Use of vertical farming technology has become more widespread in recent years, but how can it complement conventional farming systems? Alex Black and Rob Yorke report.
Vertical farming is seen as an exciting concept, in which to grow high quality produce without the worries of the weather and get more British produce on shelves.
And the sector is growing.
In 2018, vertical farming was worth $3 billion (£2.2bn) globally and it is predicted to grow to $22bn (£16bn) by 2026.
This is from a standing start, with no vertical farms in operation in 2010.
Emma Burke is chief executive of Perfectly Fresh, a site in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, which is equivalent to 20 hectares of farmland and produces baby leaf for Marks & Spencer for both retail sale and as a sandwich ingredient.
“We are growing a premium product, our unique selling point is flavour, quality and shelf life," Ms Burke said.
“Traditional baby leaves are often imported from Italy, Spain and even the US. Vertical farming means that we can grow baby leaves and other crops in the UK all-year-round which previously were imported.
She believes vertical farming is part of the solution to feeding a growing global population in a sustainable way.
Using vertical farming and growing plants indoors under controlled conditions, produce can be grown all year round, using less land and in any location, from an office block to a desert.
Ms Burke said the future of vertical farming was ‘global’ with projections of an 11bn population by 2021.
“Our fragile planet simply does not have enough natural resources to meet this future consumption. Vertical farming is part of the solution to the global problems we all face,” she added.
Preston-based firm Growpura is behind a new commercial-scale vertical hydroponics demonstrator facility to be based at Colworth Park in Bedfordshire.
The project, backed by a £4.5m Government grant, will use a ’simple but sophisticated’ vertical technology conveyor system to continually move plants past sources of light, irrigation and monitoring technology in a clean room environment.
Chief executive Nick Bateman said the innovative technology will improve product quality but importantly, generate flexibility as it can modulate plant growth to meet demand requirements.
He said: "The driver for this is to be more efficient, trying to reach net zero as quickly as possible.
"The ability to move the technology so we can make the most effective use of natural light reduces electricity use, so we can cut production costs.
"We can lower our carbon footprint by producing and packing on the same site and then transporting straight to to the final destination and because this is clean room technology, the products are ready to eat so we are cutting out the washing process."
Unlike conventional production, vertical farming units can grow crops 24/7, 365 days a year.
But Mr Bateman believes the technology could complement existing farm enterprises.
"If a farmer has a renewable energy project, where they are sending power to the grid, it could be economically more beneficial to use that energy to power a vertical operation," he said.
"You do not have the labour costs or the challenges of pests and diseases and supermarkets are increasingly looking to source food produced in this way.
"This is because it gives a supermarket predictability, helps to deal with fluctuations in demand and does not bring any issues with contamination or disease."
Perfectly Fresh recently invested in a Research and Development Centre of Excellence to fully understand how to grow the best quality, in the shortest time possible, while developing yields and production efficiency.
For some crops it is possible to have additional crop cycles per year than can be achieved in traditional field growing.
Food waste could also be reduced in store and at home, as vertical farmed salads can have a significantly longer shelf life.
Ms Burke said vertical farming was just the next step for the industry, comparing it to the introduction of robotic milking machines in the dairy sector or the Hands-Free Hectare project at Harper Adams University.
She also believes it can attract new entrants and assist with changing the perception of careers in agriculture and horticulture as the industry will need research scientists, data specialists and photo biologists amongst a range of other technical experts.
While vertical farming technology is exciting, it could be difficult to make it work economically, with high initial investment costs and operational expenditure.
Sarah Hughes, who completed a Nuffield scholarship on the subject, said the crop needed to have some ‘real value’ to make it work.
“The amazing thing is you can grow anything anywhere at anytime but it is whether it is economical,” she said.
Ms Hughes, now marketing manager of hybrid barley at Syngenta, added many companies had focused on salad crops and herbs as they grow very well in this system but they could provide a premium product.
“I do not know how big that market is to grow into. This year a lot of those premium customers, the restaurants caterers which would have been quite a big sector for those type of business models, have disappeared quite quickly,” she said.
There were also opportunities in supermarkets but she suggested to make that work economically businesses would likely be having to sell a novel product as they were competing with glasshouses and field grown crops.
Ms Hughes suggested there could be opportunities in growing seed or food with higher vitamin content by manipulating the environment or in insect farming.
“That health and well-being sector is really big for consumers and there are still people prepared to pay for that,” she said.
There may be opportunities for farmers that could grow a very niche crop to link up with restaurants.
Ms Hughes gave the example of a shop she had seen in Japan with a vertical farm included as a ‘tourist attraction’ with the produce sold in the restaurant.
Elsewhere in the world, vertical farming was taking off in the coastal areas of the US where major investors were looking for green, agritech investments.
It was also proving popular in the Middle East where water shortages affected farming and there was also a high proportion of hotels and consumers who would pay for the premium products.
More traditional growing methods could also benefit from some of the ideas of vertical farming without using the full model.
She highlighted glasshouses which still utilised sunlight but used supplementary lighting and carbon dioxide.
Square Mile Farms, established in late 2018 by Johnno Ransom from a Lincolnshire farming family and Patrick Dumas, with an interest in nutrition, is a cutting-edge example of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA).
This involves a closed loop system involving UV treated nutrient-rich water delivered to vertical racks of inert rockwool growing plugs in an atmosphere of stable temperature flowing air illuminated by calibrated LED lights. It is just one of end of the spectrum of hydroponic farming – using water as the nutrient delivery medium rather than soil – which includes vertical farms of all shapes and sizes.
Mr Ransom said: “After doing a land management degree at Reading, then working as a property funds consultant, I decided to move into a more socially responsible area which was about bringing agriculture in the built environment.
"There was increasing interest in what is termed ‘urban lifestyle farming’ based around growing fresh produce close to communities becoming more sustainable."
In the 1970s, NASA were the first to start growing crops in water with a view to growing food in space.
There is more interest in hydroponic farming from venture capital investors as innovation has resulted in better LED lighting required for growing, as well as the prospects of lower operating costs.
Crowdfunding also helping to finance start-ups such as Square Mile Farms.
While many established farms - from London, Scunthorpe to Dundee – aim to serve supermarkets and wholesalers, Square Mile Farms, is keen to connect and bring urban consumers closer to food production by growing ‘greens on the walls’ of offices and in the basements of flats.
“It is a great model for businesses to embed well-being and social responsibility objectives into everyday living” he added.
“An office environment is already controlled to a large extent for human occupation which also benefits leafy greens and herbs plants which thrive off the temperature and CO2 in a busy workspace – we just need to the right light and water-efficient inputs."
When asked about Government support for this nascent agriculture, Mr Ransom hoped Defra might show more interest to level the playing field with conventional agriculture.
The Covid-19 pandemic which, apart from highlighting a fragility around ‘just-in-time’ fresh food systems, has also brought people closer to the source of their groceries.
Mr Ransom added: "Some form of accreditation along the lines of organic certification would be a logical step in labelling produce from CEA – which is nutritious and pesticide-free if done right."
The farms has grown more than 40 types of crops, including leafy greens from various herbs basil and parsley, chives, dill, coriander, lemon grass, bok choy, fennel, sorrel and red stem radish, and brassicas, such as curly kale, cavolo nero, mustard greens and various lettuces and baby leaf.
For more information: www.squaremilefarms.com