history of vertical farming

The history of vertical farming

Vertical farming history is a curious tale. Via agricultural innovation, which led us to the brink of planetary exhaustion, we finally arrived at a sustainable method of food production.

In the expanse of human history, the concept of cultivating crops has always been intertwined with our development and progression as a society. Modern vertical farming is a testament to the ingenuity of our kind. But it is also a counteraction to the missteps we’ve taken when exploiting our planet in search of optimal farming practices.

While we’ve treaded on nature in our past exploits, the advent of vertical farming showcases a pivot towards mindful, sustainable methods that may be our environmental salvation. The path to this discovery started ages ago when the planet was still virile, and our ancestors saw opportunities for better farming results.

Related article: A comprehensive guide to vertical farming


  1. The pre-modern history of vertical farming
  2. The industrial age’s impact on vertical farming history
  3. Technological milestones paving the way
  4. The 20th-century rise of modern vertical farming
  5. Design innovations in vertical farming history
  6. Social and health implications
  7. Global influence and expansion
  8. The future of vertical farming history is shaped today
  9. Summary: Vertical farming history in a nutshell

The pre-modern history of vertical farming

Through all ages, our ancestors have sought to harness the power of nature and optimize crop cultivation in the confines of their unique environmental contexts. As such, vertical farming history can be traced back through various epochs of human civilization.

Our agronomic expansion is replete with people stretching the boundaries of traditional agricultural methods. For as long as we’ve cultivated crops, we’ve also sought to enhance yield, sustainability, and efficiency in our available space.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

One cannot delve into vertical farming history without paying homage to the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, captivate history with their uniqueness. Yet, they stand in stark contrast to modern, technology-driven vertical farms.

Legend tells of the Hanging Gardens’ series of stacked terraces, achieving remarkable verticality that has fascinated people for centuries. Whether mythical or factual, this awe-inspiring creation reflects an enduring human ambition: A drive to harness the earth’s abundance within a limited space, reaching ever higher with steadily ascending plant growth.

However, it’s essential to note that while the Hanging Gardens symbolize an ancient aspiration towards vertical agricultural practices, the technological and methodological underpinnings differ vastly from contemporary vertical farming. 

Yet, the essence, the intrinsic desire to ascend beyond the conventional, to reach into the vertical realms, permeates through the annals of vertical farming history. It points to the crucial fact that humanity’s ceaseless pursuit of agricultural innovation has led us to where we are today.

Terraced farming in Asia and South America

The next chapter in our journey reveals age-old terraced farming techniques. It shows how ancient civilizations in Asia and South America skillfully manipulated their rugged terrains to carve out agricultural spaces. 

In the Philippines, the traces of terraced farming are believed to be 2,000 years old. In South America, traces dating back to the 15th century were detected in the steep Andean mountains. 

The Incas masterfully sculpted the mountainsides into terraces, demonstrating a profound understanding of ecological and hydrological principles. These terraces, often irrigated by complex canal systems, spotlight a civilization’s capability to surmount agricultural challenges with strategic innovation.

As for the Ifugao Rice Terraces of the Philippines, they remain a UNESCO World Heritage site that perfectly demonstrates how humans’ innovative spirit is an integral part of vertical farming history. 

Ifugao Rice Terraces of the Philippines

These ancient, terraced farms reflect a robust and sustainable approach to agriculture. It exemplifies how humans, devoid of modern technological aid, ingeniously adapted to their environments, transforming seemingly inarable lands into bountiful harvests.

Through the lens of these monumental achievements, vertical farming history is enriched, showcasing a journey not merely of technological advancements but of cultural, social, and environmental adaptations. We find a more profound, intrinsic relationship between humanity and the agricultural landscapes they cultivate.

The need for agricultural evolution

The agricultural realm has always been in flux, with practices morphing to accommodate changing landscapes, climates, and population dynamics. As civilizations burgeoned and urban areas became denser, the conventional horizontal expanses of agricultural land became insufficient. 

We were no longer able to support our rapidly growing populations. This forced us to address the dual challenges of producing sufficient sustenance while also contending with spatial constraints and environmental considerations.

Essentially, vertical farming emerged as an answer to our time’s pressing agricultural and environmental questions. When we needed it most, it embodied the cumulative wisdom and innovations harvested from our extensive agrarian history.

The industrial age’s impact on vertical farming history

Navigating through the transformative era of the industrial age, the story of vertical farming melds with modern advancements. Its outline shows a fascinating intertwining of innovative technologies and burgeoning urban landscapes. 

The vertical farming history during this period is especially riveting. It is marked by unprecedented shifts in societal structures, technological advancements, and an alteration in the framework of agricultural practices.

Urbanization and its effects on agricultural practices

The surge of urbanization during the Industrial Age substantially impacted the development of vertical farming. 

As cities bloomed with industrial advancements, their magnetized populations, lured by employment prospects and modern amenities, migrated in significant numbers. While propelling societal and economic advances, this urban influx also embedded a complex conundrum into our vertical farming narrative.

With swelling urban populations and escalating demands for space, traditional agricultural practices were precariously positioned. The rampant urbanization pressured agrarian lands and distanced consumers from production sites. This posed logistical and freshness challenges. Subtly, these changes guided the trajectory of agriculture toward an exploration of upward, proximate farming possibilities.

The burgeoning cities demanded innovative food production solutions to surmount spatial limitations. Thus, the seeds were sown for vertical endeavors within the agricultural domain, rooting vertical farming history in the soil of urban challenges.

Technological milestones paving the way

As we forge ahead in our exploration of vertical farming history, it becomes imminently clear that technological advancements play a central role in shaping the contours of this flourishing field. These innovations enable our agricultural pursuits to ascend literally and metaphorically toward new heights of possibility and productivity.

The development of hydroponics

Hydroponics was a pivotal technological advancement in vertical farming history, altering agricultural practices’ physical and conceptual terrains. This groundbreaking technique enabled plant cultivation without soil, utilizing nutrient-rich water instead.

Although hydroponics appears modern, ancient civilizations laid its conceptual foundations. For example, many speculate that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon used an early form of hydroponics, channeling water from the Euphrates River to the plants via aqueducts and terraces.

Similarly, there are records and evidence of the ancient Egyptians utilizing techniques that resemble hydroponics. Writings from the time describe plants cultivated in water with nutrient solutions.

Various iterations and enhancements to these early hydroponic techniques have been developed over the centuries. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that hydroponics was scientifically honed, becoming a transformative chapter in vertical farming history.

Dr. William Frederick Gericke of the University of California is a notable figure in hydroponics, coining the term and popularizing the method. His work in the 1920s and 30s demonstrated that soilless cultivation was viable and offered notable advantages. For example, it demonstrated enhanced control over nutrient variables and the potential for significantly reduced spatial footprints.

The introduction of aeroponics

The introduction of aeroponics marks another technological milestone. It propelled the agricultural sector towards innovative, space-efficient, and resource-conservative practices. The origins of aeroponics are comparatively recent within vertical farming history, yet its impact has been undeniably profound.

Aeroponics entails plant growth in an air or mist environment without soil or an aggregate medium and represents a monumental leap in the history of vertical farming. During the 1990s, NASA significantly invested in aeroponics research, envisioning its potential for space missions.

Related article: Understanding hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics

It was only logical that the modern concept of vertical farming came to light in the same period. Hydroponics and aeroponics were particularly apt for urban settings where space was at a premium and resource optimization was imperative.

The first glimmers: Early indoor farming experiments

The initial gleams of what would evolve into modern vertical farming practices began to illuminate in the aftermath of the industrial age. The profound impacts of urbanization were met with human ingenuity, sparking many indoor farming experiments.

Close to a century later, the modern concept of vertical farming emerged in the late 1900s. One notable pioneer in this respect is Dr. Dickson Despommier, a Public and Environmental Health professor at Columbia University. In the 1990s, he, alongside his students, began conceptualizing high-rise indoor farms. 

Despommier’s visions, articulated in his seminal book “The Vertical Farm,” posited that vertical farming could effectively address numerous challenges. Among the issues discussed were food production for burgeoning urban populations and mitigation of traditional agriculture’s environmental impacts.

As such, the early experiments and conceptualizations of the 1900s represented a significant shift toward contemporary practices. A fusion of agricultural needs and technological possibilities began to crystallize. The burgeoning ideas reflected a developing understanding that vertical farming could fortify urban food security while mitigating various environmental and logistic challenges.


A comprehensive guide to vertical farming

Master the art of vertical farming with our comprehensive guide. Explore the benefits, techniques, and success stories of vertical farming.

The dawn of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)

The dawn of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) unfolded as a seminal era. It heralded a new epoch wherein the manipulation and mastery over growing environments facilitated unparalleled control and optimization within agricultural practices.

CEA illuminated the pathway toward maximized yield, resource efficiency, and sustainability. This comprehensive approach, embracing hydroponics and aeroponics, revolutionizes agriculture by controlling key environmental factors. It meticulously adjusts light, humidity, and nutrients to optimize plant growth.

CEA is not merely a technological breakthrough in vertical farming history but a paradigm shift. It represents a fusion of numerous technological advancements and methodologies, weaving them into a cohesive, optimized approach to agricultural practice. 

The CEA era introduces an epoch wherein technological, biological, and environmental variables converge. As such, it creates synergies that enhance productivity, sustainability, and resource efficiency.

The 20th-century rise of modern vertical farming

In this era, seeds of innovation blossomed into tangible, vertical constructs that ascend toward our modern understanding of urban agriculture. The 20th century, saturated with technological, societal, and environmental shifts, vitally influenced the trajectory of vertical farming, propelling it into new dimensions of practice and possibility.

Key academics and their contributions

Vertical farming history is not merely a narrative of technological and methodological evolution but equally a story of individuals whose visions, research, and perseverance have significantly influenced the field.

Dr. Dickson Despommier, who literally wrote the book on the topic, is often heralded as the father of modern vertical farming. His endeavors were not only visionary for its time but his book deeply rooted his theories in the practical, scalable solutions that have become synonymous with vertical farming today.

Moreover, we must also acknowledge Dr. Toyoki Kozai from Japan, whose pioneering work in plant factory systems cultivated significant advancements within controlled-environment agriculture. His research has provided invaluable insights into optimizing plant growth and enhancing yield and viability in vertical farming.

These academics, among numerous others, have seeded the vertical farming history with innovations, research, and theories that have fundamentally shaped the development and understanding of vertical farming practices today.

The first commercial vertical farms

The emergence of commercial vertical farms marks a crucial transition from theory and experimentation into tangible, scalable applications within the urban agricultural landscape. It signifies a moment in vertical farming history where innovations transcend academic boundaries, sprouting into commercial ventures that substantiate the viability of vertical farming.

One such landmark occurred in Singapore with the establishment of Sky Greens in 2012, one of the world’s first commercial vertical farms. It stood as a testament to the potential of vertical farming to address food security concerns in urban settings. Sky Greens augmented the local supply of fresh vegetables and demonstrated a scalable, sustainable vertical farming business model.

In the United States, AeroFarms, established in 2004, took vertical farming one step further with its state-of-the-art aeroponic vertical farms, representing an intersection of technological innovation and commercial viability. 

Through optimized use of space, water, and nutrients, AeroFarms highlighted the potential for vertical farming to sustainably address the demands of urban populations. 

In recounting the 20th-century developments, we observe an intricate tapestry wherein individual visions, academic rigor, and commercial ventures intertwine, shaping a narrative that is as deeply rooted in innovation as it is in practical application. 

Design innovations in vertical farming history

Venturing forward into the verdant expanses of vertical farming, we navigate through a world where the boundaries between architectural marvel and agricultural necessity blur beautifully. Design innovations take root at this intersection, blossoming into visions of sky-high vertical farming structures and hypercompact urban farming modules.

Skyscraper farms and the vision for urban agriculture

The image of lush crops ascending skyward within the heart of bustling cities has evolved from a speculative vision into a tangible reality in modern times. The inception and conceptualization of skyscraper farms have redefined our understanding of urban spaces and agricultural possibilities.

Dr. Dickson Despommier’s vision of skyscraper farms amplified discussions around urban sustainability and sewed these notions firmly into the fabric of modern architecture and engineering. Imagine farms that reach toward the heavens, integrating agricultural sustainability within the dense tapestry of urban life.

Though these soaring structures have yet to be fully developed, they have become emblematic of a future where urban and agricultural landscapes are not mutually exclusive but instead harmoniously interwoven. We’ve already proven that indoor urban farming can be viable; the next step is to not only expand the farming levels upwards but also the farming floors. 

Modular and shipping container farms

Though expansion is on the agenda, more compact urban farming solutions also serve the same purpose: Making vertical farming more efficient and profitable. Shipping container farms within compact, modular spaces exemplify vertical farming’s flexibility, proving that sustainable agriculture can thrive without spatial limitations

The advent of modular farming practices, especially using shipping containers, has significantly enhanced vertical farming in the past few decades. Companies like Freight Farms and CropBox have etched their names into vertical farming history by transforming metal containers into prolific, controlled-environment farms.

These modular farms encapsulate a core principle within vertical farming history—optimization of space for sustainable production. Shipping container farms offer a solution to spatial constraints and a democratization of agricultural practice. By enabling communities, businesses, and individuals to cultivate crops in unlikely urban environments, modular farming designs have sown seeds of accessibility and empowerment.

As we traverse the multifaceted landscapes of vertical farming design, we encounter a world where agricultural practice is irrevocably coupled with innovative solutions. Whether reaching ambitiously toward the sky or compactly filling our urban niches, each design innovation marks a step towards a future that embraces agriculture not as a separate entity but as an integral, vital component of our urban existence.

The rise of urban agribusinesses

The rise of urban agribusinesses illustrates the confluence of agricultural practice and urban economic vitality. Metropolitan agribusinesses have become a testament to sustainable urban living and vibrant economic entities that cultivate prosperity alongside crops.

In modern times, companies such as Gotham Greens and Bowery Farming have blossomed within urban landscapes, enriching them with fresh, local produce and infusing them with economic vigor. They have created jobs, stimulated local economies, and forged symbiotic relationships with other local businesses, weaving a rich economic tapestry.

These urban agribusinesses are not merely farms; they embody sustainable economic models that marry profitability with environmental responsibility. The economic impacts of vertical farming permeate not only through the direct avenues of agriculture but also ripple outwards, influencing urban landscapes, employment, and market dynamics. 

As we continue to explore the evolution of vertical farming, we see its economic roots nourished by sprouting technological advancement and innovative practices. Together, they craft a narrative that is not merely agricultural but fundamentally linked with our global economic ecosystems.

Related article: Urban agriculture: How vertical farming systems made it viable

Social and health implications

The history of vertical farming is not merely a tale of technological and economic progress; it’s also a story of enhancing community well-being, fostering health, and irrigating desolate food deserts with fresh, nutritious produce. 

Food deserts – areas with limited access to reasonable fresh produce – have been a social and health quandary inspiring vertical farmers to keep innovating. As a result, vertical farming intricately connects with initiatives aimed at eradicating these nutritional voids. 

Another approach to fostering health is prevention by education, as aptly exemplified by pioneering entities like Green Bronx Machine. In upper New York, this inspiring initiative, with Stephen Ritz at the helm, teaches children about the benefits of urban farming and conscientious eating.

Classy Social Innovation Award Winner: Green Bronx Machine

Green Bronx Machine demonstrates how urban farming initiatives can uplift communities, providing sustenance and seeding social change and empowerment. This further illustrates how vertical farms, with their compact, efficient, and localized nature, can transform barren urban landscapes into vibrant, nutrient-rich oases.

Fresh produce and its impact on urban health

As the seeds of vertical farming continue to grow, they reveal a profound, enriching impact on urban health by providing fresh produce. Vertical farms, by their proximity to urban consumers, ensure that inhabitants are recipients of outstandingly nutritious, fresh produce. Local populations, once deprived of fresh, healthy options, now find themselves enveloped in a readily available supply of wholesome foods. 

This shift, facilitated by the capabilities of vertical farming, naturally elevates urban health, reducing the reliance on preserved or processed foods and ushering in a wave of wellness that permeates cities and their communities.

Community engagement and urban farms

A delightful side-effect of emerging vertical farms is the community engagement that comes with them. Like Green Bronx Machine, many urban farms have blossomed into more than mere produce sources; they have metamorphosed into community centers that foster education, collaboration, and social cohesion. 

The rise of urban farms has facilitated community workshops, educational programs, and cooperative farming efforts, sowing seeds of unity and collective empowerment amidst the verdant yields of vertical farming.

Each chapter in the tale of vertical farming unfolds stories of enhanced health, reduced disparities, and communities bound tighter with the vines of cooperation and mutual growth. The social and health implications of vertical farming reach beyond mere consumption; it nourishes communities with empowered, healthy, and engaged lives.

Global influence and expansion

The history of vertical farming is far from constricted to a few geographical locations. It is a global tapestry, beautifully intertwining advancements, learnings, and developments from nations worldwide.

Vertical farming in Asia: Japan and Singapore leading the way

As we traverse through the Asian chapter of vertical farming, Japan and Singapore emerge prominently. Both nations blossom as pioneers in integrating advanced technologies with agriculture. 

Vertical farming in Japan has been stimulated by challenges such as limited arable land and the trials presented by natural disasters. The mirage of these challenges watered the seeds of innovation, giving rise to remarkable indoor farming ventures like Mirai with their technologically advanced, resource-efficient systems.

Meanwhile, Singapore has charted its path, surmounting its limitations of space and agricultural dependency through forward-thinking initiatives like Sky Greens. Singapore elegantly illustrates how nations can ingeniously navigate through their geographical and logistical constraints, employing vertical farms to surge toward food security and sustainability.

European innovations and urban greenhouses

The Netherlands, notably, has developed vast, highly productive urban greenhouses and pioneering research in plant sciences. Wageningen University and Research (WUR), for example, is renowned globally for cultivating knowledge and advancements in sustainable, controlled-environment agriculture.

Cities like Berlin and London have made noteworthy strides in combining vertical farming with urban architecture, embodying a blend of aesthetics, functionality, sustainability, and communal well-being through local food production. 

In Berlin, the advent of Infarm in 2013 marked a substantial step towards urban agriculture. Infarm’s modular vertical farms showcase a scalable model, promoting urban farming and making a global imprint with its pioneering concept​. 

Besides Infarm, another initiative called Morgenfarm has even proposed transforming parts of Berlin’s Autobahn into vertical farms, embodying a blend of modern agriculture with urban infrastructure​.

London, too, has its share of innovative projects. The “London Vertical Farm / Living Hybrid” Millennium Mills restoration project aims to establish a new hybrid urban farm at Silvertown Quays, promoting agricultural innovation and green enterprise.

London also hosts the world’s first underground farm, an endeavor that grows salads and vegetables 33 meters below the city surface, claiming to utilize 70% less water than conventional farms​. 

These examples epitomize how Berlin and London are harmonizing aesthetics with functionality, making strides in sustainability. As such, these cities nurture community well-being through accessible, local produce in vertical farms seamlessly integrated into urban architecture.

American initiatives: From coast to coast

Gazing toward the United States, the landscape is dotted with initiatives sprawling from coast to coast, each endeavor sowing seeds of sustainability, community, and innovation in their wake. The history of vertical farming in the US echoes tales of converting urban voids into vibrant farms, such as Gotham Greens in New York City and Plenty in San Francisco.

Moreover, vertical farming history is enriched by American academia and startups alike. Both sides of the industry dive into research and innovations that persistently push the boundaries of what’s possible within vertical farming. Universities and private entities irrigate the industry’s fertile grounds with research, investments, and practical applications, perpetually propelling vertical farming growth.

Throughout each nation’s unique contribution, the history of vertical farming perpetually grows, joining technological advancements with societal benefits and sowing seeds for a future as rich and diverse as its past.


From concept to harvest:
A complete guide to starting a vertical farm

Welcome to our comprehensive guide on starting a vertical farm. We will walk you through every step of the journey from understanding the concept to reaping your first harvest.

The future of vertical farming history is shaped today

The evolution of vertical farming is a tale of innovation, persistence, and a steadfast drive toward sustainability and efficiency. 

From cutting-edge technological enhancements and scalable models to improved crop varieties and resource-efficient systems, our contemporary era is lush with advancements that echo future promises. 

The integration of AI and robotics in vertical farming

An electrifying chapter in vertical farming history is being written as we speak, integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics, revolutionizing how crops are grown, monitored, and harvested. 

AI algorithms optimize growth recipes, light adjustments, nutrient and water dispersal based on real-time plant behavior, and many other environmental conditions. 

Robotics, with their meticulous, untiring precision, ensure individualized plant care, thereby maximizing yield and minimizing waste. This symbiosis of biology and technology unfolds a fascinating future chapter of vertical farming history.

Global adoption and the potential for planetary impact

Transcending localized practices, vertical farming is gaining global traction. It promises to address critical issues like land degradation, food security, climate change, and urbanization on a worldwide scale.

With countries across the continents exploring and embracing vertical farming, from the deserts of the Middle East to the urban sprawls of North America, every new vertical farm erected serves as a beacon of a sustainable future. 

In sculpting the future, today’s innovations, explorations, and global adaptations burgeon into tomorrow’s norms. Thus, the history of vertical farming continues to be written. Each advancement, each farm, and each adopted practice propel us toward a future in which we collectively strive for sustainability, efficiency, and global well-being.

Read more: How to reverse climate change?

Summary: Vertical farming history in a nutshell

The history of vertical farming spans from the green terraces of ancient times to today’s high-tech plant factories. This rich and innovative saga highlights human ingenuity and the relentless quest for sustainable living.

Our voyage through the epochs acquaints us with agricultural transformations shaped by societal needs and technological advancements. The tale unfolds through agricultural revolutions and scientific explorations. The relentless pursuits of academics and entrepreneurs thus culminate in the awe-inspiring vertical farming concepts that will shape our future cities.

The broader effects of vertical farming on society

The adoption and advancement of vertical farming do not merely modify our urban landscapes. It significantly impacts our approaches towards food production, environmental conservation, and urban planning. 

Indoor urban farming enables cities to become self-sustaining entities, curbing long-distance food transport and reducing the carbon footprint. Furthermore, vertical farming has imbued society with a robust mechanism to combat food deserts. It ensures that fresh, nutritious produce is accessible even within the concrete jungles of our vast urban expanses.

In summary, when considering the rise of modern vertical farming, we perceive a magnificent narrative that transcends mere agricultural practices. It embodies the ingenuity and persistent pursuit of sustainability that has perennially characterized human civilization. 

The history of vertical farming mirrors our evolution from soil-tilling settlers to tech-savvy urbanites. It reflects our continuous innovation towards a future where sustenance and sustainability exist in harmony.


Agronomy Journal 2022: Vertical Farming: The Only Way Is Up?
Cambridge Consultants: Vertical farming: from Babylon to New York
Columbia Climate School: Vertical Farms: From Vision to Reality
Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat: The Vertical Farm – The Origin of a 21st-century Architectural Typology
EIT Food: The origins of indoor vertical farming
Gestalten: A Vertical Farm in Berlin Keeps Raising The Bar of Food Production
Heta: London – Vertical Farm / Living Hybrid
Inhabitat: Morgenfarm proposes vertical farms to replace Berlin’s Autobahn
Open Edition Journals: Vertical farms, building a viable indoor farming model for cities
Vertical Farming Planet: The Full History of Vertical Farming: When Did It All Start?
World Economic Forum: This WW2 bunker is growing sustainable salad leaves deep underground. Here’s how


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A comprehensive guide to vertical farming

A comprehensive guide to vertical farming

Master the art of vertical farming with our comprehensive guide. Explore the benefits, techniques, and success stories of vertical farming.

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