Indoor Farming vs. Greenhouse: What’s the Difference?


There’s been a lot of talk lately about indoor farming, which, in many respects, represents the future of the world’s agricultural practice. This farming technique has improved crop output and allowed ordinary people anywhere to grow their own fruits and vegetables at home. But you may wonder how indoor farming differs from a traditional greenhouse.

What’s the difference between Indoor Farming and Greenhouses? The main difference between greenhouses and other indoor farming is that greenhouses use natural sunlight, while other indoor farming techniques don’t. However, a greenhouse is essentially a form of indoor farming, which takes place in a building and out of the elements. 

At its most basic, indoor farming is any form of agriculture that takes place indoors instead of in a field outside. If you look at it from a purely logical perspective, a greenhouse is simply a form of indoor farming, albeit on a much smaller scale than many indoor farms. Keep reading to learn all about the various methods we’re concocting to meet the world’s growing demand for crops.

Indoor Farming vs. Greenhouse: What’s the Difference?

As the human population continues to grow for at least the next few decades, there will be a subsequent demand for the world’s agricultural infrastructure. While some estimates assertOpens in a new tab. that this demand will grow more slowly than in previous years, we’re still talking about the population growth of several billion people. That’s a lot more crops that need to be produced.

Traditional agricultural techniques, where crops are grown on land, are rapidly becoming obsolete since they simply don’t produce enough food per acre to meet demand. Not only that, but they’re also destructive to natural habitatsOpens in a new tab. around the world. Enter indoor farming, which uses advanced technology to grow more crops in less space. 

Indoor farming has several exciting applications, not least of which as a way to bring healthy, affordable produceOpens in a new tab. to the inner city. Greenhouses are one particular type of indoor farming, which also includes vertical farming and hydroponic farming. Greenhouses, however, use natural sunlight for plants, while other forms of indoor farming use artificial lighting.

This difference in lighting is the main difference between greenhouses and other forms of indoor farming. Another difference is efficiency; greenhouses used to be more efficient for growing crops, but with advances in technology, indoor farming has made some significant gains in efficiency.

Why Does the World Need Indoor Farming?

With the world’s population steadily increasing and demand for food, increasing by 70% by 2050Opens in a new tab., humanity needs an alternate solution to traditional farms. More people means more required living space, which leaves less land for traditional farming techniques. More land for living means less land for farming, in other words. 

This can lead to increased costs for agricultural land, but also, it means that farms need to increase their output per acre. When planting horizontally, there’s only so many crops you can fit in any given acre. Likewise, with the global climate changing, crops will be adversely affectedOpens in a new tab. by rising temperatures and more frequent extreme weather conditions.

Something obviously has to change, and indoor farming may be a solution to all these problems. With vertical farming methods, it’s possible to get much greater yields per acre than with horizontal farming, which can meet the growing demand for crops with less space required. It also makes for healthier crops without pesticides, pests, fungi, or bacteria.

High, Prohibitive Costs

Indoor farming has higher costs, though, which can be prohibitive to startups. In contrast, there are companies out there working on advancements to improve technology and lower costs. It uses significant amounts of energy, but again, advancements are being made in that area as well. As technology improves, it typically becomes cheaper, but it’s still a concern.

Urban Applications

However, another potential benefit of indoor farms is its suitability for urban environmentsOpens in a new tab.. Poorer populations that live in large cities have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which leads to higher health-care costs and higher rates of obesity and health concerns. Small indoor farms spread throughout a city can bring down production costs and help those populations.

Another potential benefit is helping high-risk urban youth develop healthy habits through the use of indoor gardening and farming. Instead of getting involved with crime, gangs, drugs, or violence, youth in inner cities Opens in a new tab.can find a healthy hobby in growing their food. 

Many non-profit urban gardens have sprung up throughout the U.S. to increase access to affordable fresh produce and give inner-city populations a way to connect with nature. It remains to be seen if these techniques have a beneficial effect on urban populations, but it is an efficient use of existing space regardless of other outcomes. 

Similarities Between Indoor Farming and Greenhouses

The main similarity between greenhouses and other indoor farming forms is that it’s conducted inside a building or structure and removed from the weather and other elements. These spaces are often climate-controlled and offer protection from harsh weather, pests, and overexposure to the sun.

Both farming methods also allow farmers and horticulturists to grow plants in climates where they might not otherwise grow and allow them to grow crops year-round. Certain areas of the world may not be able to grow crops outdoors all year due to harsh winters, but with a greenhouse or an indoor farm, those environmental constraints are lifted.

Both farming methods offer themselves to a highly controlled growing process that allows farmers to keep conditions like temperature, humidity, air pressure, water, and nutrients at extraordinarily precise levels. As a result, both indoor farming and greenhouses can grow crops faster than traditional farming and have more bountiful yields. 

It’s worth commenting on the improved efficiency of these farming techniques. Greenhouses work by providing a much warmer climate for plants to thrive in than they’d otherwise have available, which helps them grow faster and yield more. Because it traps the heat so well, greenhouses are very efficient methods of farming. 

Other methods of indoor farming are efficient for a different reason. Vertical gardening increases the yield per square foot of space since it allows for crops to be grown vertically. A single vertical columnOpens in a new tab. can hold dozens of plants, depending on the crop being grown. Hydroponic gardening reduces soil requirements and instead uses water to accelerate growth.

All About Greenhouses

A greenhouse is an outdoor structure, but since it’s enclosed, it technically provides a way for indoor gardening to take place. Greenhouses can be small, shed-sized buildings for individuals or families or huge structures for commercial agricultural purposes. They could be standalone structures or structures that are attached to houses or other buildings.

Greenhouses work by converting light energy into heat. In the same way, your car gets very warm when it’s been out in the sun, even on a cold day, a greenhouse’s transparent walls and ceilings allow sunlight to enterOpens in a new tab., where it’s absorbed by the plants and items in the greenhouse. It’s then converted into heat, which is trapped in the greenhouse. 

Greenhouses can get too warm, so they need ventilation systems or openings to allow heat to escape sometimes. Plants can’t get too warm, or they’ll start cooking, so keeping an eye on the temperature is critical to a successful greenhouse. 

Another thing to monitor in a greenhouse is the humidity and moisture levels. Water will evaporate in high heat, which means plants growing in a greenhouse need more water than in traditional farming. The heat also accelerates photosynthesis, which means plants burn through fertilizer and nutrients faster, so they’ll need higher levels of these things too

Methods of Indoor Farming

Within the umbrella of indoor farming, there are several different methods available to use. These different methods differ mainly in terms of the medium used for plant root systems and the water and nutrient delivery systems. We’re going to focus on vertical farming in this article since many indoor farming techniques use this technology.

Vertical Farming

Vertical farming utilizes one of the three main methods of growing crops: hydroponic, aeroponic, or traditional soil. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages, which will be discussed below. Each of these is discussed in more detail below. 

There are a variety of commercially available vertical towers that can let regular homeowners grow vegetables and plants in the comfort of their own homes, but many are also available as industrial implements in the agricultural industry. Here’s a list of some of the coolest and most effective vertical indoor farms around the world if you’re interested.

Indoor Vertical Farm Yield Rates

Vertical farming has many advantages over more traditional horizontal farming. The most obvious example is the increase in usable space, which results in a higher crop output per square foot of warehouse space. 

A traditional farm may yield half a pound of produceOpens in a new tab. per square foot, but a vertical farm can yield 8-10 pounds of cropsOpens in a new tab., dependent on the type being grown. Here’s a table showing additional crops with their estimated yield per square foot in traditional horizontal farming vs. their yield rates with vertical farms.

CropYield (pounds per sq. foot) – HorizontalYield (pounds per sq. foot) – Vertical
Tomatoes1.8510.59
Lettuce 0.698.71
Potatoes0.522.78
Peppers0.562.47

Table Data Sources: www.artemisag.comOpens in a new tab. and www.researchgate.netOpens in a new tab.

As you can see, vertical farming can have a higher yield in orders of magnitude larger than traditional farming.

Efficiency

Closely related to, but also distinct, from the crop yield is the efficiency that vertical farming has over traditional farming, specifically in terms of nutrient and moisture delivery. Vertical systems typically use gravity, feeding water and nutrients down through the system from the top. Nutrients are recycled from the water and fed back into the system as well.

They’re also more efficient in terms of nutrient delivery from the bottom up. Many soil-based vertical gardens have options for composting in the towerOpens in a new tab. itself, which allows nutrients to be recycled through the entire system so all plants can benefit. Therefore, the amount of compost and fertilizer needed is a lot less since you don’t need to fill acres of crops with it.

Hydroponic Farming

Hydroponic farming can be done vertically in towers, or it can be done horizontally in long tubes. In particular, vertical gardening has taken off in the past decade due to its ability to utilize vertical and horizontal space, so you can grow a lot more crops in a building. 

Hydroponic systems have plant roots suspended in a nutrient-rich material other than soil and uses water as a primary method to deliver nutrients to the root systems. Growing mediumsOpens in a new tab. include Rockwool, ground coconut husks, clay pellets, or starter plugs (although there are many other suitable mediums as well).  

Hydroponic gardening is particularly effective because it reduces the amount of energy plant roots need to expend, which increases produce yield. Plants don’t need to grow their root systems in search of nutrients, so the energy that would be used to grow the roots can be channeled into more bountiful yields. 

Nutrient-rich water also benefits the growing plants, as they don’t need to extract water or nutrients from the ground. The various media used for their root systems are also inherently pest-resistant, so farmers don’t need to use as many pesticides in their products either. 

Hydroponic indoor farming is a very effective way to farm indoors, but it can also be applied in a greenhouse environmentOpens in a new tab.

Aeroponic Farming

On the other hand, aeroponic farming is a technique found in indoor farming in which plant root systems are suspended in air, rather than a soil-alternative. Their roots are then provided nutrients and moisture through misting systems that directly access the root systems. 

Aeroponic farming allows root systems to be exposed to more oxygen than hydroponic or soil-based systems, but with that, they also provide more ready access to fungi, bacteria, and pests. Therefore, aeroponic systems have more issues with pests and parasites than do hydroponic systems due to the lack of a protective barrier around the roots.

Vertical Indoor Farming vs. Greenhouses

Since greenhouses usually use horizontal farming techniques, this puts them at a disadvantage to vertical indoor gardening techniques for the reasons described above. However, greenhouses are rapidly adopting vertical farming techniquesOpens in a new tab. to maximize their space as well, so it’ll probably be a moot point in the future. 

Again, greenhouses differ from other types of indoor farming because they use natural sunlight instead of artificial light, both as a method of heating the inside as well as to provide light for photosynthesis. In most other respects, though, indoor farming and greenhouses have a lot of similarities:

  • High levels of environmental control
  • Removal from harsh elements
  • Ability to grow plants year-round or plants in unusual parts of the world
  • Advanced systems for moisture, humidity, nutrient, temperature control

What You Need for an Indoor Farm

Almost anyone nowadays can build their own indoor garden. Many different vertical gardening towers can allow people with even a small amount of space in their apartment to grow fresh produce. 

Indoor farms use similar methods, albeit on a much larger scale. Below, you’ll find a table showing some of the critical components of an indoor farm, along with a brief description of the component. We’ll go into more detail below.

ComponentDescription
Artificial LightingUsed to provide light to plants for photosynthesis
Growing mediumThe material used to grow the plants. Could be water, soil, or even in the air
Temperature ControlSystem by which the indoor growing climate is controlled
NutrientsProvide staples for plant growth and health
WaterNo matter the medium, all plants need water to grow

Data Source: www.medium.comOpens in a new tab.

You can build an indoor farm in a variety of buildings, but most are installed in some sort of warehouse-like structure that has plenty of space while also having the infrastructure to support large-scale farming operations. 

What You Need for a Greenhouse

Greenhouses have been around for thousands of years in some form or fashion, but they’ve stayed based on a simple idea no matter the technological advancements. A greenhouse works by allowing the energy from sunlight through the outer layer of the structure but keeping it inside to raise the greenhouse temperature. 

Modern greenhouses are typically aluminum, wood, or steel structures that have some sort of transparent material, like glass, in the roof and walls. A greenhouse has three major componentsOpens in a new tab.:

  • Structure: also known as the frame, it’s the material that holds the transparent materials and gives the greenhouse its shape and solidity.
  • Cover: the transparent material that fills the gaps between the structure. Instead of an opaque material like drywall or concrete, a greenhouse uses glass, plastic, fiberglass, or polyvinyl to allow light to get in the structure.
  • Floor: The floor chosen is also important. Most floors are concrete or porous concrete that allows water drainage while still reflecting heat and keeping pests at bay.

It has some other components as well; temperature gauges, humidity gauges, pressure gauges. Lots of gauges. The point of a greenhouse is that it’s a controlled environment that’s optimally designed to give plants the maximum amount of heat, moisture, and nutrients possible to help them grow quickly and efficiently. 

Benefits and Drawbacks of Indoor Farming

There are pros and cons to everything in life, however, and indoor farming is no different. Even with the host of benefits this farming technique provides, there are still drawbacks that would-be indoor farmers should be aware of. 

Benefits:

  • Protection from the elements and adverse weather conditions
  • Ability to use vertical farming techniques to increase yield per square foot
  • Fewer pesticides and agrochemicals used
  • Ability to be highly automated (robots, AI, etc.)
  • Ability to control the environment with high levels of precision
  • Highly efficient
  • Great for urban agricultural applications

Drawbacks:

  • Fewer jobs provided as a result of automation and technology
  • Environmental effects from the use of artificial light
  • High startup cost can be prohibitive to industry entry vs. traditional farming techniques
  • Highly skilled labor is required for installation and maintenance, even though much of the farming process is automated

Benefits and Drawbacks of Greenhouses

Like with other indoor farming methods, greenhouses have a variety of pros and cons associated with them. Just some of these include:

Benefits:

  • Still uses natural sunlight
  • Keeps plants warm with minimal energy requirements
  • Keeps plants sheltered from harsh weather conditions
  • Allows for growth of tropical plants outside their natural habitat
  • Ability to scale for individual homeowners and small-scale operations
  • Limits pests and vermin

Drawbacks:

  • Requires high amounts of water and moisture due to evaporation
  • If not used in conjunction with vertical gardening, yield can be limited
  • Requires high amounts of automation and monitoring, especially with large-scale operations
  • High up-front installation costs
  • Requires ventilation because of excessive heat buildup

Making Greenhouses More Efficient

Indoor farming is a modern technology that has evolved with efficiency in mind, so it often is much more efficient than your typical greenhouse. Greenhouses, which have been in existence in some form or fashion since the days of the Roman EmpireOpens in a new tab., have evolved much more slowly and, therefore, sometimes lack the efficiency of other indoor farming techniques.

Greenhouses have made strides in modernization, however. Modern greenhouses, particularly in countries like the NetherlandsOpens in a new tab., are capable of astounding levels of efficiency. Indeed, the Netherlands, which is second only to the U.S. in terms of global food exports, has been able to reach that level by using indoor farming technologies and greenhouses to great effect.

Dutch greenhouse and farming firms are the world’s gold standard on maximizing greenhouse growing efficiency. They leverage automation and advanced technology, along with detailed conditions, monitoring, and control, to yield huge amounts of crops per acre. And they do it with significantly fewer resources than traditional farming.

Greenhouses vs. Indoor Farming: Are Either Better for the Environment?

Sustainability is a buzzword these days, as everyone tries to adapt their lifestyle to better care for the environment. A sustainable farming method is one that doesn’t use a lot of harmful energy sources, doesn’t harm the environment, has minimal impacts on wildlife in the area, and uses a minimal number of chemicals for growing. 

The main environmental benefit of both farming methods is the ability to incorporate vertical farming techniques, with its increased yield per acre that puts less demand on natural resources, land, and surrounding wildlife. However, that doesn’t mean it’s only good for the environment. Both methods have several important environmental considerations.

Greenhouses Still Have Large Energy Requirements

Greenhouses, even though they try to harness sunlight for heating, still have large energy requirementsOpens in a new tab.. These stem mainly from the need to heat them in the winter (especially in cold climates) and cool them in the winter. Heat also can escape from them, which can contribute to CO2 emissions rising around the planet.

Modern greenhouses are attempting to overcome this issue by using special technology to help block sun rays to keep energy requirements down, as well as use sunlight to power the greenhouses. Several efforts underway cover greenhouses in a special photovoltaic covering that can harness sunlight for greenhouse energy needs.

Unfortunately, these structures are still very expensive to build, so many greenhouse farms around the world are unable to build them now. It represents an important step in making greenhouses more sustainable, though. 

Indoor Farming Requires a Lot of Energy Too

Like greenhouses, other indoor farming setups require substantial amounts of energy as well. Many of the systems inside are automated, which, of course, has energy requirements. They also run artificial lights for photosynthesis and heat, which require energy as well. There is the climate control aspect, too; heating and cooling systemsOpens in a new tab. use a lot of energy to run.

Indoor farming also uses up land because of the amount of space it takes up; greenhouses suffer from a similar problem. These buildings take away livable habitats from wildlife and plant life, which can negatively impact the area’s ecosystem. 

Indoor farming currently has a very high cost, which makes it unsustainable for emerging markets where income may not be very high, but the demand for food is steadily increasing. It also takes away jobs a lot of the time because of all the automation involved. 

An indoor farm may only have a few employees to monitor systems and make manual changes, while a traditional farm may have dozens of farmhands who do everything from planting to harvesting. This reduces the economic impact that agriculture can have on the surrounding area. 

Closing Thoughts

Greenhouse farming is really a subset of indoor farming, so it has many similarities with that method of farming. Both grow plants under the shelter of a building to protect against pests and the weather, and they allow for a high level of control of the growing environment. The difference is that greenhouses use natural light, while other indoor farming uses artificial lights.

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