The rising popularity of vertical farming was clearly demonstrated at the GreenTech trade fair, held this year from 12 to 14 July in the RAI Amsterdam Convention Centre. GreenTech Amsterdam organised the GreenTech Amsterdam Vertical Farming Pavilion for the second time in a row, in collaboration with the Association for Vertical Farming.
As the co-organiser of the Vertical Farming Pavilion, the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) was prominently present at the theme pavilion. In addition to this, the AVF held several round-table lectures at the AVF café, at which various experts in vertical farming spoke.
Farming without human interference
The topics addressed during the round-table lectures included the standardisation and use of data in vertical farming, innovation within vertical farming systems, growing crops for medicinal purposes and artificial intelligence (AI) in vertical farming. According to Ramin Ebrahimnejad, press & media manager at AVF, artificial intelligence – the last topic in the above list – is rapidly gaining in importance in vertical farming. ‘Learning machines will be playing an increasingly strong role in vertical farming methods’, says Ebrahimnejad. ‘Thanks to the combination of machines that can learn and artificial intelligence vertical farming the time will come soon when no human interference will be needed.’
‘Technology is of primary importance’
Consulting engineer Damion Schwarzkachel of Certhon agrees with Ebrahimnejad. ‘In the next five years, vertical farming will focus on controlled growth conditions, for which no human beings will be needed’, professes Schwarzkachel. Certhon was one of the approximately twenty companies with a stand at the Vertical Farming Pavilion. ‘Automation and scale increase in vertical farming will be playing an increasingly important role in the next few years’, predicts the company’s consulting engineer. ‘In this, technology will be of paramount importance with regard to development.’
According to Ebrahimnejad, another development in vertical farming is the increasing diversity of the crops being grown. ‘There is currently a movement that promotes a greater diversity in crops grown with vertical farming techniques. Cannabis is becoming increasingly interesting, but there are many other high-quality crops that are currently being grown more frequently using vertical farming methods.’ This trend can also be discerned in tests currently being conducted on raspberry and strawberry crops at the Certhon Innovation Center. ‘The profitability of vertically growing raspberries and strawberries still has to be proven’, concludes Schwarzkachel, ‘but we will be able to tell you more about this as soon as the results come in.’
Author: Leo Hoekstra. Photos: Mario Bentvelsen.
Certhon is building its own research facility next to its office in Poeldijk: the Certhon Innovation Centre. The Dutch greenhouse designer and builder has been conducting pioneering research on optimising the technology of growing without daylight for the past two years. By the end of 2017, the facility will contain eight growth cells, where continuous research to develop the next generation cultivation system will be carried out.
Certhon started building its Innovation Centre last month. It will be used to further develop Certhon’s PlantyFood cultivation system, which involves growing vegetables, fruits and flowers without daylight. Demand for safe and healthy food, which is sustainable and locally produced, is increasing worldwide.
The greenhouse designer and builder is expecting the demand for indoor cultivation solutions to grow rapidly. However, cultivation in a growth cell requires different methods than growing in a traditional greenhouse. The biggest change, compared to traditional growing methods, is that cultivation methods are not determined by the outside climate; instead, state-of-the-art technology is used to create an indoor climate. Research will be conducted in an area of 240 m2, which will be used to establish best practice for large-scale daylight-free cultivation.
Certhon sees great potential in the daylight-free cultivation of tomato, pepper, soft fruit, lettuce, herbs and other crops. These crops will be tested in different climates, with different humidity and lighting programs. Tests will also be conducted with lighting, sensors, and hardware and software. “We are not a research Institute”, says John van der Sande, Head of R&D at Certhon. “We can use the knowledge we acquire in our own research institute to help our clients maximise results in the first couple of years. As well as tools to create an ideal environment, we also offer specific agronomical expertise.”
On 14 October 2016, InnovationQuarter organised a meeting at Koppert Biological Systems with the theme ‘Vertical Farming, in or out?’. More than 90 representatives from the sector listened to speakers such as Martien Penning (Hillenraad), Arnold van Liempt (Philips) and Jasper den Besten (HAS) talk about the opportunities, threats, benefits, costs, opportunities and challenges of vertical farming. Rien Panneman from Staay Food Group announced that a large construction for a vertical farm project in Dronten was all underway.
Martien Penning from Hillenraad gave a presentation on whether vertical farming (VF) can become horticulture’s ‘KODAK Moment’. His answer was yes. He substantiated this with an analysis of the most recent developments in the US and Asia, where dozens of VF initiatives have been rolled out. The big question was: When will VF perform as well as or better than conventional farming in greenhouses? Cost, quality, food safety and delivery speed are all key criteria here. His conclusion was not whether VF is feasible, but where and when.
Arnold Liempt from Philips Horticulture LED Solutions gave an overview of the many international vertical farming projects currently underway or being implemented. His presentation also made it clear that many there are many different models of vertical farming; from vegetable gardens under glass to cleanroom factories. An example was shown of an in-store farm with LED lighting at Metro Group in Berlin. VF in the Netherlands is still limited to research centres (Brightbox, Grow Wise Centre and PlantLab), and the propagation of seedlings, such as at lettuce grower Deliscious.
Jasper den Besten of HAS University of Applied Sciences talked about which technological developments vertical farming might accelerate. He proposed that conventional greenhouses would remain important for growing vertical crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and aubergines, while greenhouses with intermediate LED light could be seen as ‘The New Cultivation’. Just like Martien Penning, Den Besten noted that many technologies such as LEDs, sensors and robots are rapidly decreasing in price, and that this will accelerate the financial viability of VF projects, even though the cost of lettuce and herbs from VF is still considerably higher (2 to 8 Euros per kg) than those from a conventional greenhouse. On the other hand, VF projects can be better controlled in terms of colour, flavour and substances in plants. For example, the brix category of strawberries can be improved.
Ruud Kaarsemaker from Groen Agro Control discussed how nutrients could be used to control substances in plants. He said that the maximum possible returns are defined by the objectives, which might be dry matter content, substances in the produce, potassium or nitrate content, absence of residues or shelf life. The variety selection, cropping system (e.g. NFT) and recording analyses of nutrients can be used to achieve the desired objectives.
‘Alternative Thinker' Peter Jens sees VF as an opportunity to grow medicines, and therefore prefers the term ‘vertical pharming’. According to Peter Jens, we have to look at consumers differently in order to decide if VF is a beneficial cultivation system.
After the presentations, it was the turn of those working in the field, represented by Priva, Vitro Plus, Rijk Zwaan, Certhon, Plantlab and Staay Food Group. The expectation of a number of experts was that vertical farming will soon be offering plenty of opportunities for some crops and segments (the luxury segment and specialty shops and restaurants). Many flower crops and vertical crops such as tomatoes are unsuitable at the moment, but breeding and other growing techniques may eventually offer opportunities. VF definitely offers perspectives for special segments and niches in the market, but it is not yet able to compete with conventional cultivation.
Staay Food Group
To everyone's surprise, Rien Panneman from Staay Food Group announced that a large construction for a vertical farm project in Dronten for the cultivation of lettuces to supply large supermarket chains was underway. The project involves cooperation with various partners (Philips, Rijk Zwaan) and knowledge institutions (HAS, Wageningen UR). This farm will be up and running no later than June 2017, which means that VF will soon be a reality in the Netherlands. Growing in climate cells is seen as clean and food safe, something which consumers are willing to pay more for.
Anne-Claire van Altvorst from InnovationQuarter looks back on a successful day, “Many insights were presented from various quarters, as well as opportunities in many market segments. The openness we were able to create with each other was an essential element for ensuring the positive atmosphere. It was a fantastic day, and looks like it will be repeated. What is true, especially after the eye-opener from the Staay Food Group, is that vertical farming is 'in'."
Text/photos: Mario Bentvelsen.