Fenland salad grower explores indoor agriculture and 'vertical farming'
PUBLISHED: 06:00 02 April 2019 | UPDATED: 07:40 02 April 2019
A major Fenland salad grower is investigating how “vertical farming” and controlled-environment indoor agriculture could help the business meet year-round consumer demand.
G’s Fresh, based at Barway, near Ely in Cambridgeshire, produces lettuce and other salad crops, and has a large standard greenhouse which is used to propagate seedlings for planting out into the field.
Ben Barnes from the firm is exploring two key questions: Can the efficiency of the propagation facility be increased to get a more homogenous crop; and is it feasible to produce baby leaf crops during the winter at an affordable price?
And he hopes answers can be found via Smart Prop, a project looking at increasing growth and making stronger plants so they transplant better back into the field, and Winter Grow, a pre-commercial trial exploring winter growing.
“G’s supplies baby leaf crops all year round, with much of the winter supply grown in Spain and Italy,” said Mr Barnes. “In summertime we produce a huge amount of outdoor salad crop, particularly lettuces and celery. Smart Prop is looking at how we can increase the long-term viability and profitability of both of those parts of the business.
“One element of this is the development of ‘lighting recipes’ to enhance plant growth characteristics. We’ve got multi-spectrum LED lights, so we can turn up the different amounts of red, blue, green and white, and even far-red light. These are fairly expensive, so once we have worked out what works best we can buy fixed spectrum lights which are a tenth of the cost.”
Mr Barnes said he has a mutually-beneficial collaboration with Growing Underground, the world’s first underground farm in tunnels 33m below the streets of Clapham in London, which uses hydroponic systems and LED technology to grow fresh micro greens and salad leaves.
And the G’s project includes a “growtainer”, a basic hydroponic system inside a shipping container which has been refurbished to scientific experimental specifications and is now based at the firm’s Second Willow nursery site.
“I’ve actually just finished harvesting our first trial, a media trial,” said Mr Barnes. “We’re testing all the different growing media and I’m going to process those results to see what comes out on top. There are so many variables.
“We’re trying to optimise those variables. You think LEDs are very efficient, but they still generate a heck of a lot of heat when you’ve got them essentially turned up to full. It is more about keeping the space cool, and the plants obviously are transpirating so we’ve got dehumidifiers in there sucking the moisture out of the air.
“Another option would be to take out heat and put it into the greenhouse, which would be a cost-saving.
“Actually one of the biggest problems with the vertical farming concept is this interaction between moisture and temperature. You’ve got the two factors constantly fighting against each other and that ends up sucking huge amounts of energy if you’re not careful.”
Smart Prop is a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP), funded by Innovate UK and G’s, in collaboration with Harper Adams University.