Staay Food Group
On 14 October, Jasper den Besten, Lecturer in New Cultivation Systems at HAS University of Applied Sciences, gave a presentation on triggers in horticultural technology, more specifically vertical farming. “Until now, a vast amount of technology has been developed in the sector. With the advent of vertical farming, that is going to change rapidly.”
Interest in vertical farming (VF) is growing worldwide, especially in America and Japan, but the standard greenhouse still has plenty of room for development, according to Jasper den Besten. "30 years ago, we grew 30 kg of tomatoes per square metre; these days, it is more likely to be 100 kg. As we manage to improve climate control, production may increase even further. So, you won’t hear me saying that cultivation of tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse is going to stop any time soon, because there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”
However, conventional greenhouses do have a few stubborn disadvantages, continues Den Besten. "The climate can change very quickly. First the sun shines, then it clouds over, or it rains or the wind blows etc. Screens cannot handle this very well, lighting is not dynamic, and neither is the light colour. There are always ‘errors' in the climate, which causes plants to suffer stress and affects production. In a greenhouse without lighting or screens, the net time when there is enough photosynthesis for plant growth and maintenance is only 25 percent. Technology can be used to improve the distribution of light, one example being diffusion glass. Screens can also be used, and lighting during darker periods; these both reduce stress levels. However, it is never possible to completely eliminate stress, unless you work with a closed system."
In a VF system, production is as constant as possible. The same amount is sown and harvested, or, in the words of a film lover, ‘In a vertical farm, every day is a Groundhog Day'.
Another advantage: you can experiment endlessly in a VF system, something Den Besten and his students frequently do. "You can very quickly see the maximum potential of a crop or cultivation. You can learn a lot, and take away things which are useful for a normal crop." Such as? “At the HAS, we carry out research in all sorts of ways, such as the impact of LED lighting on the growth of plants. We discovered, for example, that one variety of lettuce does need reddened light, whereas another doesn’t. We’re also testing various full spectrum lamps. They in turn affect the substances in plants. In marijuana cultivation in America, which is legalised in some states, lots of these lamps are used. They are also used in breeding research. These lamps are not yet as efficient as LEDs, but they may become so in time."
In America, produce grown in a VF system may be sold as organic, but this is not the case in Europe. "In Europe, organic produce must be grown in soil, while in America organic produce can also be grown in water. You can even use up to 10% synthetic fertiliser. It is questionable whether VF growers actually want such an ecolabel at all, or if a new label would be more suitable for this production method, which in terms of sustainability is way ahead of other labels."
“In addition, we can also make part of the fertiliser ourselves, using natural methods. With a plasma generator, you can make nitrogen in a solution, as happens with lightning. There’s a company in America which sells this technology; we are working on it in the Netherlands. Nitrogen makes up half of all required nutrients. Conventional growers can also benefit from this technology."
Vertical farming does raise many issues, something Den Besten wants to emphasise. For example, is quality more important than quantity? Are substances more important than mass? “The content of healthy substances in plants such as Italian kale or lettuce can be increased by cultivation under different lamps. It is obvious that more people have to eat healthy food. But should food be made healthier, or tastier? Or should it be made easier to buy or consume? I think the latter is much more useful than the former. Sometimes we go too far in the application of technology. Let's pick the low-hanging fruit first, and then make refinements."
Another interesting question: central or local cultivation? “Will people on the East Coast of America who now get their lettuce from the West Coast want lettuce from Mexico, or even further away? Or do they want lettuce grown in their own city? Local production also reflects the spirit of the times and a dose of emotion. Pricing is then less sensitive, and consumers are prepared to pay that bit more.”
VF technology is rapidly decreasing in price, such as sensor technology. Den Besten describes this as crossovers. "There are plenty of high-tech developers, such as the Holst Centre in the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, who are working in this area and have a whole range of solutions. These include luminous films, patches which measure body functions, and chips that track medication consumption. There are also applications that our industry is unaware of. For example, all sorts of sensors that can measure NOx, ethylene, etc. etc. with great accuracy. They can also be used to make measurements in liquids, such as N and Ca levels. What we actually want to know is what the plant is doing. Should you give the same amount of fertiliser during the day and night? At the moment, we really don’t know, but we can find out very quickly with these sensors, which only cost 20 or 30 euros. The data is stored in the cloud, so you can continuously see what is happening. It is clear that this technology is catching up with technology companies in the horticultural sector."
"We are also closely monitoring the roots of plants," continues Den Besten. Rhizotrons measure the effects of various parameters on root growth. "We've seen some weird things at times, such as when the soil cooling failed in a lettuce crop and soil temperatures became too high. Any lettuce grower will tell you that everything will then go wrong, but that was not the case with our VF system. We ended up with a more compact root system and more mass above the surface. It’s something easy to test here. We can learn a lot from vertical farming systems."
Is the Netherlands ready for vertical farming? Den Besten thinks so. HAS University of Applied Sciences is also participating in the Fresh Convenience Care Centre of Staay Food Group, which will open next year. It is the first major VF project in the Netherlands. "Staay Food Group is an example of a food processing company branching out into production. That's one way the sector could be overtaken. Once it has been proved that it can be successful, I believe others will follow rapidly."
Text/photos: Mario Bentvelsen
During the 'Vertical Farming, in or out?’ meeting on 14 October 2016, Rien Panneman of Staay Food Group announced that the company would be producing its own lettuce in a large vertical farm in Dronten from 2017. The new building is expected to be ready in mid-April 2017. The farm will be up and running by June 2017, according to Panneman. The meeting was organised by InnovationQuarter.
During his presentation, Panneman outlined why Staay Food Group has taken on a vertical farm project. "We have a factory in Dronten where we produce sliced vegetables and salads. The desire arose for more certainty, especially in the area of food safety. Another reason is local-for-local. At the moment, we source our lettuce for six months of the year from the Netherlands, and the other six months from Spain or Italy, so it’s not as fresh as it could be. If we can produce that in-house in the same place where we process it, we can guarantee sustainability thanks to lower logistical costs and reduced CO2 emissions. There are also other benefits, because there will be fewer foreign materials such as rocks, insects and even, in exceptional cases, frogs."
"The retail market at home and abroad stresses that we must concern ourselves with a cultivation method which is completely in line with vertical farming," continues Panneman. “There are various benefits to vertical farming; lower energy consumption and water consumption, for example. We also see advantages in terms of plant protection and microbiology. Supermarkets are trying to distinguish themselves by setting maximum limits for pesticide residues. However, that is obviously not the only battle. We have done tests with Philips, and found that products grown under LED lighting are many times better than products grown in the open soil in bacteriological terms."
Continuity also plays a role. “With vertical farming, we obviously know exactly when to sow and when to harvest, and the quality to expect," said Panneman.
In addition to the demand from supermarkets, the cooperation with lettuce grower Deliscious and developments in Japan have inspired investments in vertical farming, as Panneman explains, "Consumer prices in Japan are much higher than here, enough to make it viable there, in contrast to the Netherlands. We contacted a number of partners for discussions; Philips, Rijk Zwaan, HAS Wageningen, CAH Vilentum University of Applied Sciences in Dronten, and development company Flevoland. We sat down with them round the table, and explained that we want to set up something unique in Dronten. We are now working hard on it. A completely new factory is being built, scheduled for completion in March/April 2017. The vertical farm area is now being engineered, and is expected to be operational in June."
Staay Food Group’s new Fresh-Care Convenience Centre covers a total of 27,000 m² of floor space. The main area consists of high-care and low-care rooms. The entire hall in which the vegetables will be cut and packaged will be cooled. This includes the vertical farm, a conditioned space where lettuce is grown hydroponically under LED lighting without daylight. A 70,000 m2 plot is available next to the factory, where phase 2 can be built. Panneman, “We will be rolling out phase two as soon as we feel confident about growing under LEDs, guaranteed costs, and quality levels."
However, the ambition goes beyond the creation of a state-of-the-art production facility. "The new building is also an auditorium, where lessons can be given. We will also train foreign students. That gives us, and our partners, an advantage of course."
The cost of growing prime lettuces in a vertical farm is currently double that of current methods of cultivation. "However, the advantages are obvious and this is something our customers, the supermarket chains, recognise," says Panneman. "In addition, the cost of the lettuce component is limited, so our customers will gladly accept a limited price increase. After all, they receive a higher quality, safe and sustainable product for their money, with which they can distinguish themselves from the competition."
Staay Food Group is already thinking about setting up vertical farming projects outside the Netherlands. Panneman says, "You see more and more local-for-local and region-for-region agriculture, which means that we will eventually lose a lot of our export markets in the future. I think we should respond positively. We have to maintain our knowledge advantage in the field of fresh food production, and create a new model for generating income. State Secretary Van Dam recently said, ‘Let's stop dragging commodities around, and focus on exporting chain and production knowledge.’”
Staay Food Group is willing to share new knowledge. “Ultimately, we will also benefit from this; we need people who know how to grow under LEDs, who we can put to work both in the Netherlands and beyond." To conclude, he says, "We are convinced that this will be a success story. Our customers are very enthusiastic, and next year we will be able to produce profitably from day 1."
Follow the construction of the Fresh-Care Convenience Centre via the Heembouw website.
Text/Photo: Mario Bentvelsen. Artist Impressions: Heembouw/Habeon Architecten.