Indoor farming in the UK has its roots in urban centres, but is it time now for the technology to move to the countryside?
This is an opinion piece submitted by Tom Brunt of Savills Food and Farming
Until recently, vertical farming was very much an urban enterprise. Entrepreneurs took over industrial units and disused underground tunnels to grow high quality salad products for a discerning local market. Now, some of those same entrepreneurs are looking to take their knowledge and their technology to a larger, more commercial scale.
The rural market for vertical farming in this country is very immature, it hasn’t been developed yet. It is being done very well in city-centre locations such as Grow Bristol, for example, which uses lorry containers to bring farming right to the city centre, but the rural model will be to recreate this growing capacity in far larger, industrial scale sheds.
These sheds could be on a farmyard or an industrial park. They could be converted buildings or put up from scratch, as long as they have good access to water, such as a borehole, a renewable energy source to power the lights and good lorry access for getting to market.
All sorts of sites in rural locations are of interest and we’re currently reviewing site potential. You put up racks for the plants, creating a tiered system of growing beds, then seed comes into the building and leaves as a salad crop, packed and sealed in a bag all on site.
The advantages of vertical farms range from sustainability – they are much more efficient on water and land use – to the ability to offer a year-round supply.
There is no downtime during the winter, it’s 365 day production. You have complete control of your environment in terms of water, heat and light and you’re taking out variables such as the weather. With technology to monitor every aspect of the plant’s growth, you can know in exact detail the length of your growing period and precisely what you’re going to be producing and when, enabling a consistency of supply.
Case study: Grow Up farm
There are clearly many good reasons for indoor, vertical growing, but how do the economics stack up? Kate Hofman is the CEO of Grow Up, a vertical farming enterprise that is switching from an urban to a rural operation.
“Our first farm, Unit 84, was in an industrial unit in East London,” says Hofman. “It produced 20,000kg a year of salad leaves and herbs from a floorspace of 760 square metres. We sold our produce to New Covent Garden Market, local restaurants and top chefs, but it was a prototype and it didn’t make a profit.”
Hofman took the decision to close the urban unit and look for sites where Grow Up could use its learning and its technology to expand to an industrial scale – sheds of 5,500 square metres that will be capable of producing 1.5 tonnes of produce per day. “Even if we open 10 farms of that size, we’d only produce 1.5% of the salad leaves that are currently imported into the UK,” she says.
The farms will cost £13m to build and fit out and will be financed through partnerships and investors. “I think people will come at this from a number of different angles,” says Hofman. “The farms are a valuable asset that will offer a consistent income over a long period of time. In some cases we might have a straightforward rental agreement with a landowner and in others we could operate a more collaborative ownership model.”
Hofman’s farms would grow the product sustainably and wash and pack the product on site. “This keeps the unit cost competitive as it considerably reduces the amount of product that is lost due to handling and wastage through deterioration,” she says.
“Growers were hugely affected by the summer that we have just had, and if you then factor in Brexit and the unknowns that will bring to seasonal labour, the idea of increasing our food security with controlled environment technology makes perfect sense,” she adds.
Certainly countries around the world think so. The global value of vertical farming is predicted to be US$9.9bn by 2025. China now has more than 40 government-backed research institutes dedicated to indoor farming and in the UK, Harper Adams University has an Urban Farming Group and the Scottish sustainability-focused James Hutton Institute hosts a vertical farm run by Intelligent Growth Solutions.
“There’s a huge amount of interest in the field,” says Hofman. “As the LED and automation technology develops, growing will become more efficient and yields even higher. And while for the moment, the main crops are salad leaves and herbs, the ability is there to grow fruiting crops such as peppers, cucumbers and strawberries. They’re just not commercially viable yet.”
I am also keen to see what lessons traditional agriculture can take from this growing industry.
Some of the technology that is being used, in terms of the detailed monitoring and how crops respond to nutrients, can be far more closely controlled in a building than the field, which means the learning can be that much more precise. Broad-acre farms use the technology, but there’s scope to go into even more detail.