Vertical farming: shaping the next generation food supply

noun U/ˌvɜː.tɪ.kəl ˈfɑː.mɪŋ/ US 🌱 Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers. It often incorporates controlled-environment agriculture, which aims to optimize plant growth, and soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics.

The global vertical farming market has been steadily growing over the last few years as companies look for sustainable ways to deal with unprecedented population growth. Vertical farming is part of a rising number of “urban agriculture” solutions, which allows for food to be grown closer to large urban population points. The industry is also currently experiencing a boom from the pandemic as consumers increasingly crave more healthy and locally-grown greens.

In 2019 the vertical farming market was worth around 4.4B dollars which is expected to reach a whopping 15.7B by the year 2025. The advantages of vertical farming are many, including using vertical space and reducing the need for the overuse of land. Vertical farm startups have seen success from the sector over the years, as investors and entrepreneurs increasingly find appeal in companies which can offer healthier food products while using less water and land than traditional farming.

So is vertical farming really the future of agriculture?
With a now growing interest in vertical farming across the world, massive facilities are already operating in Asia and Europe, with new projects being announced since the outbreak of COVID-19, including:

Industry Partnerships – Plenty Insiders raise questions about SoftBank-backed farming startup Plenty - Business Insider

Last month vertical-farming company Plenty Unlimited Inc. announced it had signed an agreement with Albertsons Companies, Inc. as they planned to provide their shoppers in more than 430 stores across California with Plenty’s fresher and more flavorful greens.

 The companies are leading the industry by participating in a new partnership model to deliver consumers fresh produce all year long. The startups operation uses data analytics, machine learning and customized lighting as well as wind and solar power to provide 100% of the farm’s energy. The current Plenty farm is able to grow 1 million plants at a time and is designed in such a way to use less than 1% of land and 5% of water compared to conventional farming.

This sustainable-driven partnership will no doubt meet needs of the “new” consumer—one which is more aware of the effects that our current food supply chain has on our environment. Seeing that demand spiked when COVID-19 hit, the Albertsons Cos. team asked suppliers, including Plenty, to help make sure that their clients would have uninterrupted access to quality fresh produce.

Securing Investment – Iron Ox & AeroFarms 

Ag tech startup Iron Ox, known for its AI-robotic powered greenhouses  announced this week that it had managed to secure $20M in Series B funding bringing their total funding to-date to a whopping $45M.   

Along with this news, the team also announced their new farming facility to be developed in California, set to use a hydroponic growing system controlled by large mobile machines equipped with robotic grippers. The machines can plant, harvest and move heavy trays of greens around while machine learning algorithms and computer vision systems monitor their daily growth.  For now, the farm grows the usual mixture of leafy greens and herbs, with the new California facility selling their produce to Whole Foods and Bianchinis markets.

Top fundraising deals for novel farming systems in agtech.
Another indoor vertical farming company that managed to bag funding is Jersey-based Aerofarms that uses moist air to grow plants. The startup took in $100 million last year to bring their total funding up to a staggering $238M. This doesn’t include the $100 million investment that the Abu Dhabi government gave to Aerofarms and three other agtech companies back in April this year. And thanks to their offering, AeroFarms is now constructing a 90,000-square-foot indoor vertical farm in the UAE capital that it says will be the largest of its kind in the world. 

INFARM - Atlas of the Future — Atlas of the FutureTargeting retail – In-farm 

Infarm is the Berlin-based startup developing modular, hydroponic vertical farms, operating a slightly different business model than other companies in the space by locating them at grocery stores, schools and offices. Their single two-square meter unit shown above can grow up to 8,000 plants a year, all while using 95% less water than traditional farms and taking up 99.5% less space, as well as using zero chemical pesticides and 75% less fertilizer.
The company has partnered with several big supermarkets across Europe, including in their home-land Germany and the UK, where it currently has over 500 micro-farms in-store. The company now has big plans to expand into the USA, having recently partnered with Kroger to trial its units in some of their stores.

 

Growing plants out of thin air – LetusGrow Let-Us Grow Hydroponics one year in Hudson Bay's former school | northeastNOW
Indoor vertical farming companies seem to be competing against one another to see who can use the least water resources to grow micro-greens. LettUS Grow was founded in 2015 in the UK and has since managed to raise near to $4.5M to develop its aeroponic technology. Similar to hydroponics aeroponics does not require soil but instead uses nutrient-rich water to grow its plants. In a hydroponics system, a plant’s roots are in direct contact with the water while aeroponic systems rely on mist and water re-circulation, meaning that LettUs Grow can use 95% less water than other traditional farming methods. The startup offers its aeroponics systems in stackable tiers (as seen below) to use the maximum vertical height of a room and minimize required farming land footprint.

 

iFarm: 2019 resultsBlockchain & AI for micro-greens – iFarm 

There are many agri-tech startups that leverage AI, machine learning or blockchain in some way but with Finnish iFarm these technologies are central to their operations. The company was founded back in 2017 and has secured up to $4M since then to develop its Growtune platform. This high-tech platform uses computer vision, machine learning and big data to collect information about thousands of plants, including their weight and growth. Information with which they can then build a system that improves the farms quality characteristics as well as provide recommendations to farmers on changes they can make to optimize yield.

Are you interested in discovering more about vertical farming? At Food Entrepreneurs we partner with some of the most exciting food tech events from across the world. And we invite you to join us at this year’s Vertical Farming World Congress which is a virtual event held online next week from the 22-24 September. The programme will be packed full of presentations, interviews, interactive panel discussions and extensive networking opportunities. This is an event you will not want to miss! Focusing on the theme of ‘Shaping Food’s Future’, the Congress will bring together vertical farming operators, investors, retailers, technology suppliers, advisors and experts to debate and help advance the sector’s future.

You can register online using this link.

 

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