With the imminent opening in the Netherlands of Staay Food Group’s €8m, 27,000sq m high-rise indoor lettuce-growing plant, Europe finally appears to be following the Far East and the United States down the route of large-scale commercial urban growing.
Located at its Fresh-Care Convenience processing plant in Dronten, central Netherlands, the facility will initially produce around 300,000kg of lettuce, a mixture of Lollo Biondo, Lollo Rosso, Rucola and Frisée forms, rising eventually to more than a one-million kilograms, for processing into salads.
The plants will be grown hydroponically on eight or nine levels in coir plugs underneath LEDs. "At this moment, we still source our lettuce in southern Europe during part of the year. The disadvantages are that the climate is erratic and the transport distances are great," says the company.
"Once the vertical farm supplies the lettuce, it will be fresher, there won’t be any pesticides involved, the quality will be stable, we will be able to plan production better and we will contribute to Staay Group’s sustainability goals."
Production times will also be considerably shorter than in conventional growing, it adds. Last year, in partnership with Philips Lighting and breeder Rijk Zwaan, it tested the format at Philips’ High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, with "positive results".
While the UK has yet to see anything on this scale, the wide exposure of a handful of pioneer projects on television and in national newspapers has brought the format to wider public attention. But suppliers tend not to think in purely national terms, according to Stephen Fry, senior business development executive at Midlands hydroponics equipment supplier HydroGarden.
"We have had a significant increase in business for our urban growing solutions," he says. "Most weeks I am drawing up plans for new systems, which could be in Lebanon, Kenya, New Zealand or the Far East as well as mainland Europe. People are looking at producing food where it’s required. For the UK, what is the carbon footprint of driving produce up from Spain?"
Responding to trends
"It’s still very niche," Fry admits. "We aren’t going to save the planet from starvation on our own, but a 50% increase in world food production has to come from somewhere. What we are doing is responding to trends in food. You only have to go to a half-decent restaurant or even pub to see the emphasis on freshness."
The VydroFarm tiered indoor growing system developed by HydroGarden took the innovation prize in the Future Manufacturing Awards presented by EEF, formerly the Engineering Employers Federation, earlier this year. Now rebranded as V-Farm, the system currently leads the company’s push into world markets.
It is also launching a new flood-and-drain vertical system at international trade events this month, says Fry.
On a smaller scale it has also developed a compact format for coffee shops, small supermarkets and high-end restaurants to grow their own micro-leaves and other crops. Its own range of LEDs "are giving very good results — they have needed to have a different spectrum for micro-greens, which are popular in the Far East", Fry explains.
"We also do a lot of work on the nutritional element. With our new product lines we can affect the nutritional content of things like micro-greens. Kale is hailed as a superfood but, if you compare the vitamin and mineral content, these are super-duper foods."
HydroGarden has also installed a trial 12-rack growing room at its Coventry headquarters, while a specially commissioned hybrid version of V-Farm combined with a FishPlant aquaponics system is also due to open at Pershore College in Worcestershire later this month.
This will be used to educate post-16 and degree-level students on a variety of courses including horticulture and animal care about hydroponics and aquaponics as sustainable alternatives to traditional farming methods.
HydroGarden’s V-Farm unit combined with FishPlant aquaponics system
Water quality and health
The college’s project manager John King explains: "In the first instance, our animal-care students will carry out testing to monitor and manage the water quality and subsequent health of the fish and plants.
These readings will be shared with our horticulture students whose focus will be the produce, grown from seed in separate propagators before being transplanted into the hydroponics part.
"If the plants are less than healthy, the students will have a real-life scenario to determine what is going wrong and what factors need to be altered such as lighting, nutrient flow and temperature." Animal-care students will then feed the finished produce to rabbits and other small herbivores in the department.
"We also plan to invest in a larger vertical-farming unit in the future so any students who are particularly interested in hydroponics will be able to take their knowledge and learning to the next level by working on a larger scale," says King.
Fry adds: "We are working with Pershore on growing protocols. Having a system without protocols on how to use it is like giving a car to someone who can’t drive."
The understanding of plants’ response to LEDs in controlled growing environments has so far been driven in the UK by AHDB Horticulture-funded work at Stockbridge Technology Centre’s LED4Crops facility. But while this three-year programme finishes at the end of this month, there is still much more in this area that the North Yorkshire research station is keen to investigate.
The facility’s manager, photobiologist Dr Phillip Davis, says: "We have a lot of data on the effect of different light on crops. We can control everything from how tall the plant grows to when it flowers. We have looked a lot of different crops — lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and many ornamentals — mainly from the point of view of propagation, but for lettuce and leafy herbs through to harvest. For
a crop like basil you can control the intensity of the flavour, for example, whether you want it mild for salads or stronger for sauces."
This response is already being harnessed by salad and herb grower Vitacress, which has recently installed Heliospectra programmable LED grow lights at its West Sussex site to increase shelf life and chill tolerance of basil plants during the final growth stage.
"There isn’t a vast acreage of indoor farming in the UK yet, though there are rumblings of big things taking off," Davis notes.
"And in research we are really just touching the surface. The more we look at it in total, the more we discover is possible in things like flavour and shelf life."
Urban growing economics
While the LED4Crops facility continues with research including private commissions, Stockbridge Technology Centre is now taking on a new project to look specifically at the economics of urban growing, and hence the barriers to commercial uptake, as part of the Innovate UK-funded Centre for Crop Health & Protection.
"There are a lot of questions in people’s minds as to whether it makes economic sense," says Davis. "It’s certainly not a low bar to start with." The new facility will have three growing areas, each producing "large volumes" of a single crop "and will be flexible enough to allow us to test what’s out there.".
He continues: "LED lighting is coming down in price — though not as quickly as some had hoped. But they are getting more efficient so you need fewer and your payback is quicker."
Viewpoint: Professor Tim Benton
"Urban agriculture, including vertical farming, is a potentially useful way to provide some high-value produce locally, and helps to connect people and food. However, it is unlikely it will underpin food security in the sense of access to a healthy diet as the amount of land necessary to provide nutritional needs is likely to be difficult to find within a purely urban setting.
"There is a clear role for it in some circumstances and for some markets, perhaps most obviously for things like lettuce, herbs and some fruit and veg. The degree to which it may emerge depends on a host of factors like access to food from other places, local access to land and water, infrastructure and so on.
"The space in most cities is very expensive relative to peri-urban and rural areas, so it might be more likely to emerge strongly in very large cities where ‘local fresh’ food might be highly valued, and where there is a market to support it, or in cities like Singapore, where access to land is absolutely difficult. Where land is cheap and available near cities, and it is easy for fresh produce to find its way into the centre, it may not play a huge role."