Electronics manufacturers express growing interest in commercial farming

Vertical Farming files (part 2)
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Electronics manufacturers express growing interest in commercial farming

Electronics manufacturers in Japan launched a number of Vertical Farming projects starting in 2008, initially with the aim of producing good LEDs and electronics for control equipment. A few years later they started growing fruit and vegetables commercially as well. Exceptions to this rule are Mirai and Spread, which have evolved into large-scale farms that also supply complete cultivation systems.

Fujitsu claims to have the only vertical farm that offers full-scale protection against all contamination from outside. The company is growing its produce in a vacant computer chip production hall, and where not even a single speck of dust is allowed to float through the air. As Fujitsu grows its lettuce with a low potassium content, it is not bitter to the taste and can also be extremely well tolerated by persons suffering from renal diseases: a growing group of patients in Japan. The company produces 3,000 heads of lettuce a day on 2,000 m2. The product is very popular among consumers and sold at a price of $3.00 apiece, while lettuce normally sells for $1.00 a head.

Toshiba also grows vegetables in a former computer chip factory. The company claims that its cultivation concept produces lettuce that is rich in phenols.

Fujitsu grows its lettuce with a low potassium content, it is not bitter to the taste.

Sharp initiated a study into the feasibility of growing strawberries in a multi-tier configuration in 2013. The company plans to start on the concrete execution of this concept in 2016 with a Vertical Farm in the United Arab Emirates. It aims to expand this with solar panels in the future. The example provided by Sharp is followed by a consortium of three companies in the chemical, wholesale and technology industries. This consortium aims to launch a demonstration company for Vertical Farming in the UAE towards the end of 2016, in which it will be focusing on the cultivation of leafy vegetables. This should lead to the establishment of various Vertical Farms equalling an investment of 47 million dollars over the course of three years.

Panasonic is planning to start a 1,154 m2 farming factory in 2017 to produce 81 tons of leafy vegetables a year. The company currently produces 6 tons of vegetables a year on a surface area of 248 m2.

Japan

In Japan, most Vertical Farming projects are in the hands of electronics companies. Exceptions to this rule are Mirai and Spread: large-scale farms that also supply complete cultivation systems. And - contrary to their Western counterparts - they communicate openly about the costs involved. Spread is planning to open a Vertical Farm in Kyoto in 2017 that will be fully automated, from sowing to harvesting. This ‘Vegetable Factory’ will comprise 4,800 m2 of cultivation space and produce 30,000 heads of lettuce a day: that’s almost 10 million a year. The construction alone required an investment of 14.5 million dollars. The turnover is estimated at 8.1 million dollars. Spread aims to render the vegetable cultivation profitable through this technology, which can be applied no matter where in the world.

Spread aims to render the vegetable cultivation profitable through this technology, which can be applied no matter where in the world.

In comparison to Spread’s Vegetable Factory in Kameoke near Kyoto, which produces 21,000 heads of lettuce a day, the far-reaching automation of this project will reduce labour costs by 50%, energy costs by 30% and construction costs by 25%. To prevent contamination, all staff wear lab clothing and must pass through an air shower before entering the cultivation area. In the automated factory, this will no longer be necessary and any danger of contamination is reduced even farther. The cost price of the new factory is also lower on account of improved technology, such as more efficient LEDs, air treatment and the reuse of water. Spread offers various partnership options to interested entrepreneurs.

The Antarctic

Over the course of several years, Mirai has proven that Vertical Farming is not only possible, but also profitable. After the tsunami in 2011, Shigeharu Shimamura took on the challenge of transforming an empty Sony factory into the biggest Vertical Farm in the world. He harvests 10,000 heads of lettuce every day on a surface area of 7,500 m2 of vertical cultivation space; this is 100 times more than he would be able to produce in the traditional manner. He developed the ultimate LED illumination for his crop in collaboration with General Electric. His business has since expanded to include 14 Vertical Farms.

Mirai has two smaller farms in Mongolia, whose inhabitants would otherwise have to forego all leafy vegetables for several months a year. Shigeharu Shimamura also built a 3 m2 miniature system for the cultivation of fresh vegetables on the South Pole. Consulting goes online.

Mirai has proven that Vertical Farming is not only possible, but also profitable.

Mirai provides a net impact calculation for lettuce production on 1,300 m2, with a harvest of 10,080 heads a day, on fieldrobotics.org. Based in an invested capital of 7.4 million dollars and a lifespan of 7 years for the production system (51% of the investment), 15 years for other facilities (19%) and 20 years for the building (20%), the investment would earn itself back in just 6 years. The annual operating costs are 3.4 million dollars, of which 26% would be spent on wages, 6% on materials, 26% on energy water and suchlike, 2% on transport and 18% on miscellaneous expenses (information, maintenance) and 22% on depreciation. The most crucial aspect for the successful operation of the farm is having the right people with sufficient training and expertise.

Other people take on a more relaxed attitude, such as Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google. ‘The efficient use of resources and space leads to highly profitable year-round production. Customised light recipes and climate regulation create optimum growth conditions. The twenties of this century will be the decade that marks the Vertical Farming revolution.’Mirai: ‘Indoor cultivation will never be the same as industrial production. A non-linear approach is needed to understand the biology involved.’

Fresh, healthy and locally grown

Vertical Farming products don’t make a lot of food miles, because they’re generally grown near or even in the city. They are fresh, healthy, and available all year round. Additionally, they are free of diseases and pesticides and, because their growth is not in any way affected by seasons or weather conditions, their production is constant. The same quantities are sown and harvested every day or - as a film buff would say - ‘in Vertical Farming every day is Groundhog Day!’ This cultivation method uses very little water: 0.11 litres of water per head, according to Spread, which is 95% less than when grown in the open field. Aside from this, Vertical Farming requires much less space in terms of surface area. Plantlab even suggests that ‘only 25% of the entire surface area of the Netherlands would provide ample space to grow enough fruit and vegetables to feed the entire world population.’

'In Vertical Farming every day is Groundhog Day.'

Five years ago, Plantlab also concluded ago that applying pest control to Vertical Farming is entirely unnecessary, because insects are naturally repelled by the blue and red lights of LED lamps under which plants thrive. Nevertheless, Vertical Farmers in Japan refuse to take risks: they use a light filtering system and every staff member must wear a mouth mask. Before entering the cultivation area they take an air shower and a water shower. This stands in shrill contrast to most of the other ‘plant’ factories (120 approximately), where the staff wear normal clothing to work.

Micro-cultivation

Mirai designed an item for furniture for conventional households for micro-growers (consumers). This item was outclassed in terms of design in 2016 by the Foop, a sort of large bread box in which consumers can grow their own vegetables fully automatically, from seed to harvest. The seeds are sown in a growing medium in cups, which are suspended in a layer of nutrients. After a month, the vegetables can be harvested. You can watch them them growing through a plexiglass window. And if you forget your crop? No problem: the Foop will tell you when it’s time to harvest via an app on your smartphone. The Foop costs $360. So, who knows? Perhaps everyone will be growing their own vegetables in the future, making an end to Vertical Farming.

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Theo Brakeboer. Photo: Panasonic/Japan Times.

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