Vertical farming needs to get beyond the leafy green business — the ability to grow crops such as kale, microgreens and lettuce in urban or indoor settings won't transform the entire agriculture system. The industry needs to cultivate a much wider array of produce to mark more than a niche impact.
Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), a Scotland-based vertical farm manufacturer, has started inching into this territory alongside its capabilities in helping organizations with traditional leafy green vertical farming. Its system can grow potatoes, strawberries, broccoli and celery seedlings that can be used by farmers to propagate crops on traditional farmland. While this is just a small step into the next era of vertical farming, the practice is helping farmers cut down growing times and reduce waste, according to IGS.
For example, according to IGS, the market for soft fruits such as berries in the U.K. is equivalent to $636 million per annum, but 100 percent of seedlings have to be imported into the country and 35 percent are thrown away before planting due to pests, disease and quality, costing the sector $16.4 million per annum. Growing seedlings locally using vertical farms could help defray those costs and improve the sustainability of local food systems.
"[The] vertical farm gives producers a greater level of control over the first stages of the plant’s life," Freddie Reed, product manager at IGS, wrote in an email. "Typically these early stages would take place in a glasshouse, however conditions are much less controllable than in a vertical farm where growers have complete control over every environmental aspect. In a glasshouse, conditions are influenced by external weather conditions so it may be too hot or cold, speeding up or slowing up growth accordingly. This means that when growers come to plant out their crop, they are often not at an ideal stage and might be either too big or too small."
IGS licenses its technology to growers and farmers. It builds the farm towers and offers maintenance and innovation support while it is in operation. The company has eight farms deployed in Scotland, Australia and France and recently announced one for Abu Dhabi for customers including Eden Towers, Vertegrow and Madar Farms. But IGS is at an inflection point in scaling, according to CEO David Farquhar. The company expects to have 70 farms in production or live in 2022 with a large focus on the Middle East, where about 20 entities have reached out to inquiry about licensing the IGS farm technology, he said.
"Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, [United Arab Emirates], Oman, Saudi [Arabia], Jordan as well," Farquhar said. "They have huge areas of desert. So the simple fact is that if they want to do this efficiently, they need to do it close to the centers of population. It’s important that we help them to find the right sites."
We can grow chilies in about a month. Basil normally takes about a month to grow; we do it in about 16 days.
IGS doesn’t sell the produce itself; it’s a technology company and turnkey service for growers offering 24/7 maintenance support, data analytics and crop recipes.
Farquhar wants farmers to focus on what they do best; farming, while his team focuses on what they do best — engineering and designing the best vertical farm.
According to Farquhar, his company has put millions of dollars into research and development aimed at a completely automated farming tower with smart LED lighting, precise ventilation controls and trays that create microclimates to grow things rarely seen in a vertical farm portfolio.
"We found that IGS was more of an industrial scale developer in terms of the height of the towers and the level of automation," said Christian Prokscha, CEO of Eden Towers, a vertical farming company based in Australia and one of the company’s customers. "We were looking for large-scale industrial stuff. IGS’s crop model was a lot more advanced than a lot of the other competitors we looked at."
Eden Towers has five farms, in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Singapore and Jakarta. The IGS system is in its Australia farms, where it grows kale, arugula, lettuce and bok choy. The company sends the produce to independent grocers who market under the grocer name, not Eden.
IGS’s farms are between 19.6 and 42.6 feet in height, with a footprint of 450 square feet. Each tray is about 62 square feet, and the company has grown as many as 50 crops in a single tower.
The dynamic lighting, automated ventilation and temperature controls are IGS’s secret to its crop variety expansion. Each tower has 100,000 LED lights that provide more than just "dumb sunlight" — in Farquhar's words. The specific wavelengths and colors are calibrated for specific crops to increase efficiency and growth speed. The ventilation is also meticulously controlled for humidity and airspeed, and a second ventilation system absorbs the oxygen and water that the plants breathe out to keep the climate consistent. With each of these factors, the temperature between the trays in the tower can be up to 42 degrees Fahrenheit different.
"Broccoli normally takes six weeks," Farquhar said. "Our system will do it in 11 days. Seed potatoes that normally take 18 months, our system will do it in 75 days — 2.5 months compared to traditional farming. We can grow chilies in about a month. Basil normally takes about a month to grow; we do it in about 16 days. These are huge gains."
Farquhar is very passionate about addressing food deserts with his innovations. An island off the coast of his home country of Scotland generates a lot of renewable wind and tidal power but can’t grow enough fresh produce. That makes it a perfect place for energy-intensive vertical farms, he said.
"[The produce] comes in on a passenger ferry once a week," Farquhar said. "And it’s probably already a week old, because of the journey it's had to make. It's not the freshest. If we can give [the island] a vertical farm, they’re able to grow for themselves 12 months of the year."
Energy concerns are ripe in the vertical farm world. A recent study from The World Wildlife Fund showed that certain conventional agriculture practices have a lower climate change impact than controlled-environment agriculture such as vertical farms because of the high energy inputs needed. For vertical farms to be sustainable, they need to be as energy-efficient as possible and get most of their energy from renewable sources.
IGS has succeeded on the energy reduction part, probably because it has the added incentive of reduced costs. According to Farquhar, the precise automated controls have dramatically reduced its energy usage. And the way the LEDs use power is very efficient, he said.
According to Reed, the extra low-voltage, three-phase power dramatically reduces energy consumption of the LEDs. They are dynamically controlled, delivering only the light the plants need when they need it. This process reduces power requirements by up to 50 percent compared to greenhouse growing.
"When we did the assessment [of IGS] and looked at the [lighting and growing technology], the way that [IGS] converts the input power to the LED power was quite efficient. And that brought down the cost quite significantly of actually growing the crops," Prokscha said.
Many places IGSs plans to build its vertical farms don’t have access to renewable energy grids.
"I think that’s a whole industry challenge and not just an IGS challenge," he said.