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urban farming

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Emirates Flight Catering invests 40 million dollar to build the world’s largest vertical farming facility. In this facility, located near Dubai International Airport, the caterer plans to harvest 2,700 kilograms of leafy vegetables.

Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) co-invests with the American company Crop One. They set up a joint venture for this project. Crop One Holding is said to be the world’s leading vertical farm operator.

Worldwide innovation hub

According to His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman and chief Executive of Emirates Airline. This investment is in line with the wish of the United Arab Emirates to become self-sufficient in agriculture. The introduction of this pioneering vertical farming technology also improves Dubai's position as a global innovation hub.

2,700 kilograms daily

When complete, the vertical farm facility will cover approximately 12.000 m2. According to Crop One the production output will be equivalent to 360 hectare of conventional farmland. At full production, the facility will harvest 2,700 kg of high quality, herbicide free and pesticide free leafy greens daily, using 99% less water than conventional outdoor fields.

The pinnacle of fresh

Because the production is right next to the location where the vegetables are used, being the preparation of meals for aviation passengers, carbon emissions associated with transport are substantially reduced. In addition, it guarantees the freshest vegetables that can be processed within hours of the harvest. The construction of the vertical farm will start in November 2018 and will take about a year to complete. The first products are expected to be delivered on the plates of Emirates Flight Catering customers, including 105 airlines and 25 airport lounges, in December 2019.

Source: Emirates Flight Catering Video: FreshBox Farms

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GrowX officially opened the first ‘high-tech vertical farm’ in Amsterdam on 1 November. The company grows various types of vegetables in a ‘food flat’ situated in a corporate building on the Amstel III business park. Amsterdam encourages these urban farming initiatives, with the goal of bringing freshly grown products closer to consumers.

The common goal shared by the Municipality of Amsterdam and GrowX is to be able to offer half the population of Amsterdam vertically grown vegetables by 2025. Through this initiative, this city aims to be a worldwide pioneer. The surface area of GrowX’s vertical farm is currently 250 m2.

Expansion to 2,000 m2

GrowX currently supplies several top-class chefs and high-end restaurants with its vegetables. “We aim to expand our vertical farm to 2,000 m2, which would enable us to supply half the population of Amsterdam with sustainably grown vegetables, cultivated via vertical farming technology, by 2025”, explains Michel Visser of GrowX.

Shortage of fresh vegetables

According to Visser food shortages could become alarming in the future. This could be due to the rapid growth of cities and the population. GrowX believes that it is crucial that we do not develop a dependency on the import of fresh vegetables, which is paired to such negative factors as more transport movements, fuel costs and higher CO2 emissions. Besides that, you can’t really call vegetables that are shipped to you from many kilometres away fresh anymore, claims Visser.

Fool-proof harvests

“Vertical farming is carried out in the urban environment, which means less travel time for your tomatoes, for example. Vegetables grown on a vertical farm are cultivated in a high-tech closed system. You can create ideal circumstances here, and as a result harvests are fool-proof. Climate control also renders the use of pesticides obsolete. This means that rinsing and re-rinsing will no longer be necessary. As a result, vertical farming will also save lots of water”, continues Visser.

Lofty ambitions

Taking into consideration that the vegetables are grown in layers above one another, space in the city is also used to optimum advantage. The initiators believe this to be a situation that offers only advantages. They call the Netherlands a pioneer in the field of knowledge and innovation in agriculture. Amsterdam aims to become the first city in the world where vertical farming will feed half its population. Start-up GrowX is an initiative launched by American John Apesos and chemical technologist Jens Ruijg.

Source: Amsterdam.nl. Photo: GrowX.

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Paul Jeannet, farm manager of the UrbanFarmers rooftop greenhouse in The Hague, has used the Qlipr system for three months in four different crops: ‘It’s very easy to use, once you get used to it. It allows us to save time and - this is the biggest advantage in my opinion - we can reuse the clips after every crop cycle. We can easily separate the clips from the plants and compost the plants, because there are no strings or plastic clips left in it. Nothing is wasted.’

The Qlipr system fits right into the UrbanFarmers philosophy, which is based on creating added value and minimizing waste. At the UF002 farm in The Hague, consisting of a greenhouse with a surface area of 1,000 m2 on top of a former office building and a Tilapia fish farm, that philosophy has been taken into practice. The waste water of the fish tanks is turned into nutrients for the plants in the greenhouse. In the greenhouse, different varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and aubergines grow in a hydroponic system. The water that is not used by the plants is purified and pumped back to the fish farm, which reduces overall water usage by 80%. Pesticides are forbidden; only biological plant protection methods are allowed. The products are sold to customers in the region, to minimise food miles. ‘We grow fresher, tastier and healthier products, as close to our customers as possible. And we minimise waste,’ Paul Jeannet explains.

The fresh revolution

Paul Jeannet (24) started working for Urban Farmers one year ago, after an internship at UrbanFarmers’ first farm (UF001) in Basel. He studied biological agriculture in Switzerland, before he joined ‘the fresh revolution’. ‘At first we were only growing lettuce and tomatoes. When our gastronomy partners told us that they would prefer more diversity, we took out some of the tomatoes and put in cucumbers, aubergines and sweet peppers instead, and several different varieties of tomatoes. We kept the lettuce section.’

It is quite different from the normal plastic clip we were using, but once you get used to it is very easy to use.

Six months ago Paul got in touch with Cor Pellikaan and became interested in the Qlipr system. ‘We wanted to give it a try to see if it would work in different crops. Three months ago we started using the system in tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and aubergines. As it turned out, the system is quite easy to use: we take the lower clip and place it on top and we lower the plant at the same time. It is quite different from the normal plastic clip we were using, but once you get used to it is very easy to use.’ The lowering schedule is once a week for tomatoes, three times every two weeks for cucumbers and once every two weeks for sweet peppers and aubergines.

Pilot project

Cor Pellikaan, the inventor of the Qlipr system, needed a pilot project to test his clips on sweet peppers and aubergines. Until three months ago, the system - which he invented in 1996 - was only used by growers of tomatoes and cucumbers worldwide. The system consists of a crop hook (1.40 meters long) and two clips. Halfway through the plants’ development, extra crop wires are needed with which to fix the crop hooks into place.

It will save labour, because you can de-leaf, remove shoots, prune and lower the plants in one go.

The main advantages of the system are, according to Pellikaan: ‘It’s very simple to use. Everybody can work with it. It will save labour, because you can de-leaf, remove shoots, prune and lower the plants in one go. This is also better for plant health, because there is less chance of damage.’ Paul Jeannet confirms that he saves up to six hours a week in the rooftop greenhouse because he uses the Qlipr system instead of regular plastic clips.

Durability

The main advantage of the Qlipr system is its durability, says Pellikaan. ‘My first client bought them 18 years ago and he is still using the same clips. Of course, you have to disinfect them at the end of every crop cycle, but that is very easy. You can use steam, chemicals or pasteurization. I recommend the latter, after two years of thoroughly testing this method. Just put the clips in a box on a trolley and cover it up with a canvas. Heat up four pipes to 60°C under it for three days. Works perfectly.’

Thanks to the Qlipr system neither plastic string nor clips are left on the plants after each crop cycle.

Paul says this is a big advantage too, but there is more. Thanks to the Qlipr system neither plastic string nor clips are left on the plants after each crop cycle. ‘So we don’t have to throw away our plants, but we can shred them for composting. It also makes it much easier for us to get rid of the plant material, because we have to transport everything via the lift.’

Qlipr versus traditional clips

How many clips are needed to bear the weight of the plants? ‘At the start of the season one clip will suffice. You attach it at 40 cm below the head of the plant. When the plants get heavier you will need to add a second clip, Cor Pellikaan explains. A new item in the Qlipr product range is the double-stop crop hook of 1.40 meters with two stoppers: one at 50 cm and one at the bottom of the hook. This makes it possible to use the same hook for tomatoes as well as cucumbers.

You buy it once and then you can use it every year.

The investment in the Qlipr system is higher than with traditional plastic clips, but they will last a lifetime, Cor says. ‘Also, you don’t need to buy expensive trolleys with hydraulic platforms, because the plant tips grow at a height of 160 cm. Therefore, cheap trolleys will suffice. In most cases this will save you enough money to buy Qlipr clips.’
Paul Jeannet has become a fan of the Qlipr system rather quickly: ‘Cutting leaves has become more enjoyable. We no longer have a plastic string or plastic clips at the bottom of the plant holding the leaves together. Only two clips at the head of the plant.’ Would he recommend this system to other growers? ‘Yes! It is a really interesting system to work with; you buy it once and then you can use it every year.’

Future developments

Pellikaan thinks the Qlipr system will also benefit growers in the future. He is working on a mechanical system to pollinate crops without the use of bumblebees. It has been tested thoroughly and he expects to launch it this year. He is also working on a robot that can harvest and de-leaf tomatoes, which is still a prototype. That is still a bit of a secret, so we will stop asking here. It is clear that Cor Pellikaan is still coming up with new inventions for international horticulture to create simple solutions that work.

This article was created in collaboration with UrbanFarmers and Qlipr. Text and pictures: Mario Bentvelsen. Video: BrokxMedia.

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Apart from Vertical Farming, there are numerous hybrid cultivation initiatives taking place in and on buildings, also known as Urban Farming and Rooftop Farming. Even restaurants, supermarkets and offices are experimenting with growing fruit and vegetables in cities.

Vertical Farming is, of course, not suitable for crops that grow in an upwards direction, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. This problem was solved in Jackson (Wyoming) with the construction of an impressive building incorporating huge amounts of glass, designed by Larssen Ltd.: a very expensive building costing 3.7 million dollars, partly due to its earthquake-proof construction. Three stories of the building are dedicated to LED-illuminated Vertical Farming, with two stories reserved for herbs and leafy vegetables and the third for tomatoes. The 3,800 m2 surface area is sufficient for a production of 45,000 kg a year. The building is intended to bridge the awareness gap between horticulture and the city’s inhabitants and also provides space for education. The vegetables can be seen growing from behind a glass wall. The project received financial support through crowdfunding and the municipality is the owner of the building.

Restaurants and supermarkets

InFarm is directed at growing vegetables in big cities; in and by restaurants and the retail industry. ‘We are the new farmers and the city is our company.’ In his mind’s eye, the founder of InFarm is seeing supermarkets with multi-tier cultivation for leafy vegetables above the shelves. You simply can’t buy fresher food with fewer food miles than this! InFarm developed the Kräutergarten for the Berlin-based Metro wholesaler, just as Mirai did in Japan: a multi-tier LED-illuminated greenhouse in the supermarket. The crops grown consists primarily of herbs (basil in particular) and leafy vegetables grown on a shallow layer of water (hydroponics).

You simply can’t buy fresher food with fewer food miles than this!

InFarm also operates the UFcontainerfarm in Berlin: a container with a small greenhouse on top. Tilapia fish are bred in the container. The water from the fish is pumped up to the greenhouse, where it is used to water the plants after it has been purified. This concept is also used in London, where it is called a GrowUp Box.

Above and below ground

An outsider in Urban Farming is SkyGreens. This Singapore-based initiative grows vegetables on trays suspended in gutters. These gutters circulate vertically by means of two A-shaped pillars nine metres tall. The circulatory movement enables each plant to obtain the same amount of sunlight. The company has 1,000 of these vertical towers with 20 gutters each and produces 800 kg of vegetables a day, including Chinese cabbage, spinach and other leafy vegetables.

The London-based Farmdrop initiative produces herbs underground, in former bomb shelters.

Another outsider, but of an entirely different calibre, is the Pasona office building in Tokyo, where a myriad of plants and vegetables are grown on and in the building, which also features a dedicated Vertical Farming division. The vegetables grown here are intended for the company restaurant. In conference rooms, workspaces - in fact, all over the building - you will see tomatoes growing all the way up to the ceiling, or sweet peppers and eggplants, broccoli, lemons and even passion fruit. A total of 200 varieties of vegetables, fruit and even rice are grown here! The staff is free to pick whatever they want. The company employs a permanent staff of ten people to keep the vegetables in tip-top condition. Not everything is grown efficiently, but the project was never intended to achieve a high production rate; the concept was developed to engender awareness for food provision.

The London-based Farmdrop initiative produces herbs underground, in former bomb shelters: 30 metres below the surface. It took Farmdrop two years to conquer all the challenges of underground cultivation.

Rooftop greenhouse

Where Vertical Farming appears to be booming, there is less interest among the inhabitants of big cities for rooftop cultivation - in greenhouses, at any rate. Few people practice greenhouse horticulture on rooftops, but when it is, this is mainly in the USA.

According to GothamGreens, urban farming is all about re-establishing the connection between people and the food they eat, educating young people and nurturing the soul.

A firm called GothamGreens operates a series of rooftop greenhouses, in which leafy vegetables are grown in gutters, in New York and Chicago. The first 1400 m2 rooftop greenhouse was built in 2011, and the total surface area of GothamGreens has since risen to 16,000 m2 distributed across four sites. The biggest measures 7,000 m2 and is built on the roof of a bowling alley. According to GothamGreens, urban farming is all about re-establishing the connection between people and the food they eat, about educating young people and nurturing the soul. ‘Urban Farming will never become a primary source of food, but its impact is lasting.’ A head of lettuce grown here costs around $4 at Whole Foods, almost twice as much as conventional lettuce grown in the field and $1 more than organic lettuce.

Bright Farms also aimed to dedicate itself to rooftop cultivation, but it was forced to give up its plans due to the difficulties it encountered with permit applications and the costs, which were 20% higher in comparison to an 8.5 million dollar greenhouse built just outside of the city.

The Hague

The Swiss Urban Farms initiative in Basel built a 250 m2 rooftop greenhouse as a pilot in 2013. Three years later, in May 2016, the UF De Schilde rooftop greenhouse opened its doors in The Hague, the Netherlands. As opposed to the rooftop greenhouses in the USA, which are all on one or two-storey buildings, this greenhouse is situated on top of building six storeys tall. Greenhouse builder Van der Valk Kleijn designed an extra-sturdy greenhouse with double glazing incorporated into the walls and roof. The project’s financiers are SVn (Stimulation Fund for Public Housing) and private investors. The greenhouse collaborates with Rijk Zwaan, Koppert Biological Systems and Priva.

UF hopes to cater to 900 families who can order fresh fish and vegetables via a subscription, as well as to restaurants.

The 1,200 m2 greenhouse is the biggest rooftop greenhouse in Europe. The farm grows lettuce, micro-greens and tomatoes. The floor underneath the greenhouse is rented from the municipality of The Hague to farm fish, whose waste products are subsequently used as nutrients for the plants. Visitors can watch the cultivation process from behind a glass wall. UF hopes to cater to 900 families who can order fresh fish and vegetables via a subscription, as well as to restaurants: 500 tilapia fish a week and 50 tons of vegetables a year. UF expects the venture to be a success, mainly because consumers are enthusiastic about initiatives engaged in the local production of food.

Priva developed the necessary control technology for the project, which required an extraordinary degree of innovation taking into account all the regulations that apply to fish farming (e.g. temperature and oxygen content) and irrigation (including fertilising, temperature and electrical conductivity) for the various greenhouse sections in which lettuce, tomatoes and leafy vegetables are grown. On top of that, Priva also developed the systems for CO2 and climate control.

Canada

Lufa Farms in operates a 3,000 m2 rooftop greenhouse in Montreal (Canada) and one in Laval measuring 4,000 m2. Both were built by the Montoni Group and Kubo. The greenhouses are capable of withstanding large amounts of snow.

Verticrop combines a rooftop greenhouse with Vertical Farming, with cultivation on horizontally circulating plates in twelve tiers in a greenhouse on top of a parking garage in Vancouver (Canada). As the plates rotate slowly, all plants obtain the same amount of light and are watered and harvested at a particular point. However, the company has since gone bankrupt. The investment in both the rooftop greenhouse and a complete new cultivation system was probably too high. Additionally, crops grown using this system tend not to grow as profusely due to the limited amount of daylight they receive.

Horticulture 3.0?

An interesting point for consideration is the extent to which the higher costs of a rooftop greenhouse are balanced against the presumed higher quality, freshness and local distribution. Or will the multi-tier cultivation of fruit, vegetables and fish under fully controlled conditions pave the way for Horticulture 3.0, with its smaller CO2 footprint, retention of local employment and higher diversity in supply as its social driving forces? In the meantime, restaurants, supermarkets and offices are all experimenting with growing their own vegetables, and urban consumers have discovered the art of growing their own food as a meaningful and pleasurable pastime.

Locally grown, super-fresh and demonstrably sustainable could very well become the new standard of reference.

The consequences are, however, very limited for the Dutch horticulture industry, which has traditionally always focused on the export of primarily herbs and leafy vegetables to other European countries. This does not detract from the fact that the industry should consider expanding its focus area to feeding mega-cities rather than ‘shifting around’ products from one location to another, as the CEO of Hoogendoorn, Martin van Gogh, recently suggested during the Greenport Annual Event. Locally grown, super-fresh and demonstrably sustainable could very well become the new standard of reference.

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Theo Brakeboer. Photo: UrbanFarmers/Martijn Zegwaard.

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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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The cultivation of crops in the city, or Urban Farming, is beginning to arouse increasing interest worldwide. This often involves Vertical Farming, in which multiple cultivation layers are grown in closed-off spaces under LED lighting. In addition, vegetables are grown on top of buildings, sometimes in greenhouses or simply in the open air.

Many people are convinced that the cultivation of vegetables on stacked layers, or Vertical Farming, is the future. Tall buildings will increasingly be used for growing crops rather than for industrial manufacturing. Those crops do not grow in the sun, but under LED lights; and not in the soil, but in a thin layer of water or mist. Shielded from the influence of the changing seasons, the year-round cultivation of these crops grown under constant conditions is possible.

North America and Japan

New developments always take place outside the traditional areas. The same applies to Vertical Farming. You will not come across it in the Netherlands with its high-tech greenhouse horticulture, but mostly in Japan and America, where mainly young entrepreneurs are attracted to Vertical Farming. There is one exception in the Netherlands: lettuce farmer Deliscious in Beesel is starts its crops in a seven-layer system under LEDs. Later on, they are transplanted and transferred to a greenhouse for further growth in mobile gutters.

Vertical Farming has long outgrown the stage of amateurism. In the USA, one Vertical Farming company is opening after another, and always in the vicinity of a big city. The farms are able to achieve a significant output on a small surface area. The industry already has its own magazine, Urban Ag News, and there is an Association for Vertical Farming, AVF.

The AVF expects that within there will be a Vertical Farm in every city within the next decade. ‘It is not without reason that multinationals such as Philips, Metro, Osram, Toshiba, Microsoft, Panasonic, Fujitsu and GE are showing interest.’ Lemnis Oreon does not exclude the possibility of developing LEDs especially for Vertical Farming, ‘but we believe in top lighting in greenhouses’. A world map on the AVF website shows where Vertical Farming is being carried out. There are only a few dots in Europe, while Japan and North America, in particular, are covered with them.

GreenTech

Vertical Farming is attracting worldwide attention. Leafy vegetables and herbs can easily be grown in cities or on their outskirts all year round, without the influence of seasons. The weather can not throw a spanner in the works as with outdoor farming. To quote poet and writer Brian Brett: ‘Farming is a profession of hope’. However, this no longer applies thanks to Vertical Farming.

It is not surprising that the AVF will be manning a stand on GreenTech in Amsterdam on 14, 15 and 16 June. They will also be organising a meeting with several speakers, such as the big man behind the Vertical Farming developments Dickson Despommier (Columbia University/AVF) and Jasper den Besten (HAS Den Bosch), Marc Oshima (AeroFarms), Fabio Ziemssen (Metro Group), Paul Hardej (Illumitex), Steven Beckers (Lateral Thinking Factory & Building Integrated Greenhouses), Oscar Rodriguez (Architecture and food), Vincent Fesquet (New’rban view) and from the AVF: Christine Zimmerman, Max Loessl, Henry Gordon Smith, Howard Brin and Zjef Van Acker on the day before the GreenTech exhibition.

Sophisticated cultivation strategy

In North America Illumitex has doubled its LED lamp production every year in the last few years. ‘The future is growing indoors’, says Illumitex. The company claims to have a specific light recipe for each crop with just the right spectrum, intensity and frequency a plant needs for photosynthesis and the most energy-efficient way to do this. However, there are several other companies that provide the same know-how with the delivery of their cultivation system.

The company PlantLab says it distinguishes itself by entering into a partnership. ‘We guarantee output. That is quite different as ”we have a system”.’ according to PlantLab, not the technology but the plant is the guiding factor. The organisation determines for each situation how the plant can deliver the optimal results; for example in yield, substances or quality. ‘This is not just dependent on light, but on the total production process, including materials handling and labour productivity.’

Concepts

Several companies are bringing their own Vertical Farming concept to market, such as AeroFarms (USA), Urban Produce (USA), Urban Crops (Belgium), Mirai (Japan), PlantLab (Netherlands), InFarm (USA), VydroFarm (UK) and Truleaf (Canada). The bottom line is that they are all trying to reinvent the wheel.

AeroFarms is the largest of these companies. It has the ambition to grow rapidly and is hoping to expand into locations on four continents. But there are more organisations wishing to do the same, like Metropolis Farms, who claim that you can realise a revenue of $250,000 to $5,000,000 per year on 140 to 930 m2 , depending on what you are growing and what can be sold locally. ‘A Vertical Farm can be built within a week and after 60 days you are ready to harvest.’

The company Edenworks, on the other hand, aims to reduce labour costs by more than 50% in a yet to be opened second Vertical Farm by automating the sowing, harvesting, washing, drying, packaging and labelling processes, because otherwise viable exploitation is not possible. AeroFarms suggests that there is a great need for safe nutritious food ‘and we are quickly scaling up to change horticulture worldwide’. According to the Wall Street Journal AeroFarms is not yet making any profit, but it states that all its companies will have a positive cash flow this year.

FarmedHere in Chicago aims to prove that Vertical Farming can also be done organically. In an abandoned of 1,500 m2 factory they combined crop cultivation with aquaculture, which provides the nutrients for growing. However, after six months they had to close down. With $13 million raised money the company is trying again. This time without fish, but with vegetable-based nutrients, which reduces costs by 30%.

Data science

AeroFarms cultivates crops from sowing to harvest on cloth made from recycled plastic. Under the cloth, an atomiser provides the plants with water and fertiliser. In Newark they are growing crops in a former paintball hall on 6.500 m2 and in a former steel plant with a surface area of 510 m2. The company grows crops in 12 layers, 20 crops per year, reaching a production of 900 tons. Through the years the company has been collecting crop data, enabling it to now cultivate the desired taste, or ‘data science meets horticulture’. The company can, for example, grow spicier watercress or sweeter lettuce.

Urban Crops in Waregem (Belgium) opened an automated factory plant in early 2016, the largest of its kind in Europe. The system works with cultivation in crates in a layer of water. The crates enter the cultivation space on a conveyer belt. Thanks to RFID technology in the crates a robot recognizes where they should be placed. The technology for fertilisation and the purification of process water (UV) is provided by Hortimax. The cultivation area has eight production layers in 4 rows measuring 10 metres each. With 448 crates and 10 plants per crate 442 crops can be harvested every day. The system can be built up to 25 layers. With 30 rows, the daily production will be 126,000 crops.

Urban Crops performs feasibility studies on request for cultivation in large buildings. They provide insight into the expenses and calculate cost price based on the possibilities. Urban Crops also provides two cultivation systems in containers; Farm Flex and Farm Pro. Farm Pro is fully automated and costs approximately €55,000. Depending on the weight of the harvest, the annual production is 29,000 crops. When cultivating herbs, production will easily be double that amount.

Vertical crops

Certhon developed the PlantyFood growth cell, in which both Vertical Farming and cultivation of vertical crops is possible. The company will be demonstrating this at GreenTech 2016 with the cultivation of cucumber, from sowing to harvest. By doing this it intends to launch a debate on what is possible. But vertical crops such as cucumber or tomato are not really suitable for Vertical Farming, says Toyoki Kozai of Japan’s Chiba University: ‘Tomatoes require about 1,200 kWh of electricity per kilogram of dry matter. That is as much as the annual consumption of the average refrigerator in America.’

Priva also developed a large container for VF cultivation, which combines its know-how on climate control in buildings with its knowledge on growing plants. Marketing is done by ‘Here There And Everywhere’ by GertJan Meeuws, former director of PlantLab. Priva: ‘This box allows the grower to take a considerable step in professionalization.’

Research

While PlantLab is concentrating on patents, another Dutch company - BrightBox - focuses on open innovations. In a low-threshold manner, this company wants to research the best way of growing crops under LEDs. Its customers come from all over the world, from North America to Japan. They also get requests from the retail industry, to research shelf life and to determine which crops and varieties are suitable for Vertical Farming, for example. Grodan has shown rock wool to be an excellent growing medium. BrightBox is continuously working with the latest LEDs from its partner Philips Lighting. The approachability of BrightBox is partly reflected in its weekly open sessions, which take place every Thursday at 3 pm.

Philips also performs some research independently in its own climate cells. In the GrowWise Centre in Eindhoven, the company is developing light recipes for urban farming. The facility consists of eight cells with four growing layers each and a private climate regulation by Priva. LEDs in various colours (white, blue, red and far-red) are suspended above the containers.

Proeftuin Zwaagdijk (Zwaagdijk experimental garden) conducts research for seed companies in a three-layer cultivation system on how to let various crops flower and seed as quickly as possible. This is done under nine colours of LEDs with adjustable brightness. The system also has moveable ceilings with four-colour LEDs under which vertical crops can be grown. The LED lighting rises with the growth of the crop.

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Theo Brakeboer. Photo: BrightBox.

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The biggest commercial urban farm in Europe will open its doors to the public on 20 May. UF002 De Schilde, the official name of the urban farm, was developed for the sustainable production of fish and vegetables in The Hague and surroundings. Urban Farmers promises to deliver high-quality food with a high nutrient content, bursting with taste.

Starting in May, the urban farm will not only be delivering its first products to local restaurants, such as Het Gouden Kalf and Mochi, but also to visitors, albeit on a smaller scale. All products will be available for consumers in Fresh Weekly Baskets, which can be picked up at special pick-up points in The Hague from August onwards. Consumers are invited to place pre-orders for this service via the website. 'Not only will you get sustainable urban-grown fish, but also local, freshly-picked produce on your plate,' says Urban Farmers' Paul Driest. Prices will be comparable to - or just a little higher than - those conventionally charged for organic products. The initiators of the project expect to produce 50,000 kilos of tomatoes, lettuce and microgreens, as well as 20,000 kilos of Tilapia fish, every year.

Rooftop terrace

The 1,300 m² greenhouse was built by Van der Valk.Kleijn BV. This wasn't the firm's first project to be built at a great height: Van der Valk.Kleijn BV already has two similar projects to its name, explains project leader Willem Kleijn. The first was a 3,500 m2 rooftop greenhouse for Vida Verde in Honselersdijk in 2008; the second the 250 m2 Urban Farmers rooftop farm in Basel in 2013.

Exceptionally strict safety requirements applied to both the construction and the frame itself. The glass panes of the façade are anchored with screws, for which a special profile was developed. The 2 x 3 mm glass panes covering the façade are made out of two layers: a layer of tempered glass on the interior with a thickness of 16 mm for extra strength, and a 4 mm-thick layer on the exterior. Taking into account a section size of 7.5 x 7.5 metres, a Venlo cover was built with three ridges and a roof sloping at 22 degrees. The gutters were reinforced with heavy-duty aluminium U profiles to withstand gusts of wind at a height of 34 metres.

The space&matter architecture firm ensured that the façades were finished with white slats and that the greenhouse was visually separated from the office building at its base be means of a wing. After all, aesthetics are important, too!

The greenhouse will feature an Agrolux HPS lighting system and a screening system supplied by Steetec installaties BV. A roll-down façade will separate the tomato from the leaf vegetable section. The natural gas-fuelled heating systems for both the fish farm and the greenhouse were installed by Verkade Klimaat BV. The harvested products are transported using a greenhouse lift.

Aquaponic system

The residual water from the fish farm will be discharged to the greenhouse, where the fertilising agents derived from this water will be used to feed the plants. Bacteria are also grown to support this process: they transform the ammonia produced by the fish into useful substances. Even the CO2 emitted by the fish is used as fertiliser for the vegetable plants. A Priva computer, normally applied in building automation, will control all the various systems, explains Ruud Hulleman of Priva. The return water from the greenhouse will have to be made suitable for reuse in the fish farm to create a closed circuit identical to the system used by Urban Farmers in Basel. The fish farm was designed and built by Fleuren & Nooijen.

According to Urban Farmers, the greenhouse will need 90% less water thanks to the aquaponic system. The products are all grown without any chemical crop protection agents or antibiotics. The fish are well taken care of, given high-quality feed and processed in an animal-friendly manner.

Transparency and experience

Part of the greenhouse has been reserved as a visitor centre. The spectacular view of The Hague from the top floor is a bonus. The complex on the sixth floor will house a visitor and conference centre with a mobile kitchen and a glass wall, through which the fish farm on the other side can be observed. Transparency and experience are the key values of this building. This is, however, not the project's main focus area, explains General Director Marc Dumo: 'We want people to know where there food comes from. That is the basic principle behind the Urban Farmers Project. However, we mustn't forget that this is a commercial project. Our investors expect a return on their investment.'

Text/photos: Mario Bentvelsen.

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Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture and its partners won a design award for its Vegetable Palace in West Flanders: an ambitious building for research and demonstrations in the field of vegetable cultivation. ‘This constitutes an unprecedented development in urban rooftop gardening,’ says Jan Willem de Vries van Wageningen UR. ‘It will be the biggest in Europe, for which we will be happy to make available all our expertise.’

A team of designers from the Greenhouse Horticulture division of Wageningen University Research Centre, Van Bergen Kolpa Architecten, Meta, Smiemans and Tractebel Engineers jointly produced the innovative designs for the Vegetable Palace: a genuine landmark for ‘The Green Hub’ on the Roeselare ring road.  The building will be built on the roof of REO Veiling, Belgian’s fruit and vegetable auction and the food logistics heart of West Flanders. The Vegetable Palace is constructed from glass and steel, an airy greenhouse frame that rests on the concrete pillar of the auction building. The project, with its innovative design, is to be an example for urban food production, the intensive use of space, circular energy and water consumption and sustainability in greenhouse horticulture.

Landmark

The 9,500 m2 building will house high-tech research facilities for the cultivation of fruit and green leafy vegetables, surrounded by an educational routing for the general public. The cultivation of tomatoes and lettuce, as well as pepper and strawberries can be experienced hands-on in four different climate zones.  The entrance, with an imposing staircase, leads to the Urban Farming Square with visitor facilities at the heart of the building. The ‘Façade Greenhouse’ at the ring road will feature a special greenhouse that will focus on innovation in vertical farming and that will be twice as high as conventional greenhouses. Rainwater will be collected at the foot of this ‘Façade Greenhouse’ with a reed filter for the purification of waste water.

Construction of the greenhouse is scheduled to start in early 2017, and it is expected to open its doors to growers, researchers and the general public at the beginning of 2018.

Source: Wageningen UR Glastuinbouw. Photo: Van Bergen Kolpa Architecten.

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A lot of hard work is currently being done in The Hague on the topmost storey of a former Philips factory building, where a modern urban farm covering 1,900 m2 is being built. A greenhouse is being constructed here, as well as an indoor fish farm. With investments totalling 2.6 million euros, UF De Schilde is everything but a hobby project.

The Swiss Urban Farmers, a spin-off that has its origins in the ZHAW University in Zurich, was launched in 2013 with the development of De Schilde, in collaboration with the Municipality of The Hague and various horticulture specialists including Priva, Koppert and Rijk Zwaan. As from 20 May, private individuals, retailers and restaurants will be able to buy ‘exclusively grown’ vegetables from this urban farm, such as tomatoes, lettuce and herbs, as well as tilapia fish. If it were up to the Municipality, the rest of the building - which is largely vacant - will house even more initiatives that will put The Hague on the world map as a centre of urban farming.

Fast start

Mark Durno, the director of Urban Farmers Benelux, is pleased with the fast start. ‘We are working on a similar project in Switzerland, but the Swiss authorities require you to submit your plans to a vast number of different agencies. This translates into having to file fourteen different versions of 250 pages each, all of which are examined individually. In The Hague a preliminary version was sufficient, and it took only one meeting to discuss the construction and environmental permits with the authorities.’

It’s now up to Durno to staff the farm with people who not only understand how to grow vegetables, but also how to farm fish. ‘They have to be open to new technologies and be creative. This is not a traditional farm.’ He has received a remarkable number of responses from people yearning for a career switch. ‘We’ve received letters from accountants who wants to become urban farmers, for example. Of course we think that’s fabulous, but let’s not forget that we are running a commercial farm here!’

Visit the Urban Farmers website for more information.

Source: Financieel Dagblad. Photo: Urban Farmers.

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Urban farming is currently a hot item, capturing the interest of people all over the world. The roof of a former Philips building in The Hague is currently the scene of a large-scale 1,500 m2 urban farming project developed by UrbanFarmers and Priva for the cultivation of exclusive vegetables in combination with fish farming. Will urban farming, with cultivation on rooftops or indoors assisted by LED lighting, help shape the future of horticulture?

‘Urban farming is a hype. I get questions about this every week, and sometimes even every day! Many people believe that this is the solution we have been waiting for to alleviate world hunger. I do not share this conviction; simply because it is too expensive for bulk production.

I do believe that marketing concepts in big cities, with rooftop cultivation or cellar cultivation by restaurants, for example, are feasible. Consumers who find this appealing would be prepared to pay twice as much. You could also produce crops with a higher vitamin and nutrient content, which could be achieved through better crop control by using LED lighting, for instance. Consumers might very well be prepared to pay a higher price for this.

‘Rooftop cultivation at standard prices? I doubt that this is possible. Greenhouse cultivation on 10 hectares of land with only one crop type for efficient production is no longer unusual, but you can’t compare this to rooftop cultivation on a very limited surface area. Even if it is easier to control all the cultivation factors, it still has to be economically feasible. This is only possible if added value is offered that the consumer is willing to pay for.

‘I once saw a television commercial in Japan for vegetables, grown using LED lighting by employees wearing full laboratory clothing. The concept of growing healthy vegetables is entirely different in Japan. I wonder how the average European consumer would respond to this? Would he consider it to be rather artificial? And I’m not even taking the economic feasibility of this option into consideration.

‘There are many urban myths about the possibilities offered by urban farming. There will, without a doubt, be a market for this - one where products are sold that contribute some form of added value. This would certainly be possible in metropolises such as New York and Shanghai, also in terms of consumer experience. However, you can grow food in greenhouses located on the outskirts of such cities very effectively, all over the world.

‘We are investigating the cultivation of plants using only artificial light. We have access to all the knowledge we need to do this, and this approach to cultivation approach may indeed be feasible. However, we are still faced with the social aspect and the economic feasibility. Aside from that, I believe it could be possible to carry out specific phases in the cultivation process in climate chambers; phases that have a higher probability of something going wrong in the greenhouse and where the volume of plants is not so big. This would be particularly useful in the early stages of cultivation.’

There are consumers who cherish romantic ideals with regard to open-field farming.

‘Those people forget that greenhouse horticulture offers distinct advantages with regard to the consumption of water. In the Netherlands, the availability of water is generally not an issue. There have, however, been instances where hosepipe bans were imposed on growers of open-field crops on sandy soil in Limburg and Brabant in dry summers. The collection of rain water in greenhouse horticulture is not always sufficient, and in those cases the alternatives available to growers are not always adequate.

‘The availability of water on a global scale is a much bigger problem. The cultivation of one kilo of tomatoes in Israel or Spain requires 60 litres of water. When grown in a greenhouse, 30 litres will be sufficient. In the Netherlands, this is only 15 litres. Cultivation in a closed greenhouse requires even less water, because you can cool down the air temperature and collect the condensed water.’

Leo F.M. Marcelis (Elst Gld, 1963) studied horticulture at Wageningen University, where he obtained his PhD in 1994. He was a professor by special appointment of Crop Production in Low-Energy Greenhouses at Wageningen University until 2013 and team leader at Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture. On 1 December 2013 Prof. Dr Leo Marcelis was appointed Professor of Horticulture and Product Physiology at Wageningen University.

Download the complete interview with prof. dr. ir. Leo Marcelis about diffuse glass, LED-lighting, urban farming, de-leafing and the effects on plants, energy consumption and cultivation strategy (login required).

Source/photo: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Theo Brakeboer.