William Kenny discusses the benefits of vertical farming, and the recent boom in the industry.
The international agricultural industry is in a time of significant focus shift. A gradual awakening to sustainable land management and that arable land is a finite resource has, until recently, come to the forefront of agricultural philosophy. With the introduction of Horizon 2020, there has been a significant investment put into making our agricultural inputs and outputs more efficient, with the EU funding over €80 billion into research and other areas. One such industry that stands to benefit from this is the vertical farming industry. As population increases and more stress is put on land use, vertical farming is expected to answer a lot of these issues.
In Ireland there is one such company who aims to be the forerunner for this throughout Europe. ‘Farmony’ as a hydroponics equipment group was formed in November 2018 by John Paul Prior, Daniel O’Brien and Rodrigo Andrade. O’Brien, who has a background in agriculture and economics, has witnessed first-hand the start of commercial vertical farming in Asia while working abroad. He realised that this was a blossoming industry in Asia & North America, but it hadn’t really taken off in Europe, which still preferred traditional farming methods. He formed the idea of ‘Farmony’, and enlisted the aid of two friends Prior and Andrade to make it happen.
Farmony initially got their start with investment grants from the Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine, Fingal Local Enterprise Office, Kerry Group and Teagasc. This initial investment funding totalled €250,000 which they said has been used to attain office and warehouse space in North Dublin & Poland, equipment and staffing. In May 2020, Farmony entered into a distribution partnership with Sananbio, a hydroponic farming technology company in North America, as Europe’s main supplier of their equipment inc. lighting and modules. At the time of writing, Farmony has eight farms operational in Ireland, as well as several abroad using Sananbio equipment.
Farmony uses 55m2 shipping containers that have been converted into portable farms with ideal environmental conditions and high-quality cropping systems. The system offers hydroponic modules 1m x 1.3m in size, that can be stacked on top of each other by four if in a shipping container set-up, or even more if in a larger system. They employ a hydroponic technique known as Ebb & Flow, which is a gravity-fed system that flows in a constant Z-like pattern though the modules, which allow for nutrients to consistently flow throughout with minimum nutrient loss. The cascading effect of the water from module to module oxygenates the water as it moves. The modules also contain accessories that allow the user to manipulate the water levels so as the plants mature. Each module is customizable and can support the growth of anywhere between 12-124 plants. Each module tower (20 modules max) is connected to a 120l water tank and pump which provides the water and nutrients required for their crops. This hydroculture set-up professes to offer 20x the output of a five-acre farm, allowing for year-round crop and quicker seed-to-harvest times, as well as 10x reduction in water usage.
Farmony’s innovation within agriculture is found within; its ability to offer a system of production that enables the growth of multiple crops with different growing conditions in one location and the ease of convenience for customisation within the system with software that allows for constant, labourless monitoring of environmental conditions. These software systems are connected to hardware that enables the grower to constantly monitor environmental factors such as pH, electrical conductivity, temperature at both room and canopy level and the plants within the system. The hanging lights are full-spectrum LED installations, customizable to suit the different light spectrum requirements i.e. blue spectrum light for photosynthesis and red spectrum for flowering.
For propagation, Farmony has their own dedicated propagation area, which also utilises hydroponic techniques. In an ordinary hydroponic system, the grower would use special hydroponic plugs, usually made from rockwool or other organic material. However, Farmony uses a special propagation plug that is made up of a mixture of organic material, coco coir and a specialised binding agent. This binding agent holds the plug in place throughout the full growth cycle with minimal residue left behind in the system. This is vitally important, as a hydroponic system needs to be residue free as residue can easily block up the filtration systems and the nutrient pipework. As well as this, this specialised propagation plug is also compostable. This means that it is more sustainable than other hydroponic growing media, such as rockwool which is not compostable. From the propagation trays the plugs can then be easily transferred into the main hydroponic system without the need for changing the plug or adding extra organic material.
software systems are connected to hardware that enables the grower to constantly monitor environmental factors such as pH, electrical conductivity, temperature at both room and canopy level and the plants within the system
Another vital aspect of growing hydroponically is the maintenance of the systems. This includes, but is not limited to, the disinfection of the system. For this disinfection, Farmony uses a hydrogen peroxide mixture. This mixture, as well as continuous waterflow, ensure that they keep their system free of disease, as well as algae forming in the pipework.
Within their growing system, Farmony focuses on three crop groups; herbs, salads and microgreens. These are the easiest and early harvesting plants that can be grown within the system, therefore the more profitable to Farmony. Farmony has their own personal seed supplier that they know will give them quality assurance in their systems.
The most successful and cost-effective variety of these is the Genovese basil. This variety, when grown in the system, can reach maturity to the point of harvesting in three weeks. As well as this, microgreens are extremely beneficial in the system as culturally they can catch a better price than other salad and green crops. With regards crop schedules, vertical farming allows for year-round crops, which means that Farmony are not tied down by seasonal weather and can grow any of their crops, at any time of year to meet demand.
the initial start-up costs can be quite expensive. It is estimated that it can cost anywhere in the region of 3-5 times the start-up costs of a traditional farm
There are of course challenges in entering the vertical farming market, the two largest of these being cost and public perception. For vertical farming the initial start-up costs can be quite expensive. It is estimated that it can cost anywhere in the region of 3-5 times the start-up costs of a traditional farm. As well as this, there are hidden costs within this system such as labour hours, machinery training, insurance, electricity and its carbon footprint. For example, Farmony’s 55m2 set up will cost its average purchaser over €90,000. Though these initial costs are quite expensive, the outputs of one of these systems can equal that of a five-acre farm, and allow the user to grow year-round. Another issue Farmony had when starting up is the public perception of vertical farming. In the US, there has been controversy about the ongoing inclusion of hydroponics in the USDA organic program. This had led to, according to Farmony, a reluctance of uptake in Europe, as well as uncertainty about marketing for hydroponically-grown produce. As well as this, vertical farming is currently not recognized within the organic awarding framework in Ireland. Farmony has had to contend with a system fixed on traditional farming, but it has also had to deal with an agriculture demographic that has a mistrust of hydroponics, due to its associations with Cannabis sativa. This, they say, is exacerbated by the fact their corresponding partners Sananbio operate in large scale cannabis operations across North America where it is legal.
Another challenge to a market garden growing hydroponically is sanitation. In their system, Farmony says they are at constant risk of losing entire crops due to pests and diseases. In a system like this, if one plant suffers, every plant suffers. Thankfully for Farmony this has not been an issue as of yet, but they say it is only a matter of time, whether by system fault or human error, that significant crop loss is inevitable. However due to the quick cropping nature of their produce, they do not believe this would have long-term effects on market profits.
Vertical farming is a bit of an anomaly in terms of quality assurance. Vertical farming groups to date have not been able to secure any quality assurance for their produce, nor have any other farmers. In the US vertical farming can now be labelled organic, and Farmony has been given assurances from the Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine that plans are being formulated to bring hydroponic agriculture under organic quality assurance schemes. However this is not in-line with EU policy, which clearly states that to be organic means to be grown in soil, as well as promoting biodiversity, environmental protection and public health.