Business management

Vertical farming: onwards and upwards

Vertical farming is a burgeoning industry, but how can more businesses benefit from its future growth?

The online retailer’s thinking is that investing in vertical-farming businesses will allow it to grow produce nearer to distribution centres. These partnerships will also be an opportunity to explore how automation and robotics might be able to advance food production.

“We believe that our investments today in vertical farming will allow us to address fundamental consumer concerns on freshness and sustainability, and build on new technologies that will revolutionise the way customers access fresh produce,” said Ocado’s CEO Tim Steiner in a statement.

James Lloyd-Jones, CEO of JFC, believes vertical farming is a viable solution to the world’s food crisis. “The benefits of producing fresh food without any herbicides or pesticides that can be on a van an hour after it’s ordered, reducing that journey from farm to fork, and with reduced labour costs – the idea that you can do this anywhere in the world, that’s what drives us,” he says. “Our ethos and values are at the core of what we do.”

But JFC is the largest vertical farm in Europe – around 5,000 square metres with nearly seven and a half miles of LED lights. Technology on this industrial scale isn’t an option for most, if any, small businesses, producers and greenhouse growers.

So, how can they benefit from vertical farming, an industry that is predicted to be worth $12.77bn (£10.61bn) by 2026, according to Allied Market Research?

Accessible technology systems

Technology that is accessible and affordable will be key to democratising vertical farming. Companies like HydroGarden and Intelligent Growth Solutions are already offering businesses and producers plug-and-play solutions tailored towards and priced on each individual customer’s needs, requirements and budget.

We know vertical farming has huge potential. At the same time, knowledge and understanding of it has to increase. Getting businesses together in a room can help them realise how it can transform food systems

Mark Harwood-Browne
Project manager, GrowAgri

“The idea is that anyone should be able to grow produce in any space,” says a spokesperson for V-Farm, the vertical-farming solution developed by HydroGarden. “The technology is portable, easy to use and scalable. A grower can start small and scale up, adding to their system once their operations become profitable.”

V-Farm’s systems use patented moving racks, which it says give it an advantage over standard, static vertical systems. The moving racks mean that only one aisle ever needs to be available to carry out any harvesting or maintenance. This space efficiency can increase yield by nearly a third.

Increased energy efficiency

Maximising space and production efficiency is an important ingredient in making a vertical farm a success, yet there are still ways to make systems more efficient.

Vertical farming uses 95% less water compared to growing crops in the traditional way, according to Austrian research organisation, the Vertical Farming Institute. However, LEDs are required to replicate sunlight, making indoor farming systems expensive to run.

The lighting is a major hurdle that needs to be overcome if vegetables and salads are to be produced and sold at a fair price. A solution to this could be switching to OLED lights – organic light-emitting diodes that could reduce energy consumption by up to a fifth. Jonny Reader proposed the idea when he was a design student at Brunel University London and he has since gone on to join the V-Farm team.

Reader believes that the current cost of OLEDs may itself be a sticking point, but as the vertical farming industry continues to grow, demand for OLEDs should increase and the price should eventually fall. In theory, this will make vertical farming systems even more accessible.

Collective industry buy-in

Whether produce is being grown in the basement of a restaurant or in a small warehouse, agriculture and tech experts will need to work together to push the adoption of vertical farming, drive innovation and bring any costs down.

The GrowAgri Worcestershire project at Pershore College ran a two-day workshop in January to promote new methods of farming and invite dialogue around the topic.

“We know vertical farming has huge potential. At the same time, knowledge and understanding of it has to increase,” says Mark Harwood-Browne, project manager at GrowAgri. “Getting businesses together in a room can help them realise how it can transform food systems.”

In 2017, Pershore College installed a V-Farm system at its agri-tech centre. It's been used in teaching horticulture courses and in hydroponic plant research.

Making use of urban spaces

Traditional farming has long been beset by land and soil issues and at the mercy of volatile weather conditions, which some argue makes it an unsustainable option. While land farming won’t disappear completely, vertical farming will be key to delivering fresh produce, particularly to catering and hospitality businesses.

Johnathan Bulmer is managing director at Cleveland Containers, which provides bespoke container solutions for multiple industries. He expects to see more and more small businesses, producers and greenhouse growers turning to containers in the future to meet their vertical farming needs.

 “It’s a modern twist that can help farmers avoid seasonal struggles and extreme weather and pests. The structure of a container farm allows for year-round growth, no matter the weather or available land,” says Bulmer.

 “You don’t get the problem of land being in the wrong place or have any relocation restrictions, because container farms are so flexible,” he adds. “They can be easily stacked, which means farmers also won’t need to empty their pockets and pay for extra land to expand. You simply build up.”

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