During the ‘Vertical Farming, in or out?’ meeting on 14 October 2016, Rien Panneman of Staay Food Group announced that the company would be producing its own lettuce in a large vertical farm in Dronten from 2017. The new building is expected to be ready in mid-April 2017. The farm will be up and running by June 2017, according to Panneman. The meeting was organised by InnovationQuarter.
During his presentation, Panneman outlined why Staay Food Group has taken on a vertical farm project. “We have a factory in Dronten where we produce sliced vegetables and salads. The desire arose for more certainty, especially in the area of food safety. Another reason is local-for-local. At the moment, we source our lettuce for six months of the year from the Netherlands, and the other six months from Spain or Italy, so it’s not as fresh as it could be. If we can produce that in-house in the same place where we process it, we can guarantee sustainability thanks to lower logistical costs and reduced CO2 emissions. There are also other benefits, because there will be fewer foreign materials such as rocks, insects and even, in exceptional cases, frogs.”
“The retail market at home and abroad stresses that we must concern ourselves with a cultivation method which is completely in line with vertical farming,” continues Panneman. “There are various benefits to vertical farming; lower energy consumption and water consumption, for example. We also see advantages in terms of plant protection and microbiology. Supermarkets are trying to distinguish themselves by setting maximum limits for pesticide residues. However, that is obviously not the only battle. We have done tests with Philips, and found that products grown under LED lighting are many times better than products grown in the open soil in bacteriological terms.”
Continuity also plays a role. “With vertical farming, we obviously know exactly when to sow and when to harvest, and the quality to expect,” said Panneman.
In addition to the demand from supermarkets, the cooperation with lettuce grower Deliscious and developments in Japan have inspired investments in vertical farming, as Panneman explains, “Consumer prices in Japan are much higher than here, enough to make it viable there, in contrast to the Netherlands. We contacted a number of partners for discussions; Philips, Rijk Zwaan, HAS Wageningen, CAH Vilentum University of Applied Sciences in Dronten, and development company Flevoland. We sat down with them round the table, and explained that we want to set up something unique in Dronten. We are now working hard on it. A completely new factory is being built, scheduled for completion in March/April 2017. The vertical farm area is now being engineered, and is expected to be operational in June.”
Staay Food Group’s new Fresh-Care Convenience Centre covers a total of 27,000 m² of floor space. The main area consists of high-care and low-care rooms. The entire hall in which the vegetables will be cut and packaged will be cooled. This includes the vertical farm, a conditioned space where lettuce is grown hydroponically under LED lighting without daylight. A 70,000 m2 plot is available next to the factory, where phase 2 can be built. Panneman, “We will be rolling out phase two as soon as we feel confident about growing under LEDs, guaranteed costs, and quality levels.”
However, the ambition goes beyond the creation of a state-of-the-art production facility. “The new building is also an auditorium, where lessons can be given. We will also train foreign students. That gives us, and our partners, an advantage of course.”
The cost of growing prime lettuces in a vertical farm is currently double that of current methods of cultivation. “However, the advantages are obvious and this is something our customers, the supermarket chains, recognise,” says Panneman. “In addition, the cost of the lettuce component is limited, so our customers will gladly accept a limited price increase. After all, they receive a higher quality, safe and sustainable product for their money, with which they can distinguish themselves from the competition.”
Staay Food Group is already thinking about setting up vertical farming projects outside the Netherlands. Panneman says, “You see more and more local-for-local and region-for-region agriculture, which means that we will eventually lose a lot of our export markets in the future. I think we should respond positively. We have to maintain our knowledge advantage in the field of fresh food production, and create a new model for generating income. State Secretary Van Dam recently said, ‘Let’s stop dragging commodities around, and focus on exporting chain and production knowledge.’”
Staay Food Group is willing to share new knowledge. “Ultimately, we will also benefit from this; we need people who know how to grow under LEDs, who we can put to work both in the Netherlands and beyond.” To conclude, he says, “We are convinced that this will be a success story. Our customers are very enthusiastic, and next year we will be able to produce profitably from day 1.”
Follow the construction of the Fresh-Care Convenience Centre via the Heembouw website.
Text/Photo: Mario Bentvelsen. Artist Impressions: Heembouw/Habeon Architecten.