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Agri-TechE members embark on mini-mission to the Republic of Korea for Green & Agritech Asia 2023

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

“Small but powerful” is how the Korean agriculture system was described at the recent Green and Agritech Asia 2023 conference, held in Gwangju, Republic of Korea.

Agri-TechE members Vitabeam (headed up by CEO James Millchamp-Merrick) and Aponic International (led by Jason Hawkins-Row) joined the mini-mission to showcase UK technologies relevant to the Korean market.

A Big Prize

The potential of the Republic of Korea is huge. The country currently imports 75 % of its food, and while fruit, vegetables and rice are the key outputs of domestic agriculture, this is delivered by an ageing population of farmers, most managing less than a hectare of land each.

An additional challenge is air pollution – many of the plots are alongside busy roads and airborne contaminants from other countries are also a major issue, making controlled environment agriculture particularly attractive.

Green & Agritech Asia 2023
Green & Agritech Asia 2023

A strategic plan is underway in Korea to improve productivity by harnessing new tools of technology – such as Artificial Intelligence, cloud computing and use of “big data” – and applying technologies from smart cities into agriculture. With increasing ambition and significant infrastructure investment into research and glasshouse, there are big plans for growth.

Engaging with the Farmers

Yet, in a pattern we are seeing increasingly round the world, there was a lamentable absence of farmers, and much of the technology is being developed in isolation from these end-users. As we know and have seen, test-beds and mechanisms to de-risk farmer adoption of new practices are crucial, especially where there is a traditional mind-set suspicious of change.

The Smart Farm Innovation Valley is a 21ha site resulting from around $70m of investment aimed at supporting start-ups and educating farmers in the use of new technologies. Significant glasshouse real estate, a ‘big data’ centre and a strong focus on young growers is designed to attract new thinking into the industry.

Green & Agritech Asia 2023

Agri-TechE in South Korea

Part of Agri-TechE’s mandate is to help members develop their business – either in the UK or internationally. Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE accompanied the members to Korea and commented: “It was a pleasure to be joined by Jason and James representing Aponic International and Vitabeam respectively.

She continues: “It was an honour to give a keynote talk at the Green and Agritech Asia Conference and Exhibition alongside Mukul Varshney, Director of Corporate Affairs at John Deere.

“The grand opening ceremony was an impressive affair, with the Mayor of Gwangju and representatives from the Rural Development Administration of Jellanando Province. It was a pleasure to meet again our long-standing friend and colleague, Kyeong-Hwan Lee, Associate Professor at Chonnam National University.

“His vision for an AI Agri-Tech Convergence Industrialisation Valley is coming to life with a fully automated pilot test farm for digital agriculture, an R&D Centre and significant glasshouse real estate supported by agricultural research and extension services.

Opening Ceremony at Green & Agritech Asia 2023

“There was a warm welcome for technology developers and scientists looking to join the ecosystem. So, a good reception for our two Agri-TechE members – Jason Hawkins-Row of Aponic International and James Millichap-Merrick of Vitabeam.

Members takeaway

Highlights of the mission included demonstrations of vertical farming solutions, robotics and computer vision technologies, plus use of AI, machine learning and deep learning to give actionable insights about crop performance.

Jason (Aponic International) explained: “I wanted to go to experience first-hand the level of farming in Korea and feel the pinch points of food security and resilience, also to observe the state of play for the everyday farmer.

“Having spoken to government officials and farmers there seems to be a mismatch between them and I can envisage a wide application of the Aponic vertical aeroponic farming on small, medium and large scale to make the most of the limited farmable spaces available.

“There is also familiar friction from older generations who want tradition and younger farmers who want to try new, less labour-intensive methods. We will be offering an energy and water efficient, urban, peri-urban and rural food production enabling technology as a package to all farmers and officials we met there.

Belinda at Green & Agritech Asia 2023 4

James (Vitabeam) also commented: “With such a high volume of food imported by the Republic of Korea, we see it as vital that investment is enhanced to support the large domestic farming community, combined with the scientific communities to deploy the best growing solutions. 

“We could envision a revolution in their food production. Our opportunity is significant in helping them grow CEA crops and post-harvest pre-packaging technology to ensure healthier, clean and fresh produce production.

“It was an invaluable event made all the more enjoyable by such great attendees! We really wish to thank Belinda Clarke from Agri-TechE, Si Yoo from Digital Chosun and all members of the local government and Rural Development Administration of Jeollanam-do Province who made this trip possible.

Agri-TechE’s next International Initiative will take us to the plains of Saskatchewan, Canada (virtually) on Monday 25 September. Find out more about our global reach.

Good news for salad producers growing under cover and hit by energy costs

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Increasing yield with same inputs would improve productivity

Growers hit by energy increases could increase productivity with a novel seed treatment. Results from Zayndu show yield increases of 10 – 27% in yield of herb and salad crops and more rapid germination following treatment with its Aurora plasma-tech.

Improving productivity could offer a significant impact for the sector according to Bernhard Strauss, Director of Research and Operations, at consultancy firm Camrosh. He has just completed an analysis of the energy requirements of the controlled environment horticulture sector for Defra, in collaboration with the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.

He comments that recent research* shows plantings are being scaled back by up to 20% this year with many growers walking away from contracts and considering withdrawing from the sector. Autumn and winter planting in heated glasshouses will be reduced due to energy costs.

Yield increase with same inputs

Strauss says: “The pressure on growers is only likely to accelerate, especially in the high-tech glasshouse sector as energy costs remain staggeringly high. Even more so in Vertical Farming where typical electricity inputs per year are ~300kWh/m2 for HVAC, dehumidification systems, pumps etc, plus ~700kWh/m2 for lighting; so with energy costs increasing by 156%, commercial viability is a real issue.

“Hence, a possible yield increase in the range of 15% without additional inputs would be of great interest to the VF sector and for different types of glasshouse and polythene tunnel growing. Achieving consistent yield increases at this level by another method would need an increase in material inputs or labour.”

Although leafy greens, such as lettuce as well as herb crops such as basil, cress, chive, parsley, dill and coriander are currently grown to a large extent in different types of low-tech greenhouses and polythene tunnels, they are particularly suitable for the VF sector. With larger VF operators able to grow as many as 15-20 ‘harvests’ per year through tightly staggered planting cycles over an area footprint of less than half a hectare.

Zayndu increases yield with Aurora plasma tech
Trials show yield increases of up to 27% of some baby leaf

The Zayndu Aurora System uses low energy plasma-technology to treat the seeds in small batches prior to planting. The treatment takes minutes to complete and produces no waste – just clean air and seeds.

In trials it has found that the yield increases on average: Chive 10%, Parsley 10%, Coriander 15%, Dill 27%. This yield increase, when multiplied by 20 harvests, with no additional energy requirement, would have a significant impact on margins.

Furthermore, the Aurora system, increased germination of Spinach from 80% to 95% and accelerated it by approximately 1.5 days. Leafy greens have short growth cycles with germination times of two to three weeks and 4 to 8 weeks to harvest depending on crop; shaving 1.5 days from each cycle can also increase throughput.

Research by Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) has found that shelf life is longer for vertical farmed produce, with lettuce lasting three weeks (compared to one week for open field), and water use is less, with 250 L/kg in field compared to 1 L/kg in a vertical farm.

Increasing productivity when energy costs bite

Strauss continues: “Although energy input per unit crop is still much larger in VF compared to growing under glass or polythene tunnels where natural light and ambient temperature is used at no cost, creating opportunities to increase productivity will help make it more commercially viable, particularly in extremes of climate where other resources are scarce.”

More about Zayndu

*The real impact of cost pressures on the horticulture sector, Promar International research commissioned by NFU 15th November 2022.

Glasshouse fruit and vegetable growers cut back on production

Demystifying aeroponic production – LettUs Grow research collaboration with Wageningen University

Meet the Network
Agri-TechE

LettUs Grow has pioneered the development of an ultrasonic aeroponic system
LettUs Grow has pioneered the development of an ultrasonic aeroponic system

Ultrasonic aeroponics and hydroponic irrigation systems are going head-to-head in a research collaboration between Wageningen University and Research (NL) and the aeroponic technology specialists LettUs Grow (UK). The trials aim to boost the understanding of aeroponics to encourage innovative agricultural practices in the future.

Hydroponics is a method of soil-less growing, where plant roots are supplied with a nutrient solution at intervals or constantly growing in a nutrient solution, whereas in aeroponics plant roots are irrigated with a fine mist of water and nutrients. Ultrasonic aeroponics uses high-frequency sound waves that shake water and nutrients until they disperse into lots of tiny droplets, like a mist.

LettUs Grow: pioneer in ultrasonic aeroponics

LettUs Grow has pioneered the development of an ultrasonic aeroponic system and this will be trialed alongside two other hydroponic systems, ebb and flow and deep water culture, in a greenhouse environment. The research will be conducted at Wageningen’s campus greenhouse facilities over a five month period.

Jack Farmer, Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of LettUs Grow, said: “It is a core value for us that everything we do and promote is rooted in good science; so it’s really gratifying as a UK technology company within the CEA sector to be collaborating with the leading academics in the space.

“We’re pleased to have the opportunity to build the relationships with Dutch horticulture, which we recognize as world-leading and a cornerstone of the industry.”

Quadruple Helix Model of innovation beneficial

LettUs Grow aquaponicsWageningen is an exemplar of the Quadruple Helix Model of innovation, which is where the university, industry, government and public interact within a knowledge economy.

This policy of investing in and connecting science with policy, industry, and society has enabled the Netherlands to become a global leader in sustainable agriculture. Now, despite its small size, the country is a key agricultural player and second largest exporter of agricultural goods.

Prof. Leo Marcelis, Professor of Horticulture and Product Physiology at Wageningen University, will be leading the trials. He says: “We are happy to conduct this research in cooperation with Lettus Grow, addressing an important question with respect to optimizing growth and quality relevant for greenhouse and vertical farm production systems.”

The trials will compare the crop growth, development and quality of basil in greenhouse cultivation, while also potentially exploring the energy costs associated with each of the three irrigation systems.

Researchers will gather data on:

  • growth rate
  • productivity
  • nutritional content
  • shelf life
  • plant physiological characteristics
  • the effects of seasonality
  • energy consumption

This is a research collaboration, rather than an outsourced trial, so LettUs Grow will be actively involved in the trial.

More about LettUs Grow

Light Science Technologies announces successful first phase completion of Zenith Nurseries contract

Member News
Agri-TechE

Milestone signals UKRI grant increase

AgriTech firm Light Science Technologies Ltd (LST) has announced the first phase completion of its project with Zenith Nurseries to develop advanceGROW, an ‘industry first’ cloche lighting and sensor technology system for the CEA market.

The first milestone, known as Gateway 1, which involved developing and demonstrating the viability of the system, is now complete, resulting in revenue of £51,000 for the company.

LST announced the commencement of the contracted project, with UK grower Zenith Nurseries Ltd aim of reducing the need for import substitution by extending the harvest window. Potentially worth up to £13.84 million, advanceGROW is the first retrofittable, semi-automated, all-in-one lighting and sensor solution, providing year-round harvests for growers across multiple plant varieties in polytunnel and glasshouse environments.

The project is broken into four gateways which are specified to prototype, develop, and commercialise the offering. Following the success of Gateway 1, Zenith has redefined its near-term priorities in response to ongoing energy and import conditions, and to increase focus on the lighting element of the rolling cloche. This will place further emphasis on growing more indoors, mitigating the impact of unpredictable and extreme weather conditions and climate change, with a view to increasing yields and extending the growing season.

This has resulted in the project gateways being re-ordered, bringing the first phase of Gateway 4 forward. This phase is now set to begin before Gateways 2 and 3 in the first half of 2023, with potential revenues of around £1.9 million, and will see the incorporation of the rolling cloche device within new polytunnels. LST is also exploring new potential revenue generating additions to advanceGROW in order to make the units more self-sufficient in terms of energy usage, using solar power and batteries.

The overall time scale and potential contract value of £13.84 million remains unchanged.

LST will now spearhead the development of the harvesting elements alongside specialist contractors, which means that the value of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) grant it received has increased to £621,077 for this project.  Awarded in February this year, the grant was awarded by UKRI, the UK’s innovation agency, as part of its Farming Initiative Pathway (FIP) consortium for more sustainable and efficient plant growth in the UK agricultural sector.

Simon Deacon, CEO and founder of Light Science Technologies, said: “We are delighted with the progress made on the project and the agility of our relationship with Zenith Nurseries, which has allowed a reordering of workflow to bring forward part of Gateway 4.

“The cloche lighting and sensor technology solution is as exciting as it is innovative. With applications across multiple plant varieties, we believe there will be significant demand for this solution as food security becomes progressively more crucial in a changing world.

“Importantly, given the numerous issues associated with climate change, which have and will severely impact growing conditions, our solutions enable growers to produce crops more locally, all year round.”

This comes after Light Science Technologies Holdings plc (LSTH), the holding company of LST, reported in its third-quarter trading statement that the recent series of projects under LST could bring in potential revenue worth £3m.

Controlled Environment Agriculture – from glasshouse to vertical farm

Topic Overview
Out of House

Is Controlled Environment Agriculture viable?

“We should not consider greenhouses and vertical farms as two diametrically opposed systems. Instead, they should be seen as on a gradient,” says Luuk Graamans, who is currently working as a researcher at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), investigating the feasibility of Controlled Environment Agriculture as a new production system.

“Greenhouses can incorporate the technologies from vertical farms to increase climate control and to enhance their performance under specific climates. The vertical farm is the pinnacle of climate control and may serve situations where such control is warranted, or where interaction with the exterior climate is undesirable.”

WUR and Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) have joined forces to investigate the feasibility of integrating vertical farming as a new production system within the urban energy network.

Luuk’s past research has shown that the effectiveness of Controlled Environment (CE) agriculture depends on a complex interaction between the production method, systems engineering, and the yield and costs of energy, water and CO2.

He says:

“Compared to more traditional food production systems, plant factories are able to achieve higher efficiencies for land area, water and CO2, but generally not for electricity.

“Greenhouses are generally more electricity efficient because of the freely available solar energy. Only in situations with little light and significant energy loss, or perhaps with excessive heat gain across the façade, may a vertical farm come out ahead.

“The important question is which resources you deem (in)valuable, and this is closely related to the local climate, context and market.”

Key opportunities for Controlled Environment Agriculture

Luuk’s research has shown vertical farming may prove to be an effective production system where:

  • energy loss across the greenhouse façade would outweigh the beneficial energy gain from sunlight, for example in cold climates with little sunlight.
  • resources like water, land or CO2 are scarce, for example in arid or densely populated areas.
  • there is a need to strengthen local food production independent of exterior climate, such as areas prone to extreme climate events or where there is dependency on imports.
  • there is potential to integrate the vertical farm into the energy network and provide additional services. For example, densely populated areas that rely on (intermittent) renewable energy sources.
  • energy loss across the greenhouse façade would outweigh the beneficial energy gain from sunlight, for example in cold climates with little sunlight.
  • resources like water, land or CO2 are scarce, for example in arid or densely populated areas.
  • there is a need to strengthen local food production independent of exterior climate, such as areas prone to extreme climate events or where there is dependency on imports.
  • there is potential to integrate the vertical farm into the energy network and provide additional services. For example, densely populated areas that rely on (intermittent) renewable energy sources.

Next steps for Controlled Environment Agriculture

Luuk continues:

“One of the biggest challenges on the production side will be to learn how to properly wield the technology. Although we have a system in which we can control most, if not all, variables of the production climate, at the moment the link between these variables, direct crop responses and crop growth is only understood superficially.

“Advanced imaging and sensor techniques will be able to track the actual plant status in real-time and increase our understanding of these processes. Only then can we truly formulate an optimal growing strategy and take advantage of the extensive climate control that vertical farming offers.

“On the technical side, an important challenge will be optimising the energy use of food production in Controlled Environment Agriculture and to integrate it in the broader energy system. The infrastructure of modern cities and countries is becoming increasingly complex and integrated. Food production should not remain independent but should benefit from the system as a whole.”

Wageningen UR has built new research facilities for vertical farming and crop research in Bleiswijk. These facilities will be used as a tool to study crop response, breeding, pollination and health. The system is designed to continuously track the water, CO2 and energy balance of the crop.

Square Mile Farms bring vertical farms into the workplace by integrating farm-walls, farm-displays and other edible green spaces

Autonomous growing environments or urban farms?

There are many business models:

Large scale production: Nick Bateman, of Growpura, creators of automated hydroponic bio-halls, comments that the ultimate controlled environment would be a fully automated environment.

“The other upside of automation is allowing the system to run in a clean-room environment, monitored entirely by sensors and without sources of contamination brought in by humans. Automation creates a fresher, more natural product free of pesticides, and eliminates the need for a washing process.”

Social innovation: Johnathan Ransom’s Square Mile Farms started with the concept of ‘flat pack farms’ for urban areas and now, through its Office Farmingmodel, is bringing vertical, urban farms to workplaces of big businesses to help them achieve their sustainability and employee well-being goals.

Production in arid areas: Michael Ruggier is the CEO of Airponix, which has developed a smart, sustainable and soilless system that is designed to support the growth of a broad range of food and niche crops with particular benefits where water is scarce. He explains: “In our solution roots are exposed to a nutrient rich fog which is more effective way of delivering the nutrients than any other system such as current aeroponics which spray the roots, or hydroponics which submerges them. It does not require an expensive pumping system or for the water to be changed, so in comparison to hydroponics we use a fraction of the water and can provide double the yield.”

To find out more about other technologies being developed for CEA in the Agri-TechE environment click here.

Nutrient mists enable production where water is scarce

Potential to support diversification

Lindsay Hargreaves, former MD of fresh produce growers Frederick Hiam, says value, freshness and seasonality all determine which crops are suitable for CE production in the UK:

“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. And then there is 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.”

What does the future hold?

An indoor farmer, a technologist and a conventional fresh produce grower give their views on what to expect over the coming years.

Potential to improve the supply chain

Kate Hofman, CEO, GrowUp

“Having been in the business of commercial controlled environment salad production since 2012, starting off with shipping container aquaponics before scaling up, Kate is in an excellent position to comment on the challenges of breaking into the UK leafy green supply chain.

“It will be really interesting to see how the food service world recovers after lockdown – the rough numbers are that supermarket trade was up at least 11% in the last year – so retail still looks like a really good direction to go in. If we want to have an impact on the food system in the UK and change it for the better, we’re committed to partnering with those big retailers to help them deliver on their sustainability and values-driven goals.

“We see the value in opening dialogues with all sectors of the industry, from broadacre to vertical, in terms of research and best practise – there are opportunities for collaboration around things like sustainability and food safety. And there is some overlap between these modes of production – I know several projects where conventional growers have looked into applying controlled environment technology to what they’re doing.

“But our focus is very much as a salad grower that grows a fantastic product that everyone will want to buy. And we’re focussed on bringing down the cost of sustainable food, which means doing it at a big enough scale to gain the economies of production that are needed to be able to sell at everyday prices.”

Container farms offer experiential food experiences

Jack Farmer, CSO, LettUs GrowFeeding foodbanks in Bristol with local produce, whilst developing an automation and control software for vertical farms, LettUs Grow is now pioneering a new concept in farming with its Drop & GrowTM growing units.

“This year is looking really exciting, regardless of what happens with the pandemic – supermarkets are investing to ensure a sustainable source of food production in the UK, which is what CEA provides. We’re also seeing a growth in ‘experiential’ food and retail, like microbreweries, and that’s also where we see our Drop & Grow container farm fitting in.

“The smaller model, Drop & Grow:24, is primarily focussed on people entering the horticultural space, be they entrepreneurs, new growers, agriculturalists who weren’t previously into CEA. We expect it to be one of the most productive, ethical, and easy to use container farms on the market. It is a core part of our strategy to be the leading technology provider in this space.

“Everyone in the vertical farming space is going to hit a crossroads, because vertical farming, with its focus on higher value and higher density crops, is effectively a subset of the broader horticultural sector. All the players in the vertical farming space are facing a choice – to scale vertically, and double down and try to capture as much value in that specific space through vertical integration, or to diversify, and take their technology expertise broader. ”

Controlled Environment Agriculture vs outdoor field crops?

James Green is Director of Agriculture at G’s, one of Europe’s leading fresh produce growers. He explains:

“There’s a spectrum from outdoor grown field crop, which is what G’s does, through to various polytunnel/greenhouse set-ups, all the way to vertical farming under fully artificial lighting. And there’s a balance in all of these systems between energy costs for lighting, energy costs for cooling, costs of nutrient supply, and then transportation and the supply and demand.”

G’s, which grows about 10,000 hectares of outdoor salads in the UK and Spain, is maintaining a watching brief on the area.

“For commercial production and the finished goods, we still see the economics of CEA as challenging. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t change as technologies, such as solar panels, become more effective and cheaper.

“I think a blended approach, where you’re getting as much benefit as you can from nature but you’re supplementing it and controlling the growth conditions, is what we are aiming for, rather than the fully artificially lit ‘vertical farming’.

“In the short term we see potential for indoor farming to enhance our plant propagation, so that – by using enhanced light or aeroponics technologies – we can get ‘better’ plants that are more uniform or less disease prone for planting outdoors.

“At the end of the day, sunshine is pretty cheap and it comes up every day… but the question is, which production model will work for us in the future?”

Kate Hofman, GrowUp Farms
Grow Up Farms
Jack Farmer, LettUs Grow
James Green, G’s

Briefing last modified March 2022.