“We do think there is the potential for indoor farming to be commercially viable and there are some immediate gains for growing crops such as leafy salads in high hygiene environments,” comments Lindsay Hargreaves, MD of Frederick Hiam, a Suffolk-based fresh produce business. He is chairing the Agri-Tech East conference on controlled environment cultivation taking place at Rothamsted Research on 19 March.
“Waste issues are very important and we know that when growing out of doors there is considerable variation in quality and performance and this can lead to fluctuations in supply which don’t perfectly match customer demand. Growing indoors provides greater control of quality and quantity and fewer inputs of plant protection products.
“There is also the matter of growing crops closer to the point of consumption. Being able to grow more exotic crops in East Anglia close to distribution centres would reduce the food miles. Additionally there are opportunities to grow crops for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and vaccines within a controlled environment.
“There is also seasonality. Thirty years ago the berry market in the UK had a short growing season; now strawberries are a long season as well as high value crop, not just a luxury available for a few weeks. Bringing new crops indoors could open up big markets for UK growers.”
There are many approaches to indoor cultivation, such as deep-water hydroponics, vertical soilless cultivation, and aeroponics, where exposed roots are sprayed with nutrients. All of these methods are to be discussed at the conference.
Despite the news that one of the UK’s most technically-advanced glasshouses is set to produce millions of tomatoes, starting in February 2019, the cost of the installations – the Sterling Suffolk glasshouse cost £30m – and technical challenges mean there are few commercial installations.
Lindsay says that a key issue is labour: “I think we need to use all branches of technology to make this work. Getting something ready to grow and then dealing with it at the point of harvest are the crucial points and I don’t think those have been fully worked through.
“However, it is coming. I am sure a few years ago we wouldn’t have imagined that we would have a computer in our pockets so powerful that you could talk face-to-face with someone across the world! You need to have vision.”
The event ‘Bringing The Outside In – Innovating for Controlled Environment Agriculture’ is taking place on 19th March from 10.00 – 16.00 at Rothamsted Research. It will look at the different growing systems, emerging technologies, the challenges of implementing a system and the logistics involved with integrating a controlled environment agriculture into the food value chain.