Britain’s first ‘vertical farm’ about to produce its first crop

No tractors required! Britain’s first ‘vertical farm’ is about to produce its first crop with the help of a robot named Frank working in a warehouse in Scunthorpe — and it could change agriculture forever

  • A ‘vertical farm’ in Scunthorpe has the potential to change agriculture forever 
  • Only four human beings work at the vast warehouse, bathed in eerie pink light
  • It is designed to produce 500 tonnes of plants annually starting with fresh herbs 
  • A single robot — called Frank — is responsible for gathering trays of plants  

Normally, November is not the month for the herb harvest in the British Isles, nor is an industrial estate in Scunthorpe the type of place you’d expect to find people gathering in crops.

Yet that is exactly what will be happening next Monday at a radically new farm — and it may just herald a sea-change in the way we grow our food.

Forget all those traditional images you have of agriculture: rolling fields, combine harvesters and lumbering tractors, even greenhouses and polytunnels.

Instead, picture something straight off a sci-fi movie set — a vast warehouse bathed in an eerie pinkish glow, filled with racks of plants stacked 40ft high and tended by a robot that glides about the floor.

It looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie. In fact, this Scunthorpe warehouse is the world’s most advanced ‘vertical farm’ — and its first harvest could change agriculture for ever

The few humans present on this farm look nothing like farmers. Instead of sporting favourite old pullovers or check shirts, they wear overalls, high-vis jackets and hairnets.

In short, this is less the Darling Buds Of May, more a laboratory from the distant future. Welcome, then, to the world’s most advanced commercial ‘vertical farm’.

It’s run by a new firm called Jones Food Company, and is designed to produce 500 tonnes of plants annually starting with coriander, basil, dill and chives to feed the growing appetite for fresh herbs all year.

The first crop was sown as recently as the middle of last month, and by next week, the initial batch will already have been harvested. Everything here is geared towards growing plants as quickly and efficiently as possible. And all without a single handful of soil.

At the heart of the operation is a technique known as hydroponics, whereby plants are grown under artificial light with their roots resting in a ‘hydroponic solution’ made up of water and essential nutrients such as potassium, calcium, nitrogen, nitrate and magnesium, instead of soil.

In the pink: Hydroponic herbs being grown under artificial light at the country’s first vertical farm

During the growing process, the water is also periodically drained away ensuring the plants’ roots are able to ‘breathe in’ enough oxygen.

Almost the entire procedure is automated. A single robot — called Frank — is responsible for gathering up the trays of plants and taking them around the various parts of the farm, including the seeding and germination areas, and ultimately, the harvesting room.

In fact, only four human beings work in the vast warehouse. In order to avoid the plants being contaminated by micro-organisms that can cause diseases such as blight, they have to follow a strict handwashing procedure, after which they must don protective overalls. They then have to pass through an ‘air shower’ which blows off any remaining rogue particles.

All this is despite the fact that at no stage do any humans actually touch the plants themselves.

Pure carbon dioxide is pumped into the room, which enables the plants to absorb 50 per cent more than they would in a traditional greenhouse, causing them to grow faster than normal.

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All the air that enters passes through medical-grade filters, and the pressure inside the warehouse is kept higher than the air pressure outdoors to stop insects getting in.

Rather than a brand new concept, Scunthorpe’s vertical farm is the latest step in the long-running attempt to find a way of factory farming plants indoors.

There are already a number of hydroponic farms in Britain. Thanet Earth, for example, south of Gatwick, has been operating for nearly a decade. In 2013, this facility alone produced 225 million tomatoes — around 12 per cent of the UK’s total crop.

In Clapham, South London, hydroponics and artificial lights are used to grow salad crops in former air raid shelters — an indicator of how valuable this technique could be in cities.

What makes the project in Scunthorpe so revolutionary — and so exciting — is the use of so many layers of plants and the high levels of automation which make managing them possible. The other great development from which the vertical farm has benefited has been the source of the artificial light.

At the heart of the operation is a technique known as hydroponics, whereby plants are grown under artificial light with their roots resting in a ‘hydroponic solution’

Previously, sodium bulbs have been used which require enormous amounts of energy. This didn’t just negate many of the environmental benefits but also made operating the farms hugely expensive.

Back in 2010, one estimate put the electricity bill for growing the amount of wheat required for a just single loaf of bread via hydroponics at around £12.

All that has changed thanks to the widespread adoption of LED lights, which use far less power.

The farm in Scunthorpe boasts no less than 7.6 miles of LED lights, the equivalent of 38 Eiffel Towers laid end-to-end. Their pink glow illuminates a total growing surface area of 5,120 square metres — the size of 26 tennis courts.

The company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Dr Paul Challinor, who has a doctorate in hydroponics and who did much of the testing of the lights at his own home, explains why his warehouse is lit in that eerie shade of pink.

‘The reason is because the plants grow best under red-and-blue light,’ he says, ‘although we also have white lights so that we can see what we are doing.’

The different-coloured lights have different roles to play during the plants’ life cycles. Red light helps to promote leaf coverage, whereas blue light promotes plant structure and leaf mass.

Dr Challinor says an order for his plants has already been placed by a customer who wants a ‘fresh product’, although he is tight-lipped about who it is. The plants are reputedly just as flavoursome as those grown in traditional soil, and it seems unlikely that any commercial customer would order several tonnes of herbs from the farm if they tasted bland.

Forget all those traditional images you have of agriculture (stock image)

In 1999, an American former professor of microbiology called Dickson Despommier claimed that a 30-floor skyscraper farm could one day feed 50,000 people.

By 2050 it is estimated around 86 per cent of people in the developed world will be living in cities and the world’s population is projected to have swollen from 7.7 billion today, to nearly ten billion.

Proponents of vertical farms have argued that as the food could be grown in the heart of cities, food miles — the distance it travels from traditional farms to consumers — could be all but eliminated, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and leaving us with fresher, tastier food.

The use of vertical farms also slashes the amount of land required to feed a growing population and saves us from having to use damaging pesticides and fertiliser.

Even better, because the inside of the warehouse is so closely controlled, vertical farms can grow crops all year, rather than following seasonal cycles. This also protects the crops from the frosts or droughts that can lay waste to traditional farms.

All this hinges on whether new technology has solved the problem of cheap and reliable artificial light.

It is too early to say whether the use of LEDs is, as the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board claims, a ‘seismic shift that is set to change fundamentally how we grow plants’. For his part, Dr Challinor is nothing if not ambitious. ‘We have already looked at other sites in the Midlands and the South and hope to be running a number of units,’ he says, and claims the farm is taking ‘British horticulture to another level’.

At present, it is growing herbs because of their high retail value, and plans to diversify into growing salad leaves as well as high-value plants needed by cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies (that principle at least has been proved to work: many illegal cannabis operations grow the drug using hydroponics and artificial lights).

In future, it is hoped that other crops such as wheat and barley could be grown in warehouses rather than in open fields.

If Dr Challinor can manage that, then the sky really is the limit.

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