The cultivation of crops in the city, or Urban Farming, is beginning to arouse increasing interest worldwide. This often involves Vertical Farming, in which multiple cultivation layers are grown in closed-off spaces under LED lighting. In addition, vegetables are grown on top of buildings, sometimes in greenhouses or simply in the open air.
Many people are convinced that the cultivation of vegetables on stacked layers, or Vertical Farming, is the future. Tall buildings will increasingly be used for growing crops rather than for industrial manufacturing. Those crops do not grow in the sun, but under LED lights; and not in the soil, but in a thin layer of water or mist. Shielded from the influence of the changing seasons, the year-round cultivation of these crops grown under constant conditions is possible.
North America and Japan
New developments always take place outside the traditional areas. The same applies to Vertical Farming. You will not come across it in the Netherlands with its high-tech greenhouse horticulture, but mostly in Japan and America, where mainly young entrepreneurs are attracted to Vertical Farming. There is one exception in the Netherlands: lettuce farmer Deliscious in Beesel is starts its crops in a seven-layer system under LEDs. Later on, they are transplanted and transferred to a greenhouse for further growth in mobile gutters.
Vertical Farming has long outgrown the stage of amateurism. In the USA, one Vertical Farming company is opening after another, and always in the vicinity of a big city. The farms are able to achieve a significant output on a small surface area. The industry already has its own magazine, Urban Ag News, and there is an Association for Vertical Farming, AVF.
The AVF expects that within there will be a Vertical Farm in every city within the next decade. ‘It is not without reason that multinationals such as Philips, Metro, Osram, Toshiba, Microsoft, Panasonic, Fujitsu and GE are showing interest.’ Lemnis Oreon does not exclude the possibility of developing LEDs especially for Vertical Farming, ‘but we believe in top lighting in greenhouses’. A world map on the AVF website shows where Vertical Farming is being carried out. There are only a few dots in Europe, while Japan and North America, in particular, are covered with them.
Vertical Farming is attracting worldwide attention. Leafy vegetables and herbs can easily be grown in cities or on their outskirts all year round, without the influence of seasons. The weather can not throw a spanner in the works as with outdoor farming. To quote poet and writer Brian Brett: ‘Farming is a profession of hope’. However, this no longer applies thanks to Vertical Farming.
It is not surprising that the AVF will be manning a stand on GreenTech in Amsterdam on 14, 15 and 16 June. They will also be organising a meeting with several speakers, such as the big man behind the Vertical Farming developments Dickson Despommier (Columbia University/AVF) and Jasper den Besten (HAS Den Bosch), Marc Oshima (AeroFarms), Fabio Ziemssen (Metro Group), Paul Hardej (Illumitex), Steven Beckers (Lateral Thinking Factory & Building Integrated Greenhouses), Oscar Rodriguez (Architecture and food), Vincent Fesquet (New’rban view) and from the AVF: Christine Zimmerman, Max Loessl, Henry Gordon Smith, Howard Brin and Zjef Van Acker on the day before the GreenTech exhibition.
Sophisticated cultivation strategy
In North America Illumitex has doubled its LED lamp production every year in the last few years. ‘The future is growing indoors’, says Illumitex. The company claims to have a specific light recipe for each crop with just the right spectrum, intensity and frequency a plant needs for photosynthesis and the most energy-efficient way to do this. However, there are several other companies that provide the same know-how with the delivery of their cultivation system.
The company PlantLab says it distinguishes itself by entering into a partnership. ‘We guarantee output. That is quite different as ”we have a system”.’ according to PlantLab, not the technology but the plant is the guiding factor. The organisation determines for each situation how the plant can deliver the optimal results; for example in yield, substances or quality. ‘This is not just dependent on light, but on the total production process, including materials handling and labour productivity.’
Several companies are bringing their own Vertical Farming concept to market, such as AeroFarms (USA), Urban Produce (USA), Urban Crops (Belgium), Mirai (Japan), PlantLab (Netherlands), InFarm (USA), VydroFarm (UK) and Truleaf (Canada). The bottom line is that they are all trying to reinvent the wheel.
AeroFarms is the largest of these companies. It has the ambition to grow rapidly and is hoping to expand into locations on four continents. But there are more organisations wishing to do the same, like Metropolis Farms, who claim that you can realise a revenue of $250,000 to $5,000,000 per year on 140 to 930 m2 , depending on what you are growing and what can be sold locally. ‘A Vertical Farm can be built within a week and after 60 days you are ready to harvest.’
The company Edenworks, on the other hand, aims to reduce labour costs by more than 50% in a yet to be opened second Vertical Farm by automating the sowing, harvesting, washing, drying, packaging and labelling processes, because otherwise viable exploitation is not possible. AeroFarms suggests that there is a great need for safe nutritious food ‘and we are quickly scaling up to change horticulture worldwide’. According to the Wall Street Journal AeroFarms is not yet making any profit, but it states that all its companies will have a positive cash flow this year.
FarmedHere in Chicago aims to prove that Vertical Farming can also be done organically. In an abandoned of 1,500 m2 factory they combined crop cultivation with aquaculture, which provides the nutrients for growing. However, after six months they had to close down. With $13 million raised money the company is trying again. This time without fish, but with vegetable-based nutrients, which reduces costs by 30%.
AeroFarms cultivates crops from sowing to harvest on cloth made from recycled plastic. Under the cloth, an atomiser provides the plants with water and fertiliser. In Newark they are growing crops in a former paintball hall on 6.500 m2 and in a former steel plant with a surface area of 510 m2. The company grows crops in 12 layers, 20 crops per year, reaching a production of 900 tons. Through the years the company has been collecting crop data, enabling it to now cultivate the desired taste, or ‘data science meets horticulture’. The company can, for example, grow spicier watercress or sweeter lettuce.
Urban Crops in Waregem (Belgium) opened an automated factory plant in early 2016, the largest of its kind in Europe. The system works with cultivation in crates in a layer of water. The crates enter the cultivation space on a conveyer belt. Thanks to RFID technology in the crates a robot recognizes where they should be placed. The technology for fertilisation and the purification of process water (UV) is provided by Hortimax. The cultivation area has eight production layers in 4 rows measuring 10 metres each. With 448 crates and 10 plants per crate 442 crops can be harvested every day. The system can be built up to 25 layers. With 30 rows, the daily production will be 126,000 crops.
Urban Crops performs feasibility studies on request for cultivation in large buildings. They provide insight into the expenses and calculate cost price based on the possibilities. Urban Crops also provides two cultivation systems in containers; Farm Flex and Farm Pro. Farm Pro is fully automated and costs approximately €55,000. Depending on the weight of the harvest, the annual production is 29,000 crops. When cultivating herbs, production will easily be double that amount.
Certhon developed the PlantyFood growth cell, in which both Vertical Farming and cultivation of vertical crops is possible. The company will be demonstrating this at GreenTech 2016 with the cultivation of cucumber, from sowing to harvest. By doing this it intends to launch a debate on what is possible. But vertical crops such as cucumber or tomato are not really suitable for Vertical Farming, says Toyoki Kozai of Japan’s Chiba University: ‘Tomatoes require about 1,200 kWh of electricity per kilogram of dry matter. That is as much as the annual consumption of the average refrigerator in America.’
Priva also developed a large container for VF cultivation, which combines its know-how on climate control in buildings with its knowledge on growing plants. Marketing is done by ‘Here There And Everywhere’ by GertJan Meeuws, former director of PlantLab. Priva: ‘This box allows the grower to take a considerable step in professionalization.’
While PlantLab is concentrating on patents, another Dutch company – BrightBox – focuses on open innovations. In a low-threshold manner, this company wants to research the best way of growing crops under LEDs. Its customers come from all over the world, from North America to Japan. They also get requests from the retail industry, to research shelf life and to determine which crops and varieties are suitable for Vertical Farming, for example. Grodan has shown rock wool to be an excellent growing medium. BrightBox is continuously working with the latest LEDs from its partner Philips Lighting. The approachability of BrightBox is partly reflected in its weekly open sessions, which take place every Thursday at 3 pm.
Philips also performs some research independently in its own climate cells. In the GrowWise Centre in Eindhoven, the company is developing light recipes for urban farming. The facility consists of eight cells with four growing layers each and a private climate regulation by Priva. LEDs in various colours (white, blue, red and far-red) are suspended above the containers.
Proeftuin Zwaagdijk (Zwaagdijk experimental garden) conducts research for seed companies in a three-layer cultivation system on how to let various crops flower and seed as quickly as possible. This is done under nine colours of LEDs with adjustable brightness. The system also has moveable ceilings with four-colour LEDs under which vertical crops can be grown. The LED lighting rises with the growth of the crop.
Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Theo Brakeboer. Photo: BrightBox.
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