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Vertical Farming: Use Less Land and Water, Grow More Local Food

Here’s another Next Big Thing for South Dakota to consider:

We’ve turned most of our prairie into fenced-off food factories… so why not turn old factories into farms? Fifth Season is growing real food for real people in an old steel mill in the Braddock, Pennsylvania, a borough outside of Pittsburgh decimated (literally: the population is a tenth of what it once was) by the collapse of the steel industry.

Vertical farming won’t devastate Braddock with pollution the way the steel industry did, says co-founder Austin Webb:

“We use no herbicides and no pesticides,” Webb says. “And that’s because we have hermetically sealed environments.” The possibility of contamination is all but eliminated. Fifth Season recently received a perfect score from the Safe Quality Food (SQF) program, an international, independent body that certifies food safety management. “The second time in 25 years they gave 100 percent,” he says [David Kidd, “Robots Take Vertical Farming to New Heights,” Governing, 2021.06.28].

Vertical farming also doesn’t require a producer to amass two or three square miles of land, drain the river to irrigate it, and dump tons of fertilizer to keep the depleted soil on life support:

Fifth Season uses up to 95 percent less water and 98 percent less land than conventional farming. Water from the municipal system is filtered and proprietary nutrients added before getting to the plants directly through their roots. “It means you can replicate any form of soil environment,” he says. Whatever water is not used by the plants is retreated and recirculated, with nutrients added as needed. A peat mix is used to support the roots, but all the nutrients are in the water, not the “soil” [Kidd, 2021.06.28].

Vertical farming means folks in Braddock and the Pittsburgh area can access fresher, locally grown greens:

Localized food production means less spoilage and waste. “If it takes anywhere from five to eight days to go from California to Pittsburgh, you’ve just lost five to eight days of shelf life,” says Austin Webb. Most of what Fifth Season produces is consumed in the Pittsburgh area. “The day after it was cut, not 10 days later.” Their ready-to-eat salads can be purchased at a local supermarket chain, or delivered directly to the consumer at home, a direct response to the pandemic. Local restaurants, hospitals and universities are also customers [Kidd, 2021.06.28].

Hmmm… farms that could produce good local food without any need of federal subsidies and crop insurance. That production model would seriously disrupt the Noem–Arnold family’s welfare-business model, but it could bring significant improvement to South Dakota’s economy and environment.


  1. Wayne 2021-06-28

    Pedantry alert: Cory, decimation was eliminating 1 in 10 Roman soldiers, not the other way around!

    While nothing beats a tomato grown in your back yard, I have to say I prefer the ones grown in Iowa’s hot houses over the Mexican ones that we see in HyVees across the region.

    Good for Fifth Season. Now if only our aquaponics ventures wouldn’t turn out as boondoggles…

  2. sx123 2021-06-28

    Cool stuff. I’d have to see a cost breakdown from machinery to electrical use to shipping cost savings to really have much of an opinion how this compares to a regular greenhouse, even if greenhouses are more 2D than 3D, but this looks expensive to me on the surface. Need the financials though.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-06-28

    Dang it! I got my history backwards… though maybe the residents would argue that the punishment was one in ten Braddock folks being left in Braddock to suffer the void? ;-)

  4. blueboy 2021-06-28

    “…borough of Pittsburgh reduced to a population a tenth of what it once was…” Same punch, less Latin. :0

    The only drawback is energy. Plant factories need more than plain farms or greenhouses. Capital would have to go into windmills/power storage. Luckily SD is a pretty good place for windmills, poor government aside.

  5. Donald Pay 2021-06-28

    Pretty neat. Glad to see America is finally catching up. Urban agriculture has been a big deal in China and southeast Asia for a decade.

  6. Guy 2021-06-28

    Co-op Farm CSA’s would be a perfect fit for starting this!

  7. jerry 2021-06-28

    Tru Shrimp goes good with those veggies too! The taste of both together is not to filling either.

  8. Mark Anderson 2021-06-29

    It will prove interesting, won’t it? Now about those cow farts South Dakota. I know Nebraska is much worse but really. Texas is the worst, double California. Kansas and Oklahoma are really bad too. South Dakota and Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin run neck and neck but South Dakota has four times as many cattle as people. As the rest of the world becomes more prosperous, China in other words, this is a huge problem. Any solutions anyone? I gave up cattle as food, I know thats illegal in So Dak, but thank the Lord for the impossible. I hope for an impossible steak but thats too much to ask. I’m as responsible as anyone for cow farts but my six bypasses made me give it up. I eat so healthy now I dropped 25 pounds and feel better than I have in 25 years.
    Now I know buffalo farts must be bad too so don’t go there.

  9. Edwin Arndt 2021-06-29

    Cory, what you describe may be a good way to produce salad,
    but it will in no way reduce the need for those vast fields
    of corn and soybeans in eastern South Dakota.

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