Increasing the use of renewable energy could power a new generation of vertical farms says a leading expert.
Speaking at an event in Angus, Professor Derek Stewart of the James Hutton Institute, said high energy costs had made vertical farming (VF) systems inefficient due to the power required to fuel the stacked growing spaces, automation and mechanics of the systems.
Prohibitive labour costs and shortages have also been a contributing factor.
However, the move toward renewable energy could be a game changer for the sector against a backdrop of climate change.
The system sees plants grown indoors in snooker table sized trays and stacked up 12 metres high.
Professor Stewart said the process is dependent on using energy for light and if the problem of accessing energy cheaply can be addressed, then ‘you’ll win’, because in terms of productivity, VF ‘wins hands-down’.
For farmers in Scotland, seed potatoes grown in a VF environment are a particularly attractive proposition, enjoying “spectacular growth”, four harvests per year and the ability to be guaranteed disease free.
He said VF is becoming more attractive to the agriculture sector because it goes back to what farmers want to do. “Farmers want to grow things – whether it’s crops or animals – for the customer and putting the VF back into the hands of the farmer makes sense.”
He added that farmers have ‘care embedded within them’ and are generally astute businesspeople and VF offers them a portfolio as part of their business.
“The vertical farm will grow 24/7 365 days per year and climate change doesn’t impact upon it, so you’ll always get a product and that is key as a businessman.
“You’ll be able to guarantee a product whether it’s three metres of snow or 30 degrees – you’ll still produce and you may then use that to target more high-value crops.”
Fundamental changes in crops, such taste profile, growth rate and colour can all be achieved by varying the light used in the VF.
He said farmers may also choose to produce non-food products such as pharmaceuticals and ornamental flowers, offering a range of diversification options to the sector.
Prof Stewart said the agriculture sector has shown both interest and scepticism to the system which he says is healthy for any new technology, which has to be socialised.
“We are working with lots of farmers and the whole part of the supply chain. We are starting to see the supply chain wanting to decarbonise its production and the use of renewable energy offers that opportunity. I’d like to see this going back to the farmer and bring the value right back into the farmers’ hands and not lose it post-farm gate.”
Prof Stewart said the level of investment required from farmers ranged from thousands of pounds to millions of pounds, adding his organisation is working with the Islands Deal to put a VF in Orkney at around £1m, but he underlined the return on investment would be just two to three years.
An alternative model would be for farmers to work as a co-operative with a VF to produce plantlets for their farms and during the off-season, use the VF to grow something else. “It’s like an AirBnB for plants, where time slots can be booked within it so it’s never unproductive. That’s why it can generate such a s high return.
He added that agriculture is facing some real problems, including the closure of a large fertiliser south of the border, and areas where we import crops from are suffering emergencies such as wildfires.
With the need to ensure food security and produce food domestically, Prof Stewart said the VF sector needs to be incentivised by government, which could be done in a number of different ways.
Looking to future VF development, Prof Stewart predicts they will be automated and will deal with significant amounts of data, presenting a broader level of information to the farmer.
The artificial intelligence and machine learning will learn to grow the plant themselves.
Although there will be a high-level of automation, the system will see fewer jobs, but they will be permanent and higher paying roles.
Prof Stewart invites any farmer interested in VF to get in touch and visit the facility to find out more.