For a company less than one year old, Liberty Produce has already taken some big strides along its path to make vertical farming a more scalable, economically feasible reality. Specifically, the UK-based agtech company hopes to not just grow food, but also create an end-to-end, automated vertical farm system that, according to founder Zeina Chapman, “anybody” could use.
On vertical farming in the UK, Chapman notes there are “really great things happening . . . but they’re all siloed.” In other words, LED companies aren’t talking to those who make HVAC systems, and thus the development of these products happens independent of one another. As technologies by themselves, they work, but when put together in one environment, are they creating the most energy- and resource-efficient way to grow the best crop yield?
It’s a question Liberty will address with its new project, the Future Farming Hub. For the £1.3 million (~$1,652,000 USD) project, Liberty will lead a consortium of 11 different partners, each focusing on a different capability of the vertical farm. Chapman wouldn’t name specific names over the phone, but she did note there were partners in Taiwan, where vertical farming is a huge industry, a major LED company, as well as companies working on sensors, nutrient delivery (for the plants), and the growbeds themselves. For the latter, a partner will redesign growbeds to reduce the amount of bacterial growth that can sometimes hinder plant growth or damage plants. Sensor technology, meanwhile, would immediately tip the grower off to there being a bacterial problem in the growbed.
Underscore that word “immediately,” as that’s the other point Liberty and the Future Farming Hub are pushing. The project will also focus on a developing a system that gives growers real-time data about the farming operation
All of this rolls up under one goal focused on, according to a press release, reducing operational costs of vertical farms by 25 percent, increasing crop yield by 30 percent, and cutting down the amount of decisions growers themselves have to make when it comes to caring for plants.
“There’s lots we don’t know about growing plants in this artificial environment and we’re not giving them optimal conditions,” says Chapman. She cites lighting as one example: “With lighting, there isn’t an option to control it in a way that maximizes plant growth. So we might be putting plants under stress.”
Chapman also wants to make it easier for virtually anybody to operate a vertical farm. When I asked if that includes an open-source framework for growing, as others have suggested, she noted this project goes a step beyond open source. “If you decide you’re going to grow basil, you just press the button and the system will take care of that,” she said. In theory, at least, Liberty will have already developed the formula for growing optimal basil and programmed it into the system, effectively taking the guesswork out of growing.
Automated vertical farming is slowly gaining momentum around the globe, and other proprietary farm systems abound. Stateside, AeroFarms’ patented system can create light “recipes” to give each plant the exact spectrum and intensity it needs to grow. Bowery, too, uses a mix of hardware, analytics, and proprietary software to produce greens year-round. They also just got a $90 million shot of fresh investment. Over on the West Coast, Plenty more than doubled that figure last year, when Softbank invested $200 million in the company’s system.
But no one’s yet come out with a one-stop-shop system that you need neither an agricultural or engineering background to operate and which relies on real-time data to do the heavy lifting.
The project doesn’t kick off until April of 2019, which makes all of this somewhat abstract at the moment. But Chapman’s optimistic. “One of the greatest things we want to achieve is to pull together a system that’s fully integrated and get all these systems to talk to each other,” she says. “We hope it can reduce the costs, which is a huge barrier to entry and also increase yield. As we increase yield, more and more products become viable.”
Chapman and Liberty aim to have a full product ready for market at the end of the 27-month project, and along with it, a more accessible, scalable approach to vertical farming.