“We need to get honest about three things: the economics; the technical challenges; and the range and quality of things that we can actually grow sustainably. Until we start to get a really serious narrative about these, the industry will never move forward.” David Farquhar is CEO of Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), a pioneering Agritech technology vendor, manufacturing state-of-the-art products to deliver TotalControl Environment Agriculture (TCEA).
At an upcoming Agri-TechE event, David and his team will be part of the discussion on new innovations and targets in CEA. He’s demanding serious debate in a field that he sees as increasingly full of hype.
IGS are determined to lead the way to a ‘higher ground’, and have been working with key environmental organisations such as WWF, Zero-Waste Scotland and the Scottish EPA to establish a way of benchmarking the impact of TCEA on our climate. “We want a genuine comparison between our performance and that of other forms of agriculture”, says David.
Boundaries are also being pushed in terms of product quality and the range of things that can be grown. According to David, IGS have found a lucrative market selling their vertical farms to growers wishing to produce delicious, indoor-grown vegetable crops. Perhaps even more interestingly, IGS has been supporting traditional farmers seeking a reliable supply of pest- and disease-free seedlings: “We’ve been doing brassicas, seed potatoes, strawberries – and, in response to demand from Asian markets, we’ve been growing a range of chillies”.
But at its core, IGS is an innovator, always striving to put the control into CEA. “If you’re designing a weather-system… you need to think of it as a three-dimensional thing… The sun, the rain and the wind… and that’s what our appliances do – they make the weather” says David.
The company’s founder, Sir Henry Aykroyd, collaborated with the inventors of the first ‘Crystal Lamps’ (now known as LEDs) at the University of St Andrews, to grow plants indoors. And the advances continue apace, as David explains: “Our various families of patents including Power & Communications Management have made a MASSIVE dent in the global effort to replicate natural light, with our ability to make full diurnal cycles based on any latitude, geography and time of year.”
Following mastery of the light came mastery of the rain. “Irrigation, in many ways, is the simplest of the three factors”, says David – indeed irrigation solutions such as hydroponics and aeroponics have already allowed massive improvements in water use efficiency, in comparison to traditional outdoor farming – “but the big trick is operating closed-loop, so we have zero waste, zero discharges to the ground or water course and only allow the water inside the crop to leave the farm.”
“But right now, the really big thing on the agenda is getting the heat and ventilation right. In a sealed environment – we don’t vent to the outside atmosphere – we are growing dense crops giving off hot, wet oxygen and that has to be dealt with. It turns out, the key to efficient ventilation is managing the vapour pressure deficit in the crop canopy… and we’ve just cracked it.”
As a result of recent breakthroughs, IGS has reached a pinnacle of control. “Each one of our 6m2 Growth Trays operates as its own micro-climate which guarantees temperature control to within +/-1.5°C, and can maintain a 6°C temperature differential from the trays above and below it. We can grow multiple crops on a single tray and have adjacent trays operating at different stages of the growth cycle…”
But despite the successes of his company, David appears somewhat frustrated by the lack of collaboration coming from the other big players in the indoor farming field. He’s hoping that events, such as the Agri-TechE conference, can stimulate debate: “We know we’ve done some great things but we’re humble enough to say we haven’t cracked everything. We have deliberately designed the IGS Vertical Farm as a modular platform so that we can bring on technologies from new innovators. We’re putting a permanent call out there for people who have great components and subsystems to help us and our customers up our game … if you’ve got a better sensor, camera, whatever, we’d like to hear from you.”
The event ‘Controlled Environment Agriculture – The Industry is Growing Up’ was taking place in March but this event has now been postponed – to register your interest visit the event page here.