Learn by Doing: How to Use a Pilot System to Learn Vertical Farming

Posted by Amy Storey on February 21, 2017

Do you need a pilot system for your vertical farming biz?

If you're starting an urban farm, chances are you're currently totally immersed in blog posts, YouTube videos and online courses, trying to learn as much as you can. 

And rightly so!

Starting a vertical farm takes a lot of time and financial investment, and you need to know what you're getting yourself into. 

But learning through listening or reading only gets you so far! To fully understand the details of running an urban farm, you must have real, hands-on experience.

After all, “knowledge without application is like a book that is never read." - Christopher Crawford

That's why it's critical you create a pilot (or test) system as soon as you can. 

What's a pilot farm?

A pilot vertical farm is a small scale version of your future farm that enables you to apply your research, make small mistakes, and demonstrate the quality of your produce to any future customers during your market research phase.

In this post, we'll talk about why you should start a test system, what you'll learn in the process, and the best way to get started today. 

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5 reasons you need a test vertical farm

Gathering knowledge is only half the battle.  You learn the most valuable lessons through actually applying that knowledge in tangible, practical ways. 

Workshops, courses, blog posts, ebooks, and videos provide a wealth of information and are absolutely crucial for future farmers to use, but at the end of the day what counts is the practical application of what you learn. 

This is why serious farmers choose to start growing with a test system - a smaller version of their chosen farm technique that they can use as "training wheels".

We think that this is one of the best things you could do for the success of your farm.

Here are five reasons why:

1) It's a low-cost, low-risk way to see if hydroponic farming is right for you.

2) A test system amplifies your education and shortens your learning curve.

3) You'll feel more confident about going into full-scale production.  

4) It gives you a chance to bring samples to interested customers before launching.

5) You can make mistakes on a small scale without having to risk your entire farm. 

The bottom line: If you want to start a farm, you should start a small scale test system ASAP.  Bringing real produce samples to prospective customers will get you more business than a sales pitch ever could!

How to start a pilot vertical farm using ZipGrow Towers

For vertical plane farmers planning to leverage ZipGrow™ vertical farming technology, starting a pilot vertical farm system is simple, affordable, and only requires a small-footprint.

The easiest way to create a test system is to simply use the ZipGrow Farm Wall – a turnkey hydroponic system that uses the same space-smart technology as commercial vertical farms. 

With 2, 4, and 8-Tower options, the Farm Wall gives growers the flexibility to get their feet wet with vertical farming no matter how much space they have available. 


What is ZipGrow™?

If you're new to the vertical farming space, you may not be familiar with the benefits of growing on the vertical plane as opposed to the conventional approach of stacking horizontal growbeds.

Just picture the productivity of an NFT hydroponic farm but flipped 90° to multiply the amount you can grow in a given space. 

Unlike NFT, however, ZipGrow™ Towers are both media-based helping to better regulate root zone temperatures AND they're modular/movable which gives growers more flexibility to treat their vertical farm like a process, instead of an art form.


They can be hung in a greenhouse, mounted on a wall (i.e. the Farm Wall), or even placed in rolling racks inside an indoor commercial farm.

Regardless of configuration, the concept is the same: Pump nutrient rich water from a reservoir down through the towers and onto the plant roots which are anchored in the Matrix Media. The plants uptake nutrients and the remaining water is recirculated back to the nutrient reservoir and the whole process repeats itself. 

The single-sided growing surface design was created to concentrate available light (i.e. a very important factor in plant development) on to the productive side of the tower and reflect any surplus light back to the growing side. This feature also makes ZipGrow Towers perfect for architectural applications like mounting to an unused wall, fence or side of a restaurant.  

You can learn more about ZipGrow Towers here.

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Things you'll learn when launching a pilot farm

Remember, one of the biggest reasons to start a pilot system is to learn by doing!

Regardless what technique you choose, you'll want to learn about:

  • System operation - e.g. how it works, planting, harvesting, basic maintenance, etc

  • Plant production - e.g. diagnosing deficiencies, pH, EC, dosing, monitoring, etc.

  • Crop selection - e.g. what crops does your market want?

  • Crop scheduling - e.g. setting up your system in Able™ farm planning software.

  • Pest management - e.g. how to spot and manage common pests

  • Disease management - e.g. how to spot and treat common plant diseases 

  • Troubleshooting - e.g. how to recover from mistakes  

Dig deeper >> How Farm Management Schedules Free Up Farmers 

Pilot system tips from the pros

Bright Agrotech's farm manager, Ethan Walter, pointed out several areas where managing ZipGrow is different from other systems.

"Pest management is the first that comes to mind," says Ethan. "Attaining good control early on is essential, as many organic pesticides are more difficult to use effectively when plants are large with dense growth."

Ethan recommends applying organic pesticides in a rotation at first sign of any pests. Pesticide labels set legal parameters on how often you can do this, so only apply pesticides as often as pesticide labels permit.

ladybug-aphids-300x231.jpg"As plants become larger, ladybugs and other biocontrol methods can be useful to help control pests that the insecticide can't reach (under leaves, etc).

Resort to systemic pesticides should infestations become severe. These will wipe out everything but are harsher."

Ethan's second piece of advice is to be strategic about ventilation and air circulation.

"Maintaining consistent air flow from top to bottom of a tower is different than for plants grown traditionally. To maintain air circulation in our room we have intake and exhaust fans that run on an Intelliclimate, several wall mounted rotating circulation fans that run constantly, and an oscillating circulation fan that constantly disperses air through a plastic tube overhead.

"Selective pruning of plants and removal of dead plant material can increase airflow at the base of the plant or interior of large plants. This helps prevent mold and disease."

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Don't grow alone!

As you learn more about managing your ZipGrow Towers, share your tips!

This is what the ZipGrow Facebook Community is for.

Add tips, resources, and questions to the page to get connected with other growers like yourself.

Ready to start your own pilot system?

The best way to get started is to find an unused vertical surface, ensure you have enough light (either sunlight or a Light Kit will work) and install your ZipGrow Farm Wall™. 

Buy a Farm Wall Here

Topics: How to's, ZipGrow

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