Operating expenses are critical to the long-term success of vertical farms. While a capital expense may be a one time hit, operating expenses are repetitive in nature. Realizing this, the best approach is to have a sound design that lessens the inputs required to grow. This can be through material goods such as fertilizer, seeds, media, cleaning chemicals, etc, as well as labor required to run the farm.
Choosing Vertical Farming Material Goods
For material goods, it is important to design a system that can reuse as many inputs as possible, creating a closed-loop agricultural system. For the Glens Falls Urban Pilot we chose 1020 trays and sheet pots that can be reused, ensuring that waste is reduced to its maximum capacity. We then chose to recirculate our organic hydroponic nutrient solution to avoid a drain-to-waste system that requires more fertilizer input. While these are just a few examples, each vertical farm design consideration should have a focus on op ex reductions.
"We then chose to recirculate our organic hydroponic nutrient solution to avoid a drain-to-waste system that requires more fertilizer input."
Vertical Farming Labor and Operational Expenses
For labor, it is critical to create standard operating procedures that provide an ergonomically and efficient solution to each farm task.
"I divide systems that I see into three categories. The reason I treat them separately is it makes it clear what ability is needed to access the crops"
Often, with vertical systems, the need to work at height is a challenge. I divide systems that I see into three categories. The reason I treat them separately is it makes it clear what ability is needed to access the crops:
Image by Josh Fabian
1. Crops stacked within reach
The first system (within reach) can be seeded/loaded/scouted/harvested from ground level. This provides a capital reduction in ladders/platforms/lifts, while also providing a time savings for workers.
2. Crops stacked within 6 feet of reach
The second system utilizes working platforms and scaffolding to elevate the worker less then 6’ off the ground. This system utilizes more vertical space yet does not require large ladders and lifts. Often employees are more comfortable working at this height as well as it being generally safer.
3. Crops that are 10 plus feet
The third system goes even higher in effort to utilize more vertical space. Once over that threshold large ladders and lifts are required. To work safely, harnesses and fall arrest systems need to be maintained and enforced. These systems have a higher capital expense, although once the lifts and safety equipment are put into place, they have the advantage to go very high and utilize the smallest footprint to canopy ratio.
"But, operating expenses may be much harder to predict. This continuous operating spend, when compared to sales, is the make or break for a vertical farm’s profitability."
While this is not an exhaustive analysis of operating expenses, it shows the importance of design considerations for vertical farming systems. Startup and capital costs tend to be easily quantified. But, operating expenses may be much harder to predict. This continuous operating spend, when compared to sales, is the make or break for a vertical farm’s profitability.
You can follow more insights from our partnership with Glens Falls and others committed to the Glens Falls Vertical Farm Public Pilot here.
By Josh Fabian, Glens Falls Farm Manager