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Faculty and Staff

Vertical Farming Makes the Most of Limited Space

Two men looking at plants inside a large container garden with purple lights.
Horticultural scientist Ricardo Hernandez and Mark Watson work with lettuce plants inside the vertical farm near the JC Raulston Arboretum. (2019)

To increase agricultural yields, a CALS horticultural scientist and his students are literally looking up. They want to know if growing plants indoors in vertically stacked layers could be part of the solution to feeding a fast-growing world population as farmland becomes scarcer.

Ricardo Hernandez, a leading expert on growing plants in controlled environments, is exploring ways to make vertical farming profitable and sustainable. He and his students have modified a donated shipping container to grow produce and herbs on campus.

Mark Watson, who graduated in May, says that indoor vertical farming has several advantages. It allows for year-round production, and it’s less susceptible to weather extremes. It can also be used in urban settings, potentially reducing food losses that occur in getting crops from rural farms to tables.

Still, substantial challenges remain. Indoor production requires significant energy, which pushes farmers’ costs up.

Watson hadn’t heard of vertical farming before he took Hernandez’s controlled-environment horticulture class in 2019. He went on to win a national award for independent research on the best temperature and humidity to allow tomato plants to heal indoors after being grafted onto the rootstocks of other plants.

He also served as president of NC State’s Vertical Farms Club, which is testing leafy greens and other food crops in the shipping container and exploring marketing opportunities. The club includes students in horticulture, plant and microbial biology, crop and soil sciences, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Hernandez sees possibilities for farmers to raise high-value seedlings in vertical farms. As he explains, “Using a controlled environment can be key, because we can grow plants in high density and manipulate the environment—the lighting, the temperature, air movements and carbon dioxide concentrations—to produce the best seedlings possible.”