cities have their own iterations of vertical farms, and companies are sinking millions of dollars into research and development for large-scale hydroponic and aeroponic vertical farms that could produce far greater crop yields than traditional farming — year-round. Some projections value the industry at nearly $10 billion by 2025, up from only $400 million in 2013. To put that in perspective, the agriculture industry as a whole is estimated at a couple trillion dollars globally.

Left, the tunnel route toward Growing Underground in Clapham, a suburb of London; Right and below, the vertical grow room.

Vertical farming is a small part of the big, complicated picture of revitalizing the world’s food systems. But what if instead of reaching higher, these farms headed underground? Some businesses are exploring underground sites for farms, from abandoned London tunnels to limestone mines in Pennsylvania, from newspaper archives in Sweden to coal mines in Wales.

“At some stage, yes, I do see this completely replacing field agriculture,” said Steve Dring, co-founder of the London-based farm Growing Underground. “But I’m talking generations down the line. It’ll be complementary for now as the transition takes place.”

Dring founded Growing Underground with Richard Ballard in a World War II-era section of London’s tunnels in…

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Jeremy Reynolds
Heated
Writer for

Classical music critic in Pittsburgh, freelancer for various publications. @Reynolds_PG