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Are vegetable flats the future?

The most densely populated island in the world is Macau. In the Chinese state, 600,000 people are packed together on 30 km2, making the population density practically 20,000/km2. That figure is much lower in the Netherlands. On average, 500 people live on a square kilometre here. In Dronten, in the centre of the Noordoostpolder, that number is even lower. Inhabitants there have to share their square kilometer with just 121 people. Yet the Staay Food Group chose to not build a 3,000 m2 greenhouse, but a much more expensive vertical farm of 900 m2. What inspired them to do that? And is vertical farming becoming more popular globally?

The world population is increasing, we’re all moving to cities, and we attach more and more value to high-quality food, grown safely. The trends cannot be ignored and all indicate the same: a growing demand for vegetables, grown at or near to the place of consumption. But how should that be realised? After all, space in cities is limited. Vertical cultivation systems are seen as the solution increasingly often. By working in a controlled environment and on multiple layers, an enormous amount of food can be produced on a small surface. A minimum amount of water and fertiliser is used. Moreover, the cultivation is clean, the chance of contamination is small, and little knowledge is necessary to run farms like these: computers calculate and adjust the cultivation. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s complete control over climate and light. The crops are grown without outside influences and contamination, and the production area is sterile.

Japanese nurseries
A number of large, vertical farms have been set up in Japan in recent years. The company Mirai was one of the first. After the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, they saw an increase in demand for safe food, while supply was low. They decided to open a vertical farm in the stricken area. “We wanted to support the region, and to show we can grow food anywhere in the world,” the entrepreneurs said. Since 2013, they’ve grown lettuce on an area of 2,300 m2. Thanks to the 15 floors they work on and the time it takes the lettuce to grow (30 days, compared to 50-60 in the open air), 10,000 heads of lettuce leave the farm now every day. They are sent to restaurants, small retailers and smaller selling places. By now they also have a branch in Hong Kong and two smaller projects in Mongolia: in the south of the Gobi Desert and one in Ulanbataar.

Container cultivations for regional sales
Vertical farms have also been founded outside of Japan. In the United States, numerous projects, or rather small projects, have been started. Entrepreneurs, who don’t have their origin in the fresh produce or horticultural sector, but who did spot a hole in the market, are starting the local production of vegetables. They choose small greenhouses in which they grow lettuce in chutes, or they start growing in containers using LED lighting.

By now, an entire industry has come into existence here as well. Various parties supply ready-made cultivation containers. One of the best known buyers of these is Kimbal Musk, brother of Paypal and Tesla founder Elon Musk. Kimbal purchased as many as 20 cultivation containers, and blogs about the importance of growing near, and being in contact with, the final user. In 2016, his Leafy Green Machine was placed in a residential care home in Deventer. That way, growing leafy vegetables also has a social function.

The container cultivations are completely different projects than the vertical farms that have been producing vegetables on a larger scale for two years now. The 12 metres of growing surface of Leafy Green Machine is not in any way related to the project started in an old steel company in Newark last year. Nursery AeroFarms has a surface of 0.6 hectares, and is 9 metres high. Because of that, food can be grown on as many as 12 floors. The company grows more than 200 types of vegetables: kale, bok choy, watercress, aragula, and so on. The company harvests and sends their ‘Dream Greens’ brand products to important foodservice companies such as The Compass Group, ShopRite, WholeFoods and FreshDirect daily, and they employ about 120 people.

Expensive and energy-intensive?
Is this the future of cultivating? Will we all eat food grown in cultivation factories soon? “How can a vertical farm solve the problem of world hunger? Can we feed the world with just green leafy vegetables and culinary herbs?” These questions were asked in Venlo in June, during the Vertical Farming Congress. The participants don’t really see it that way, either. For vertical farming, sales are an important part of the company. “You must have your objective in mind when starting a vertical farm,” says Jan Westra from Priva. “Are you starting a farm in the city from a social standpoint, or is it the wish of the government to give a new boost to existing buildings? Or do you want to grow food in an inaccessible location such as the South Pole? You can grow practically anywhere with vertical farming, but there’s a great number of factors that decide whether you’ll make a profit or not: from utility costs to marketing.” Dutch horticultural suppliers agree with that. Due to all of the techniques necessary, vertical farming is quite an investment. But precisely that investment offers major opportunities, Marc Kreuger explains. He is in charge of innovations for Here, There & Everywhere, supplier of vertical farming. “Because you have control of everything, and the entire cultivation can be predicted in advance, you also know the exact price per kilo needed,” he says. According to his calculations, growing tomatoes, cucumbers and bell pepper is commercially interesting. 

Addition to greenhouses
Dutch company Certhon also invested in growing vegetables in a cultivation system devoid of natural daylight. This summer, they harvested their first bell peppers from their growing cell Plantyfood. Certhon is originally a greenhouse builder. “We focus on the customer and on ensuring they get a profitable system,” Manager Hein van der Sande explains. “We look for the best cultivation method per region. Sometimes that’s a greenhouse and sometimes it’s a system without daylight. It depends on the circumstances.” Moreover, he has also noticed many similarities between the two. “Looking at technical set up of a greenhouse, with three screens and climate computers, the step to containers isn’t all that large. The difference is between glass versus sandwich panels. It’s true sunshine is free, but in certain conditions it can also be an enemy, in the Middle East, for example. You then have to make decisions and calculations and look at the customer’s wishes.”

The company is also the main contractor for the vertical farm Fresh-Care Convenience in Dronten. Lettuce is grown in the climate rooms on nine layers. “It is the largest in Europe, but it’s still just a test set-up,” Rien Panneman said during the royal visit in June. “But if it does as is expected, we’ll definitely expand on this method of growing food, both regionally and internationally. At first we’ll have a capacity of 6,000-7,000 kilos per week, but we already have a weekly demand of 120,000 kilos. Early 2018 we’ll decide whether to expand the cultivation or not. And other regional cultivation companies can join us in that.”

Staay Food Group used the vertical farm mostly to become independent of the Southern European cultivation. “We currently get our lettuce from Southern Europe during part of the year. Disadvantages of this are the changeable climate and the long transportation distances. When we get lettuce from our own vertical farms, it’ll be fresher, no pesticides will have been used, and quality will be stabler. Furthermore, the cultivation is sustainable, the use of water can be reduced ten times. And we can plan much better. When we plant on day 1, we can harvest on day 30. The first heads of lollo bionda, lollo rosso, rocket and frisée lettuce will therefore be marketed this year.” 
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