The countryside of the UK and other countries around the world seems set to be revolutionised by a move towards vertical farming that will allow for more efficient use of space and year-round harvests. Plans by agricultural companies to introduce over 50 new vertical farms, where crops are packed into multi-level greenhouses have been announced in recent months.
The companies behind them believe vertical farms will produce as much as five times the volume of crops, particularly ‘greens’, as traditional farms. Another plus to the new agricultural technology is that also makes extensive use of sensors and advanced feeding and irrigation systems to promote improved growth despite much more efficient use of water, fertilisers and pesticides. The risks posed by the forces of nature such as droughts, floods and unseasonal frosts are also negated in a vertical farming environment, as well as crops being protected from pest damage.
Vertical farms can even be developed in or in close proximity to urban markets, making them ideal for crops with short shelf lives of peak freshness, such as lettuce, cucumbers and other salad plants. Growing them closer to their final destination in supermarkets or restaurants and caterers both reduces logistics costs and improves quality.
Shockingly Fresh, an Edinburgh-based vertical farming enterprise, plans a total of 40 vertical farming sites. Development is already underway on the first five. One is based in Scotland and four in England. The new farms will cover a total of 123 acres, with each several stories high.
Scunthorpe-based Jones Food Company has already opened what is described as “an intensive salad farm in a three-storey building housing 17 levels of leafy greens growing under eight miles of lighting strips and producing 420 tons of food a year.”
The company counts groceries delivery and automated warehouse technology giant Ocado, a constituent of the FTSE 100, among its investors. It is already planning a new site near London that will be four times the size of its current Lincolnshire-based facility. General Electric, which supplied the lighting for the operational Jones Food Company vertical farming facility, writes in a report on the new agritech approach to agriculture:
“For thousands of years, life on a farm was marked by soil-caked fingers and a painful sunburn. That won’t be the case with the farms of tomorrow: speckless and tightly sealed chambers that won’t need any sun or soil — and few, if any, humans.”
Vertical farms can even be developed underground. One vertical farming company, Growing Underground, specialises in subterranean farming. It is growing salad crops in abandoned air-raid shelters under south London and has plans to develop another six urban locations this year.
Farmers Weekly magazine also recently reported government support for vertical farming, with £1 million to be invested in vertical farming research.
The science and technology that vertical farming makes use of isn’t all new and scientists and farmers have known for a long time that indoor farming can produce strong crops. However, until recently, the energy costs associated with the lighting needed has made industrial scale indoor farming commercially unviable. It had largely only been used for higher value crops such as legal, and illegal, cannabis farming.
However, the development of contemporary energy-efficient LED lighting technology has rapidly changed the business model of vertical forming. New sensor technology and a refining of indoor farming techniques have also contributed.
As vertical farming, both outdoors, underground and in disused industrial buildings becomes a norm over future years, it is expected to lead to wholesale changes to the industrial farming industry in the UK and beyond. Eventually, it could see the British countryside go through its most significant transformation in decades, if not centuries.
Farmland no longer needed to meet demand for crops, with supply being picked up by vertical farms, could be either ‘re-wilded’, the term coined to describe areas where nature is allowed to return in its wild state, or re-regulated for residential development. The latter could go a long way to solving the country’s affordable housing crisis. And if it comes alongside swathes of farmland being returned to nature, vertical farming could lead to a major facelift for our countryside within a few short decades.