From sowing to germination, propagation, cropping, and harvesting, all automated in several vertical farms in succession. It sounds like a factory, and to some extent, that is exactly what the AVF+ Factory is.
Dutch company Artechno is currently building a cultivation factory like this for a Canadian lettuce grower. A modular cultivation factory. This is important because, for the grower, it will probably not be his last expansion. "Without having to stop production, we can connect additional AVF+ Compact climate cells in the future and double and even triple production, all within the same automation system," says Maxim van Zeijl of the company based in De Lier.
Design of AVF+ Factory with multiple climate cells
The Canadian grower asked Artechno when it became clear that the demand for locally grown lettuce in the region was rising sharply, and the supply was struggling to keep up. To meet the growing demand, extra production capacity was needed. There was also a desire to make the cultivation process more efficient.
The grower already has space; there is room for three automated AVF+ Compact climate cells in the building, each measuring 768 square meters spread over eight layers. In total, the grower will have 2,300 square meters of fully automated growing surface, from sowing to harvest. This can be extended further at a later date, Maxim says. "The AVF+ Compact, in fact, consists of a series of models and sizes, which together easily make a fully automated AVF+ Factory up to more than 20,000 square meters."
In the additional vertical farm that will go into production in January 2022, the grower plans to grow four types of lettuce. These are red and green oak leaf lettuce and two types of Salanova lettuce. "All varieties for which we have already done extensive research in our research center and have a lot of experience," says Maxim. "That's one of the reasons they chose us."
Growing in phases
In order to make optimal use of the available space, the grower will work with two propagation phases. In the first propagation phase, the young plants are grown at a very high density to make the most efficient use of the available growing surface, climate, and light. Then the plants are spread out and moved to another layer in the vertical farm for the second propagation phase. "After the second propagation phase, the plants are automatically moved to the final distance. In this case, 48 heads per square meter, although this varies depending on the crop", says Maxim. "After the breeding phase, the plants go to the cultivation phase for a few days and are then transported from the vertical farm directly to the harvesting machine."
Just like the cultivation in several phases on separate layers, something clever has also been devised here in De Lier. "The harvesting machine cuts the heads, and they are then transported to a crate loop via conveyor belts. When filling the crates, we weigh them in a special way so there is a minimum stop time between crates and the grower can harvest almost continuously."
Even when switching between varieties. "The harvesting machine knows by means of software what kind of crop is being cut. The machine can then adjust the height of the cutting blade and the cutting speed, among other things, based on this information."
AVF+ Junior starter recipe Salanova lettuce at Artechno Growsystems
For the cultivation itself, agronomist Rick van Schie of Artechno has already developed a starter recipe for the grower. This involves adjusting the climate and lighting in such a way that it works well for all varieties. In this case, also four species that go well together. An indication of the expected yield is also given. Initially, in phase 1, about 75 tons of lettuce per year, after which in phase 2, the production will increase to 222 tons (or even more, the grower is thinking about that).
Maxim: "In the first weeks of January, we also provide fortnightly start-up support and guidance on how to grow optimally with our system. But by doing everything in the right way from the start, this will be more to guide along than to troubleshoot. The vertical farm after all can be customized within standardized setup individually tuned to the grower's wishes in advance. This keeps the quality high and the costs for the customer as low as possible while still offering a completely custom feeling. And it is also easier for growers to scale up in time with this modular system."