Changing the face of vertical farming
Vertical farming, the practice of growing crops indoors under tightly controlled conditions, is continuing to expand rapidly. By using LED lighting tailored to the exact needs of the crop, alongside advanced hydroponic growing systems, and growing crops in vertically stacked trays, vertical farms can achieve yields hundreds of times higher than the same area of traditional farmland.
Investors and entrepreneurs alike are excited about the potential of vertical farming to revolutionise the global food system and some vertical farming companies have raised dizzying amounts of money. Plenty, a San Francisco-based startup, and the most well-funded vertical farm, has raised $401m in funding, with backers including SoftBank, Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Fellow US startups AeroFarms and Bowery Farming are not far behind, with $238m and $167.5m in funding, respectively. While there has been much attention on these companies and their exploits, there are dozens of other companies in the industry developing their own approaches to vertical farming. Here, we explore some of the most innovative vertical farming startups, based on the recent IDTechEx report, 'Vertical Farming 2020-2030'.
Freight Farms is a Boston-based vertical farming company that manufactures 'container farms', vertical farming systems installed into 40' mobile containers. Alongside its container farms, Freight Farms provides the farmhand software, a hydroponic farm management and automation platform that also connects users with other Freight Farms customers. Container farms have many advantages - they are easy to transport, compact and relatively cheap to set up in comparison to other vertical farming systems. Container farms are often turnkey systems, too, meaning that they require much less experience and expertise to operate than either a factory-scale vertical farm or indeed a traditional farm.
Freight Farms recently released its most advanced container farming system, the Greenery, which it believes is the most advanced container farming system in the world. The Greenery is a turnkey system that uses an array of sensors to continuously monitor the growing conditions inside the farm, with the farmhand software automatically making adjustments and planning watering cycles in order to provide the optimum environment for growing crops and allowing users to control their Greenery remotely from a smartphone.
80 Acres - collaboration, food experience
Despite their potential, many vertical farming startups have struggled over the years with the labour costs and power requirements for running a high-tech indoor farm. This has often forced producers to sell their crops at a much higher price than conventionally farmed leafy greens. Additionally, many founders of vertical farming companies have little experience in the food industry and can struggle with the day-to-day realities of running a food production industry.
80 Acres is an Ohio-based vertical farming startup aiming to overcome these challenges by constructing the world's first fully automated indoor farm. The company was founded in November 2015 by Tisha Livingston and Mike Zelkind, who between them have over 50 years' experience in the food industry. Collaboration is also important to 80 Acres. The company believes that vertical farming is a very multidisciplinary field, requiring collaboration between partners who are experts in their own discipline. Signify (formerly Philips Lighting) developed the LEDs used in the facility and Dutch greenhouse automation company Priva developed the control and fertigation systems, with 80 Acres using its experience in food to bring the system together and integrate the technology.
The company currently operates a 75,000 square foot facility in Hamilton, a suburb of Cincinnati, which is set to expand to 150,000 square feet in summer 2020 following a $40m investment from Virgo Investment Group. When completed, 80 Acres claims this facility will be the world's first fully automated indoor farm. The farm will be automated from seeding to growing to harvesting, using robotics, artificial intelligence, data analytics and around-the-clock monitoring sensors and control systems to optimise every aspect of growing produce indoors.
Jones Food Company
Jones Food Company is a British vertical farming startup that operates Europe's largest vertical farm out of a warehouse in Scunthorpe, UK. It was founded in 2016 by James Lloyd-Jones and Paul Challinor, who wanted to build the largest vertical farming facility that they could in order to help overcome some of the operational problems plaguing the industry and bring vertical farming to the mainstream. After visiting several vertical farms in Japan, they decide that the only way to make vertical farming a success is to focus on scale and automation.
Jones Food Company focuses on maximising automation and robotics in their facility to minimise operating costs, with its facility being modeled on a car factory, with the growing process resembling a production line - over the 25-day growing period, plants move from one end of the facility to another. Much of the work is done by machines, helping to reduce labour costs. Harvesting is carried out by bespoke machines and the heavy lifting is performed by a robot called Frank. This focus on automation means that only six employees are required to operate the Scunthorpe facility.
Jones Food Company has partnered with UK online grocery company Ocado, which currently owns about 70% of the business. Through this partnership, Jones Food Company is aiming to set up vertical farms next to Ocado's grocery depots, meaning that fresh produce could be delivered to shoppers within an hour of being picked.
Infarm is a Berlin-based startup that sells modular, hydroponic vertical farms for growing leafy greens and herbs in supermarkets, schools, and offices. A single two-square metre unit can grow 8,000 plants in a year, with the company claiming its farms use 95% less water than soil-based farms, take up 99.5% less space, use zero chemical pesticides, need 90% less transportation and use 75% less fertiliser.
Infarm has partnered with several major supermarkets across Europe, where it has currently deployed over 500 farms in stores and distribution centres. The company is also beginning to expand in the US, having recently partnered with Kroger to trial its indoor farms in two QFC stores in Seattle. In the UK, it has partnered with supermarket chain, Marks & Spencer, which is trialing in-store urban farming in seven locations in London, growing Italian basil, Greek basil, Bordeaux basil, mint, mountain coriander, thyme and curly parsley.
The company's business model is based around an 'agriculture-as-a-service' model. The modular farms remain the property of Infarm, which receives income per harvested plant. Infarm then coordinates with clients such as retailers and takes care of the farm including installation, cultivation, harvesting and maintenance. Aside from the regular visits by service personnel to plant new plants, the farms are controlled remotely. This modular, data-driven and distributed approach - a combination of big data, IoT, and cloud analytics - sets Infarm apart from competitors. From a price point, Infarm is attractive for supermarkets, which get a better product at the same price. In addition, the plants, especially herbs, are harvested fresh, preserving colour, smell, flavour, and nutrients.