Technology will be crucial to the success of vertical farms
Published: Aug 23, 2023
Greenhouses and Indoor Farming
Vertical farming is increasingly being regarded as one of the solutions to the problems faced by global food production systems, and in the following article Antti Viitanen from Vaisala explains why measurement and control technology will be key to the success of this rapidly growing sector.
Sustainability challenges in agriculture
Outdoor agriculture (pasture and cropland) occupies around half of the planet’s habitable land, and so-called modern agricultural practices have enabled the production of increased food volumes at relatively low prices. According to the World Bank, agricultural development is one of the most powerful tools to end extreme poverty, boost shared prosperity, and feed a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050. However, it has been estimated that around 768 million people were hungry in 2021. Furthermore, agriculture, forestry, and land use change are responsible for about 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming, and agriculture uses about 70% of fresh water supplies. These challenges are of course exacerbated by climate change.
Bringing agricultural production indoors resolves many of the challenges outlined above. For example, crops can be provided with ideal growing conditions, whatever the season, whilst being protected from variations in the weather. Water can be recycled, and pesticides are almost completely unnecessary. With no soil or pesticide contamination, water efficiency is further enhanced by the absence of a requirement for washing.
Traditionally, greenhouses and hydroponics have offered solutions to many agricultural problems, but with urbanisation, and the high cost and low availability of land in urban areas, it is difficult to resolve the food miles challenge.
Vertical farming dramatically reduces the physical footprint of food production, but given the high cost of energy, it is vitally important for the financial sustainability of vertical farming that it operates as efficiently as possible. For this reason, sensors perform a critical role, which is why Vaisala sensors have been deployed in the UK by the Jones Food Company (JFC) in their existing vertical farms, and in the enormous new facility in Lydney (JFC2) that is likely to become one of the largest vertical farms in the world.
Jones Food Company (JFC) vertical farms.
Case Study – large commercial vertical farm in the UK: JFC2
JFC was established in 2016 to exploit the advantages of vertical farming to provide fresh local produce all year round. The company’s first commercial vertical farm (JFC1) started production in 2018 with 5,000m2 of growing space and the capacity to produce 150 tonnes per year of fresh produce. JFC2 will be much larger with a growing area of 15,000m2 with a growing capacity of 1000 tonnes per year. The key aspects of the company’s approach that underpin commercial sustainability include:
- Scale – large facilities provide an economy of scale along with the capacity to satisfy large orders.
- Technology – in order to create and maintain ideal growing conditions, it is necessary to implement highly effective monitoring and control systems.
- Re-purposed facilities – rather than incur the high environmental and financial cost of a new-build, JFC has actively sought large redundant buildings. JFC2 for example, was previously a foundry.
- Innovation – a research facility has been established to trial new crops and different growing conditions. Again, accurate monitoring and control is vital.
Water is constantly recycled at all of the JFC facilities with continuous measurements of pH and conductivity helping to ensure the regulation of plant nutrients with dissolved fertilizers. The Vaisala sensors measure temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide; all of which have significant impacts on the growth of plants. “We chose the Vaisala sensors because we need long-term accuracy and reliability, and the control system can only be as good as the sensors, so it makes sense to use the best,” Justin explains.
JFC’s control systems have been designed by Head of Engineering, Christoph Grundmann, whose past experience includes work in satellite communications with the BBC and Arqiva, and in the design and implementation of power station control systems. The monitoring and control systems at all of JFC’s facilities are working very well, with no significant downtime.
The principal advantages of vertical farming over traditional methods almost all relate to sustainability. Soil and biodiversity are unharmed; greenhouse gas emissions are substantially lower; water efficiency is dramatically improved with no unnecessary evapotranspiration, borehole depletion or leaching. Space is used efficiently to accommodate an urban setting where necessary, and to lower food miles. Importantly, fresh produce can be available on any day of the year, no matter what the weather or season. However, escalating food production costs mean that the success of new vertical farms will hinge on their ability to monitor and control inputs effectively, which is why sensor quality is so important.
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