How to build a successful vertical farm
Interest in vertical farming is rapidly increasing, a trend driven by two main factors. Firstly, with the global population set to mushroom to 10 billion by 2050, farmers will need to produce 70% more food, according to The World Government Summit Report.
Clearly, there is a need to grow more with less and one of the biggest advantages of building a successful vertical farm is the ability to produce more in a smaller space. By creating the optimum growing conditions, it’s a proven method of taking a crop from seed to harvest in less time, while obtaining higher yield. In practical terms, that translates to 20 times more lettuce compared to agriculture fields with limited land area.
Secondly, since the ever-increasing pressure on prices makes it essential to achieve maximum yield on crops, the idea of being able to fully control the environment and reduce waste, disease, energy and nutrients makes economic sense.
There are also many benefits in terms of sustainability and the growing trend for ‘clean eating’. Because they are isolated from the outside environment, vertical farms can remain free from pesticides and fertilisers. Crops grown without the need for chemicals appeal strongly to many consumers looking for ‘healthier options’, but it also reduces costs for you as a grower by removing the need for washing and post-harvest processes. There’s also the eco-friendly fact that vertical farms use 95% less water than traditional farming methods.
The science behind building a vertical farm
So how do you build a successful vertical farm? The truth is that vertical farming is a complex process that presents multiple and varied challenges for growers. For example, different crops need different light sources and light is just one of a crucial list of variables, with others including air temperature, humidity, airflow around plant, CO2, soil temperature, balance of nutrients, water and oxygen. Moreover, when you change any one of these cardinal parameters, it affects all the others.
Fortunately, this is exactly where Light Science Technologies can help. Working with customers in vertical farming, glass houses, it offers expert advice and tailored solutions in lighting, science and technology products by looking carefully at your crop and identifying the right type of light, nutrients and other growing conditions for that crop.
LST collaborates with many universities and plant scientists across a wide range of crops from herbs, salad greens, leafy vegetables and root vegetables through to high-carbohydrate protein foods. Its in-house laboratory has the latest technology, including controlled environmental growing chambers which are linked and able to transmit data continuously to keep you constantly updated with data about plant performance, quality, colour and taste.
The perfect recipe for a successful vertical farm
The company’s Growise lighting range is designed for maximum flexibility and so includes 44 variants in order to create the perfecting ‘recipe’ to suit your unique environment.
The laboratory can also look in detail at disease prevention and plant architecture, for example making a plant shorter or taller, or for it to have more, or less, leaves. In fact, the LST lab is equipped with the same technology NASA uses to cultivate plants on the International Space Station, proving light recipes can give growers the ability to affect plants in ways that were not previously possible whether in space, or here on Earth.
“We’ll look at how the plant is growing in great detail and even better, our lab is so well-equipped, we can do this instantaneously,” explains John Matcham, LST’s technical director and a controlled environment agriculture (CEA) expert.
He points out that growing in a vertical farm is similar to working within an incubator. Cleanliness is paramount and with this type of farming there’s the ability to control almost everything such as filtering the water and air.
Sewing the seeds of success
Matcham, who advises global players with millions of tons of food production at stake, explains one often overlooked element is seed selection. Seeds, he warns, are the one thing entering your controlled environment that could ultimately wreck carefully laid plans to build a successful vertical farm.
“Although they might be sterile on the outside, with man-made protective coatings to keep out fungus and disease, the second a seed germinates, what’s inside it is in the perfect environment for growing,” he says.
“This illustrates why quality of seed and seed selection is so very important, and why we at LST work with only the best seed suppliers,” he adds.
Another crucial decision, that goes hand in hand with this, is deciding what type of crops you are interested in growing.
Although the majority of vertical farm sites currently focus on growing salad greens, Matcham says you can cultivate pretty much anything, whether vegetables, root vegetables, herbs or even high-carbohydrate protein foods.
Or perhaps you plan to focus on medicinal plants that will produce key chemical compounds used in the treatment of diseases such as cancer, leukaemia and diabetes. For example, safflower which is integral to the production of insulin, or Madagascar periwinkle a key ingredient for treating Hodgkin’s Disease.
Commercial viability starts with knowing your market
“If you’re intending to grow for commercial viability, the first thing to consider is whether you have a customer,” Matcham points out.
“Make sure you know your market, who your customer is and where your crops are going.”
Location is also an important consideration, as vertical farms offer an opportunity to use existing and new spaces to grow food nearer to populations, cities and a power source.
The right spot for a farm can bring benefits to the environment and communities, by making food accessible all year around and reducing CO2 emissions by having less food miles in terms of transportation.
Also, with a quarter of farmland already highly degraded and a further two-fifths moderately or slightly degraded, according to The World Government Summit Report 2018, the move towards making food production more sustainable is now arguably more urgent than ever.
Where should you set up your vertical farm?
Location has also taken on much more relevancy since the disruption caused by Covid-19, which suddenly brought into sharp focus the need to re-think the global food supply chain. Three-quarters of companies reported supply chain disruption due to volatility caused by the pandemic, according to research by the Institute of Supply Chain Management and this has accelerated discussions around how we grow and access food.
Clearly, there is an opportunity for more localised growing to reduce supply chain costs and environmental impact. An increasing number of retailers are seeing the benefits of vertical farming including M&S, which is rolling out in-store vertical farming units and Carrefour has set up its first 'vertical garden' in a store near Paris as part of plans to expand this urban garden strategy to shorten distribution chains and slash CO2 emissions. Similarly, German hypermarket chain Real has established a vertical farming greenhouse in its Berlin store where it is cultivating herbs and vegetables using hydroponic technology. Equally, a growing number of manufacturers, including McCain Foods are experimenting with vertical farming.
All the above are evidence of an evolving market, ripe with opportunities for those with the knowledge and expertise to access them. This is where Light Science Technologies can work with you to create long-term value and help you establish your vertical farm as a serious contender in a marketplace with infinite future opportunities.
Flexibility is essential in what is still a relatively new sector and LST’s scientific approach, which harnesses the latest technology and performance data analysis, offers an integrated and cost-effective solution that can be adapted for use across different crops to achieve maximum yield.
Building a successful vertical farm starts with us
By creating a recipe with ingredients ranging from lighting to nutrients and environment, it helps farmers grow more high-quality crops and even better, it’s been designed to be easy to install and maintain.
The LST lab also taps into historical and real-time data and offers insight, be giving you access to experts across a wide range of academic disciplines.
Matcham’s final piece of advice about how to build a successful vertical farm is simple: “Before you spend your money, come to LST. Whatever you’re thinking of doing, we’ll help de-risk the enterprise.
“We’ll look at the crop, test it in different environments and with different light sources and run all those tests. All those elements will enable you to make smart decisions and smart decisions lead to smart profits,” he adds.
If you’re considering launching a vertical farm, or want to make your current farm cheaper to run and more sustainable, we’d be happy to talk through your options. Call us on 01332 410601.