Commonwealth and local officials recently announced that a new farm will soon begin operating in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  A farming operation may not seem like front page news given Pennsylvania’s long and rich agricultural heritage, or the fact that Pennsylvania has been one of the nation’s leading agricultural production states, including tops in the number and acreage of permanently preserved farms. But what makes this particular farm newsworthy is its departure from well-known, century-old farming techniques: this farm is a technology-based, indoor vertical farming operation located within an industrial business park that is in close proximity to an interstate highway.

When asked about their vision of a farming operation, most folks would probably describe crops in fields or trees in orchards, animals in pastures or buildings, tractors and large equipment, barns and other outbuildings, silos and a house for the farm family, all of which are located on several dozen acres in the country.  When asked about potential issues associated with farming, most folks likely would say noise, dust, mud and slow-moving vehicles on the roads, hours of operation, water consumption and use of pesticides and other chemicals.

But a vertical farming operation is different.  A vertical farming operation essentially is an establishment that grows plants on vertically stacked trays or other structures within a climate-controlled environment that is located within a completely enclosed building.  Such a building can either be a new building that is specifically designed and constructed for vertical farming or an existing building that is adaptively reused. 

A vertical farming operation relies upon technology to control the amount, timing and other characteristics of light, water, nutrients and other elements to efficiently and effectively grow plants.  A vertical farming operation may include plants grown in soil, but may also employ hydroponic, aquaponic or aeroponic techniques that do not rely upon soil.  Hydroponics includes growing plants in a medium other than soil (e.g., gravel, sand, water), but which are supplied with nutrient-rich water.  Aquaponics includes growing plants that are supplied by nutrient-rich, filtered water resulting from raising fish.  Aeroponics includes growing plants suspended in the air, which are sprayed with nutrient-rich water mist.  Finally, in addition to growing plants, a vertical farming operation also includes harvesting, packaging and distributing its products.    

A vertical farming operation has several benefits.  First, a variety of plants can be grown all year round regardless of climate and weather.  Second, more plants can be grown on a smaller area and, therefore, the yield per acre tends to be higher.  Next, transportation costs and time to market can be reduced.  Finally, nuisances and impacts of noise, dust, mud on the roads, hours of operation, water and land consumption and use of pesticides and other chemicals are generally nonexistent.

A vertical farming operation is contemplated by the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC).  First, a vertical farming operation certainly is an “agricultural operation” as defined in Section 107(a) of the MPC.  Second, Section 105 of the MPC states that one of its purposes is “to ensure that municipalities enact zoning ordinances that facilitate the present and future economic viability of existing agricultural operations in this Commonwealth and do not prevent or impede the owner or operator’s need to change or expand their operations in the future in order to remain viable.”  Finally, Section 603(h) of the MPC states that a zoning ordinance shall encourage development and viability of agricultural operations, and generally shall not restrict such operation, changes or expansions to such operation in areas where agriculture has traditionally been present.  Therefore, to encourage vertical farming operations and to ensure their proper regulation, communities should consider examining their planning and zoning documents to clearly define and permit vertical farm operations, not only in agricultural areas, but also in mixed use, institutional, commercial and industrial areas.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact a member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group for assistance.