Jock Richardson thinks it’s time for Controlled Environment Agriculture to grow up. His company, Growpura, is to play a key role in constructing a £22.5million demonstrator, education and training facility to help make this happen in the UK.
“Investment has been focused on exciting technology – AI, automation, robotics – but we also need skilled individuals to build a sustainable, viable operation,” says Jock.
Jock, director and co-founder of Growpura, will be answering audience questions and discussing his plans to support a vibrant Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) sector at the upcoming Agri-TechE webinar, “CEA Lite”, on 10th September 2020.
Growpura’s hydroponic bio-halls are popular for their cost-effectiveness and efficiency. “The plants are on a simple conveyor system that provides a sophisticated mode of growth management,” explains fellow co-founder Nick Bateman. “Rather than having infrastructure (irrigation for example) taken to plants, we take the plant to where it needs to be this gives us a lot of flexibility in how each plant is grown.”
“We’re able to supply our plants with natural sunlight, supplemented with artificial light which allows us to reduce energy expenditure on lighting by over 40%.”
“The other differentiator is that the system runs in a clean-room environment, monitored entirely by sensors and without sources of contamination brought in by humans,” Nick explains. “That creates a fresher, more natural product free of pesticides, and eliminating the need for a washing process.”
Growpura started almost a decade ago, just as large operators were starting to license out indoor farming systems in the United States.
“It seemed to me that there were issues with the technology at the time – so we formed a company to develop our own farms,” Nick recalls. “We up-scaled to a larger operation in Cornwall in 2016, with stacks of growth modules 8 levels high, and we used that facility to test-grow a range of produce and optimise the parameters.”
“From the beginning, we had a number of potential buyers keen on our produce, and we could have sold small quantities to local restaurants with high prestige. But if vertical farming is to play a serious part in today’s world, it needs to be scalable and cost-efficient to sell into the major supermarkets.”
“There’s a skills shortage for protected cropping,” Jock explains. “We’re looking to create a vibrant protected cropping industry in the UK by licensing our large-scale vertical hydroponics facilities… and our customers will also require skilled operators to manage these facilities.”
Growpura received £4.5M, in April 2020, from the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) to create a demonstration and training facility for controlled environment agriculture, part of a total investment in the facility of £22.5M.
According to SEMLEP: “The new facility will be based in Bedfordshire and will partner with SE Midlands college providers for apprenticeship provision, creating 73 new jobs by 2025 and 130 new apprenticeships by 2030.”
“The apprenticeship programme will provide students with exposure to a large scale vertical hydroponics facility,” Jock comments. “There’s simply nothing out there that teaches individuals how to grow at an industrial scale indoors, so we’re looking to run courses focussing on engineering but also with a horticulture component. We’re also seeking university partners for training at undergraduate level.”
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“Our funders have been excited by the opportunities for jobs, training and up-skilling in the South-East Midlands region,” says Nick. “If our approach allows the UK to create a viable protected cropping industry then that’s going to create plenty of jobs in engineering, management and logistics.”
But Nick is at pains to explain the importance of efficiency and scale in order to reach that point: “The product needs to be cost-effective to compete with open field production.”
Jock agrees: “Cost remains key – Scale-up is vital but there are operational challenges. By combining automation with moving hydroponics, what we’ve done is come up with a solution that can be scaled without seeing a co-linear growth in costs.”
CEA Lite is an online event being held on 10th September 2020 15:00 – 17:00. Register your interest through the events page.