The Hudson Valley’s heritage as an agrarian Eden is a long and storied one, from Accord’s Saunderskill Farm, which holds the honor of having been in operation since 1680, to our booming pick-your-own offerings. But lately, there’s a different approach to growing that’s gaining a foothold: vertical farming. Instead of spreading seeds and saplings across large stretches of earth, plants cozy up in vertically stacked, layered indoor beds, to better use (and conserve) space and resources.
Vertical farming can be as simple as growing pots of herbs on a sunny kitchen shelf or it can be done hydroponically (with roots in a water-based solution) or aeroponically (with the roots exposed to the air) inside a windowless space under agricultural grow lights.
“There’s definitely more interest in this practice with investment doubling over the last three years,” says Neil Mattson, Ph.D., a Cornell University horticulture professor.
Why this fast-growing focus on vertical farming? Since it takes up less space, vertical farming helps maintain resources—one doesn’t have to own or water acres and acres of land. It also brings growing closer to home. By controlling conditions in, say, a small-footprint greenhouse, a farmer can grow a bumper crop that would otherwise have to be trucked from a warmer climate.
A decrease in food transportation can help lower prices and greenhouse-gas emissions while boosting freshness. Mattson says it usually takes six days for produce to travel from California to New York. With vertical farming, veggies can be at your market in minutes, having been harvested just a mile or two away.
Additionally, when cultivated indoors, plants can dodge ravenous and potentially disease-laden insects and critters (and, in turn, pesticides). Growth cycles are also sped up by vertical farming, so crops can be harvested sooner.
Commercial vertical farms are being set up on rooftops and in empty warehouses all over New York, with LED lights and automated environmental systems providing TLC to the crops. Restaurants are getting growing, too. During the pandemic, Poughkeepsie’s Farmers & Chefs restaurant grew leafy greens in a specially outfitted shipping container on their premises, much to the delight of their outdoor-dining patrons.
Many home growers are exploring this technique, too. In Ulster County, Kathy Puffer has been nurturing her vertical farm for her family and her CSA. She’s also launched the website Hudson Valley Vertical Farms (hvvf.net) which offers advice and sells supplies for this pursuit.
Puffer dove in about a decade ago, when she wanted to grow her own food but was stymied by the sandy soil of her Tillson home. “My oldest child, Abigail, was a very picky eater due to her autism, and I wanted her to see where her food comes from,” she says. “I started with a Tower Garden set-up on my back porch. My daughter and I learned how to vertical farm together.”
Puffer has since graduated to a larger-scale vertical greenhouse operation that can survive bracingly cold Hudson Valley winters. By having stacked trays of produce, she can grow more in a smaller footprint area, meaning less square footage to tend to and heat. She’s currently wrangling the opposite end of the temperature spectrum and plans to install a cooling system. “Over the last three growing seasons in the Hudson Valley, we are staying too warm for too long which makes it hard to grow well,” she explains.
Aside from this snag, Puffer has been delighted with her bounty. She’s a big fan of Hudson Valley Seed Company in Accord, especially their Asian greens collection that includes green wave mustard, mizuna, and vivid choi. Vines work well vertically, too, Puffer says, meaning those who crave beans and tomatoes will be happily rewarded.
For home gardeners who want to give vertical farming a go, Puffer’s advice is to start small, with a windowsill of herb trays or a stack of microgreens on a sunny shelf. “There are affordable set-ups available, and I’ve even seen people macrame together empty bottles to create a vertical farm by a window,” she says. “It’s like an art project and science project all in one.”
Related: How to Live an Eco-Friendly Hudson Valley Lifestyle This Year