The sky's the limit for Missoula "vertical farm" - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

The sky's the limit for Missoula "vertical farm"

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Galactic Farms vertical garden is part of a growing trend (Dennis Bragg photo) Galactic Farms vertical garden is part of a growing trend (Dennis Bragg photo)
Vertical garden thriving at the University of Montana (Dennis Bragg photo) Vertical garden thriving at the University of Montana (Dennis Bragg photo)
MISSOULA - Our ability to grow our own food has gone through a lot of evolution over the centuries. But the idea of "growing up" is catching people's fascination, as technological breakthroughs come at the moment when interest in gardening is booming.

While more and more people are re-discovering the joy, and health tied to legacy gardens, a vertical garden at UM's Lommasson Center may be the future for your gardening - or your dining room table.

"What the university is doing with this project is kind of a prototype of what can be. Because of their sustainability efforts and their commitment to local food they really want to be kind of a beacon of what can be done," said Jeff Pernell with Galactic Farms.

Vertical gardens are exploding now, as mankind looks to grow more in less space, cutting transportation costs and countering the impacts of climate change.

"In the next five years, they expect indoor ag to be about a $20 billion industry in the United States. In China right now one-fourth of their food is grown indoors. And the reason we're looking at this even more is the ability to do climate controlled growing," Pernell said. "If there's a weather issue a hailstorm or a snap freeze like we've been seeing a lot of these little vortexes, that can really wipe out a farm."

Pernell has developed a completely self-contained system using aquaponics. A tank with perch creates nutrients and useful bacteria, which is then cycled through "towers", where plants like lettuce, chard and book choy benefit from the rich drip irrigation.

"This is a living system. So we've got multiple forms of life in here. We've got the fish. We've got bacteria. We've got plants. All those things are important to keep this system going because it recycles," Pernell explained.

But vertical gardens aren't just about growing big, "I got my start doing a 10-gallon fish tank. And if somebody has had success growing fish, aquaponics is a pretty easy step. At least on the smaller scale. When you start getting a little bit larger you have to pay a lot of attention to more factors. The factors scale up," Pernell said.

"One of the things we have issues with her in Missoula, Montana is hard water. And that high ph is something that people have to combat in an aquaponics system. But once you're there and you've established it and you've got that sweet water it's just a matter of keeping tabs on it," he added.

Installation costs vary, but breakthroughs like efficient LED lights make indoor growing not only feasible, but efficient. Pernell's latest installation will have 40 towers in just 100 square feet. He estimates that will produce 20 to 25 pounds of food per week."

"Once you really dealing with a bio-system, this is kind of a little eco-system self-contained. It really gives you an appreciation to our eco-system that's self-contained here on the planet," Pernell said.

And that's really what it will take to save the planet.

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