CLA Midlands Surveyor John Greenshields looks at a potential diversification
Many farmers are currently mulling over their long term plans.
This is a natural point of reflection, as the industry assesses a period of change that may not be seen again in our lifetimes. Changes to UK farming policy following Brexit, the two year Covid pandemic and now the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. All these market shocks bring uncertainty and increased costs. So what could CLA members look at to increase their resilience, business capital and profitability? Vertical Farming may be part of your answer, or the answer in some cases.
What is it?
Vertical farming is a system of food production that has a modularity, which allows for use of vertical space to produce food in three dimensions i.e. stacking production, whereas more traditional methods of food production are reserved to singular flat levels (such as a field or greenhouse). It is very much what it says on the tin.
Vertical farming often integrates and work within controlled climate systems. These systems use modern technologies (controlling factors such as light, humidity, temperature and nutrient availability) to create optimum growing conditions in an artificial setting. This is done to produce high quality food with additional benefits of increased efficiency, vital at a time of high energy costs and agricultural inflation hovering at 30%, without overlooking the additional gains that can be made in reducing food miles and disease/pest risks. The nature of vertical farming also allowed for maximising crop production in a limited space, making it adept for food production in an urban environment, which is revolutionary in potentially bringing large scale food production directly to metropolitan and densely populated areas. Which, in light of current political and economic climates, in factors of food security and shorted or simplified food chains vertical farming holds great potential as one can grow many more species in these environments all year round.
A wide range of systems that can be encompassed under the umbrella term of vertical farming. It can be commercial or for personal consumption, be that from a spare room or even on the kitchen windowsill. Therefore, clearly there are significant spectrums and levels of complexity and size that can be achieved within vertical farming. More basic systems range from hydroponic systems (plant produced in a non-soil media with nutrient rich water) to complex automated systems such as aeroponic (with nutrient rich mist) or aquaponics (inclusion of fish to produce plant nutrition in the system). Although these types of vertical farming are inherently different, they do all adhere to the same fundamental principles, and therefore generally, suffer from similar benefits and problems.
One of the largest benefits is the efficiency of plant inputs. As with using controlled climate systems, it allows for maximum uptake and proficiency of inputs such as water, energy and fertilisers (extremely important with current fertiliser prices at the time of writing prices have increased 200% in the last year). Controlled environments allows for crop growth not to be dictated by the natural environments, such as an extended wet British winter, as plants can be grown in optimum conditions without seasonality or location being a factor. Although vertical farming has numerous benefits, other factors must be considered. As often requirements of large capital for a commercial setting, particularly if it is to be an automated system as you will probably need to supply light, which you wouldn’t ordinarily be required to do. Have tendency to be require high energy inputs but when looking at production in the whole it can be very efficient and require only a relatively small area of land.
Although this sector is still very much in its infancy, there is huge potential as it is quickly beginning to gain traction and notoriety from those both within and outside of the traditional food sector. In recent years improvements in lighting (particularly LEDs and automation) have made vertical farming financially viable, coupled with consumers concerns in how and where they’re food is grown vertical farming has very much become a hot topic and business venture within the least few years with large investments into the sector, both here in the UK and globally.
You can read the latest about Vertical Farming here.
Although still very much in its infancy, there is huge potential as it is quickly beginning to gain traction and notoriety from those both within and outside of the traditional food sector
The creation of purpose built agricultural buildings for vertical farming will require planning permission. Although there may be permitted development rights for the conversion of buildings, depending on the specifics of the case, it may be best to have purpose built spaces so that you can get the most out of your investment. This permission will either be via the Permitted Development route or full planning route depending on the specifications of your proposal. For more information about the specifics of planning criteria, I would direct members to CLA Guidance Note GN41-21
Once planning permission is secured the costs of construction are very sensitive to the specification of your system. At the time of writing costs are likely to range from £1,250 to £3,200 per square meter, depending on the scale and technology employed.
The lighting and heating of a vertical farm can be considerable but if the building is well designed then a significant proportion of the energy can be utilized by a growing crop. Depending on members’ set up they can make use of existing energy sources, biomass, renewables or a combination of sources in order to power any system that they choose. For specialist energy requirements please feel free to check the CLA Business Directory and to contact CLA Energy at https://www.cla.org.uk/member-services/cla-energy-services/