Is Vertical, Soilless Farming the Future of Food?

    Hydroponic, aquaponic, and other soilless techniques have the potential to maximize farm space and crop yield.

    Balance Grille salad.
    Balance Grille
    Similar to hydroponic farming, the aquaponic grow method used by Balance Farms foregoes soil in favor of growing plants in water.

    Like other clean, fast-casual concepts, the menu at Ohio-based, Asian-fusion chain Balance Grille is largely veggie-forward. But rather than sourcing all produce from outside suppliers, the four-unit brand offers fresh, local items courtesy of its own green thumb. Thanks to a nearby 8,600-square-foot, vertical, aquaponics farm owned by the concept, much of the brand’s produce is grown by Balance Grille itself.

    “The farm is right in [Toledo, Ohio’s] central business district,” says Balance Grille co-founder Prakash Karamchandani. “We went into a strip of retail that was essentially abandoned in the heart of our downtown area. By putting in a farm and a restaurant, we were able to revitalize an entire city block.”

    Balance Grille’s menu includes bubble teas and veg-heavy snacks, but is anchored by customizable bowls and tacos, all of which rely heavily on produce. Balance Farms is able to help fill the brand’s need for fresh veg. The farm produces a variety of crops within a controlled-environment, aquaponic grow space, allowing the brand to source much of its greens, herbs, and other ingredients from its own farm.

    Similar to hydroponic farming, the aquaponic grow method used by Balance Farms foregoes soil in favor of growing plants in water. But instead of using formulated nutrient solutions to feed its plants (as is the practice in hydroponic farming), the aquaponic system locates plants in the same water as live fish, with the fish providing the crops with a constant source of nutrients.

    “Aquaponics is the combination of hydroponics and aquaculture, meaning that you're raising fish in symbiosis with plants,” Karamchandani says. “The idea is to provide a continuous, organic nutrient source for the plants.”

    In addition to providing a cost-friendly and environmentally-sustainable alternative to traditional soil growth methods, hydroponic, aquaponic, and other soilless farming techniques also have the potential to maximize farm space and crop yield. Balance Grill’s produce is grown in towers that utilize vertical space. These towers are housed indoors in a controlled environment, meaning that the temperature and conditions of the grow room are heavily controlled via software and LED grow lights, making pesticides unnecessary and weather conditions irrelevant.

    Tower Gardens, an aeroponic grow tower system company owned by Juice Plus, offers a similarly space-efficient model to brands and consumers alike. Unlike a hydroponic system, which submerges plants in water, the aeroponic Tower Garden product is designed with a reservoir at its base that holds water and a nutrients mix. Working on a timer that can be automated or manually controlled by its owner, the tower periodically pumps the water and nutrients mix up to the top of the structure and then relies on gravity to allow the mixture to trickle down to the plants embedded throughout the tower.

    “You're recycling the water and the nutrients constantly,” says David Henard, general manager of Global Tower Garden. “The tower uses 90 to 98 percent less water than growing in the soil and it will produce up to a 30 percent greater yield than traditional growing. And it'll do all of this up to three times faster.”

    Henard says restaurants have worked with Tower Garden to create mini-farms composed of several towers, sometimes located inside of a concept. When an operator is interested in replacing some or all of their produce with aeroponically grown ingredients, Tower Garden coordinates with the brand to create a customized grow plan tailored to space concerns and specific, desired, produce ranging from kale to tomatoes to microgreens.

    Henard cites the towers' accelerated harvest times as a safeguard for restaurants against supply chain disruptions and ingredient shortages. Not only is produce grown on-site arguably fresher due to shorter lag times between harvest and serving, but in-house, space-efficient grow models like Tower Gardens’ system also allow restaurants more control of what ingredients they serve, when they serve them, and how much those ingredients cost.

    “I have a background in foodservice distribution and I saw the challenges that restaurants faced with produce,” Henard says. “The produce industry is very volatile from a pricing standpoint. And so this tower is a great way for restaurants to be in control of their own produce and not at the mercy of what the market is doing in terms of quality, supply, and price.”

    Still, there are limits to what soilless growth towers can accomplish. Since these farming methods are soilless, operators and farmers are only able to produce crops that grow above the soil line. Root vegetables such as potatoes or tree crops such as apples and oranges are not well-suited to vertical, water-based farming techniques.

    But if a concept’s menus rely on above-the-ground crops—think leafy greens, herbs, and fruiting and flowering plants like peppers and cucumbers—these growing methods could prove worth the investment. Case in point: Balance Grille launched Balance Farms in 2019, months before the Covid-19 pandemic struck and supply chain disruptions began to ripple through the industry. In spite of the challenges of the pandemic, though, Balance Grille has avoided some shortages by relying on Balance Farms for around 18 different crops.

    “The primary economic advantage here is that you're able to get the exact same, consistent product year round at relatively the same price, which is unheard of in the realm of produce,” Karamchandani says.

    Additionally, the farm has helped reduce the concept’s spending on ingredients, even as food prices skyrocket, and has provided an extra revenue stream. Balance Grille uses around 50 percent of the produce grown by Balance Farms in its restaurants and sells its surplus product to local consumers. This strategy is particularly effective in the farm’s current Toledo, Ohio, zip code, which is located within a food desert.

    With future units slated to open in new locations, Balance Grille plans to scale Balance Farms alongside its restaurant, leveraging the farm’s hardware and software, created by Balance Grille, to expand its farming operation. After becoming USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified earlier this year—a label that allows Balance Farms to sell to larger grocery stores and traditional food distributors—the farm is now poised to become an even stronger revenue source for the concept. Karamchandani advises other operators to evaluate their brands closely before jumping into similar farming projects, but touts the benefits as outweighing the risks.

    “If your mission is to provide transparency to your customers on how their food is produced, how it's grown, how it's handled, and where it comes from, then there is a natural segue into this market,” he says. “This approach allows you to provide that transparency to your customers—and do that 365 days a year.”