Nowhere To Go But Up? Marketing Vertical Farming

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Jennifer Elks

For many foodies, there’s something very appealing about homegrown produce, being able to pull your delicious rewards from the ground after patiently tending them for weeks or months. And as the number of urban farms and community gardens continues to grow nationwide, more and more of us are getting to experience that pleasure firsthand. But as compelling as the local food movement is, we can’t expect to live in our bubbles forever: As we all know, the global population is growing in leaps and bounds, and we’re soon going to run out of room not only for ourselves, but for enough farmland to feed us all. There has been a rash of articles just in the last few weeks about vertical farming – a method of growing food indoors in multistory buildings – which proposes to solve all that.

Vertical farming is still mostly just an idea, and there is some debate about its viability and sustainability – skeptics cite the expense, light pollution and fossil fuel use associated with creating enough artificial light to grow most crops, and there is concern about urban disposal options for greywater; proponents address these issues by pointing out advancements in use of LEDs and aquaponics. But even if the logistics are worked out in an efficient and sustainable way, what about its image? How would people feel about having the bulk of their produce grown in what is essentially a sterile, non-natural environment?

I talked about it with a foodie friend the other day, who looked dubious and slightly alarmed as the idea set in. From a sustainability angle, it sounds great – producing tons of food using a fraction of the land and water needed for traditional farming, and eliminating most of the transportation costs and emissions created by trucking produce into cities. But it would essentially strip the rustic, wholesome feeling away from the idea of “farm-fresh food.” Would most people care? Would they have the same uneasy feeling about vertically farmed food that probably accompanied the first test-tube babies?

As much as vertical farming could eventually be a fantastic solution to inner-city food shortages, the idea of having most of our produce grown in a controlled, lab-like setting might make people a tad technophobic. It sounds vaguely antiseptic, like something from a science-fiction movie, taking all the romance and soul out of homegrown food. What are some ways to market a revolutionary new way of growing food to make it seem less sterile and more palatable (an ad campaign featuring vertical farm workers in grubby gardening clothes, wiping sweat from their brows)? Or would this even be an issue?


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