U.S. Army Ranger, economist and real estate developer Nick Starling is founder and chairman of Skyscraper Farm LLC. Below is a conversation he had with Washington Times Special Sections Manager Cheryl Wetzstein about his company and his vision for worldwide vertical farming that is conducted in very tall buildings — with residential and commercial space as well as dozens of floors for aeroponic and hydroponic crops — and relies primarily on sunlight for the crops. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What attracted you, an economist, to the concept of vertical farming?
I first came up with the idea of Skyscraper Farm during my freshman year taking “Intro to Human Geography” at Hawaii Pacific University. A professor put up a map of America, pointed to the coasts and said, “This is where everybody lives,” and then pointed to the center and said, “And this is where we grow our food.” That’s when I had my light bulb moment, and I made this really crude drawing trying to figure out how to get sunlight into the center of the building.
Q: What kind of innovations distinguish Skyscraper Farm from other types of vertical farming?
You can’t feed 9.6 billion people with field farms. And we, at Skyscraper Farm, are betting that sunlight is better than LED lights. Sunlight is like dinner to the plants, and LED lights are like protein bars.
Also, Skyscraper Farm is the only vertical farming solution that can maintain its “alpha,” which means it will keep a return on investment above the industry standard. The reason why we’re able to do that is due to low cost of goods sold — 90 percent of costs in other vertical farms are their electric bills because they’re running LED lights 24 hours a day. We cut that out completely; we use sunlight. Judging by its track record, we’re pretty confident in betting that sunlight can grow plants.
Q. You have an overarching concept you call HIDDEN WAFER about your project. Can you explain this?
The acronym stands for health, infrastructure, diplomacy, development, energy, national security and water, agriculture, finance, environment and real estate.
With health, the shorter time to table has massive implications for health and nutrition. When you can get a vegetable right from a bush, it’s so much more nutritious and it just tastes better. If you can get food from farm to table in less than an hour — or within an hour to everyone within a 15-mile radius, which is a goal of Skyscraper Farm — then that’s great. And for those who buy our condos, it’s farm to table in less than five minutes.
On infrastructure: There’s a 55,000-trucker shortage so that means it costs even more to get fruits and veggies across the country to your table. With a vertical farm right in the center of the city, you can reduce the number of what’s called “food miles” — and reduce wear and tear on the nation’s highways and byways. There’s also a reduction in the need for water infrastructure or to get water to remote fields where those farmers are farming.
Development refers to the elevation of economic conditions. The global average farm yields are 50 percent; with vertical farming, there’s greater yield of 92 percent or better at a cheaper cost. Engel’s law says that the less money you make, the greater proportion of your income you spend on food, which is why people in Haiti are spending 60 cents on the dollar for food while Americans spend 6.7 cents on the dollar for food. Furthermore, if people can spend less money on high-quality, high-nutrition foods — like kale and other vegetables — it will help fight malnutrition.
Diplomacy means vertical farms will permit diplomats to pull certain levels in their diplomatic relations with countries; no more food or water riots.
Energy: Around 20 percent of U.S. oil demand is for agriculture, and a full 60 percent of that is for production. People may see 16-wheelers hauling produce, but they don’t see the combines and tractors running in the field. Vertical farming can make countries more energy independent.
And national security is critical: Armies march on their stomachs. So having a Skyscraper Farm in the world’s largest Navy base means fresh produce can be delivered from farm to ship almost immediately before departure as well as provide a stable source of fresh crops. Moreover, field farms are absolutely indefensible and subject to constant threat of bio and chemical attacks; a Skyscraper Farm is the only defensible option.
Then with water: We don’t have a water crisis, we have a water allocation crisis. Seventy percent of the world’s fresh water is used on agriculture. With the current 50-percent yield globally, there’s a lot of water wasted on food that doesn’t even make it to harvest. Vertical farming recycles 95 percent of the water it uses. Furthermore, the quality of water is greatly affected: With regular farming, you have agricultural runoff [with pesticides and herbicides] that get into the watersheds and ultimately into the oceans, creating nitrogen hypoxia, algae blooms, ocean acidification and other deleterious effects.
Regarding agriculture, we are able to do 17 to 20 harvests a year with speed breeding or selectively breeding a crop such as wheat that grows shorter and faster, with more wheat and less chaff. You can imagine that one of the things we’re going to be working on with Skyscraper Farm is developing fast-growing lettuces, arugulas and spinaches — with the proteins of lentils and quinoa bred into them and as many vitamins as we can pack in there. Our produce will maintain the highest nutrient content out there. People on diets could eat just one bowl of Skyscraper Farm salad and have everything they need for the day, which is also huge for the developing world where people might only be able to afford one bowl a day. No messing with genetics. Non-GMO. No pesticides. No herbicides. No fungicides. Just fresh, clean food for your family.
For finance, we will be able to finance buildings off of clean, nutritious and safe commodities. For example, there was news in April of soil-based spinach crops being attacked by algae. If this were to try to happen in a Skyscraper Farm, we would clean out the buildings and have new harvests in 18 to 22 days. Also, in times of scarcity of a crop, with enough scale and quantity, we can push the price back down. That way poor people who could barely afford to buy spinach would be able to buy it again.
Another financial impact occurs through the leasing options that can be instituted with American farmers. Hydroponic and aeroponic growing systems will make such large quantities of food that field farmers will not be able to compete. So, if our farmers don’t move inside and start using vertical farming technologies, within 10 years almost all of our produce is going to come from China because they will be able to outprice us. China is watching and learning everything that Singapore, the world capital of vertical farming, is doing and will likely be close behind in vertical farming technology.
Environmental impact: Once Skyscraper Farm is to scale, there will be an elimination of agricultural runoff. There’s a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from Houston to Pensacola because of runoff from the Mississippi River. In the Chesapeake Bay, 45 percent of the nitrates, 44 percent of the phosphates and 55 percent of the sediment come from agriculture. That’s why we want to put Skyscraper Farms all around the Bay — to prove the point about agricultural-runoff elimination.
Going into real estate, we need to feed 9.6 billion people in several decades — which could mean needing an extra 8.5 million square kilometers of farmland! That’s the size of Brazil. So, we need to be able to grow up instead of growing out.
Q: What is your vision for Skyscraper Farm in terms of number, timeline, etc., in the next decade?
I would like to see at least 75 52-story Skyscraper Farms built in the United States in 10 years. To maintain energy neutrality, we must have at least 200 sunlight days a year; if there are more sunlight days, we can actually add energy back to the community.
Q: Are there likely to be differences by country? Or is a Skyscraper Farm in Dubai likely to function the same as one in Manila?
No, it’s all the same building. Any differences would relate to height variances that are allowed.
Q: What kinds of jobs — and how many jobs — do you anticipate being associated with a Skyscraper Farm?
Tons of jobs: engineer, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software developers, all kinds of jobs. And, of course, training farmers on indoor harvests year-round.
• U.S. Army Ranger Nick Starling is a Harvard-educated economist and Virginia-based real estate developer who has been researching vertical farming since 2011. For more information, please follow @SkyscraperFarm, visit skyscraper.farm or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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