There is no need to say that 2020 was a truly unprecedented year for individuals and for companies. Also the food production industry was affected by the pandemic. iFarm looks back on the past year, sharing their most memorable events and their plans for the future.
Demand for vertical farming technology grew
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed how vulnerable the global food industry is. The pandemic made it extremely hard for labor migrants to travel to work on farms abroad. This changed the way the world sees vertical farming. While previously such farms were used to supply the market with fresh produce all year round, in 2020 they became a crucial element of the global effort to ensure food security. This resulted in a growing demand for technologies that allow growing vegetables, berries, and greens locally.
In iFarm, we felt the increased demand, too. In April 2020, the number of applications to buy vertical farms based on iFarm technologies doubled compared to January. In August, it increased fivefold, reaching 800 requests a month, without a single ad campaign. Qe also managed to expand the physical presence of iFarm vertical farming technologies. We opened a showroom in Helsinki, a farm in Irkutsk, and two production lines on an industrial-scale salad factory in Moscow.
Raised $4M in investments and attracted almost 700 potential financial partners
One of the main milestones of 2020 for us was the $4-million investments that iFarm attracted to further develop its automated indoor farming technologies. The round was led by Gagarin Capital, which had previously invested in the project. Other investors include Matrix Capital, Impulse VC, IMI.VC and several business angels. The funds were used to advance the iFarm Growtune software platform: improve farm management tools and expand the range of crops available for growing with the platform, including conducting new experiments with vegetables and berries.
Acquired 4 new patents on engineering solutions
Last year, we obtained four patents on innovations that contribute to that: innovative pallets, a mortar unit, an advanced control system for it, and a dehumidification system that reuses the water evaporated by farm plants. These technologies enable us to improve the efficiency and productivity of vertical farming. The dehumidification system, for example, reduces a vertical farm’s water usage by fivefold compared to a traditional hydroponic greenhouse.
Additionally, we revamped our mortar unit, making it suitable for growing any type of crop. For example, the unit used for salads, now also can be used to prepare a nutrient mix for, let’s say, strawberries or any other crop that we could not even think of. The unit was tested in an internationally recognized laboratory and received a certificate of conformity with the EU regulation.
Introduced neural network tools for crop management
Forced to stay at home during the lockdown, we invested a lot of effort in advancing iFarm Growtune, our online platform for automated vertical farming. In 2020, we added a number of new cutting-edge features in the app, making the first steps toward transforming it into a super app, i.e., a large ecosystem offering the most sought-after indoor farming tools.
As of December 2020, iFarm Growtune offers 158 plant growth recipes that provide users with elaborate guidelines to grow different crop varieties within a precisely predictable timeframe. On top of that, we upgraded the instruments that allow farmers to create their own plant growth recipes. In 2020, our developers also significantly improved Growtune’s features for production and performance analytics and integrated them with a new AR app that helps farm operators to accurately complete checklists for crop management.
iFarm Growtune was integrated with a few neural network tools that make the process of crop management on vertical farms more effortless. The first such tool assesses the plants’ health by a photo; the other monitors the plants’ weight using external cameras. Cameras are installed on drones that fly between shelves and inspect the crops. The third neural network tool was added to our standalone module for growing greens iFarm Cropper. The technology identifies empty spots on the shelves, counts them, and sends the data to the nearest farm to automatically generate a new order for the produce. This neural network tool helps manage the module’s microclimate remotely, keep track of the greens in stock, and generate task lists for workers.
Prepared for launching technology for growing berries
Our engineers from the Pilot Production department created a solution for dense strawberry planting and halved the cost of shelving. In December, we started constructing a strawberry farm with an area of 273 m², which will house ~ 7000 berry bushes. We expect to have the first tasty harvests from there by the summer of 2021.
Among other significant “strawberry” events in 2020 were the use of bumblebees for pollination of berry plantations, as well as the development and launch of our own seedling department. After 2.5 years of experiments, we have learned how to grow berries using the Frigo technology (frozen rhizomes come from international nurseries), from strawberry whiskers, using seeds, and even cloning.
Conducted numerous experiments with vegetables
We advanced in understanding how to organize space and nutrition for liana-like plants, such as cucumbers. It was an interesting experience considering the variety is not adapted for vertical farms (seed producers are just starting to move in this direction). We grew several tomato harvests as well as hot and sweet peppers. Cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers turned out to be delicious, but we have not yet made their growth economical (in general, vegetables are not grown on a full photoculture). So we will continue to work on this in 2021.
As for edible flowers, we renovated the laboratory and learned how to grow 15 plant species. For some crops, such as stevia or rosemary, we use cuttings, and we also grow plants in large flower pots: they can be placed in the kitchen and used in home cooking, picking leaves for fresh meals or drinks.
Automated the process of building farms, also remotely
Unable to travel during the pandemic, we needed to rethink how we build our vertical farms and learn to do this remotely. We came up with a modular scheme for assembling our automation system. We documented all its parts in detail so that external contractors can manufacture them anywhere in the world in a short time. Thanks to that, now we can more easily ramp up many iFarm farms and build them faster. It made us more resilient and adaptive to unforeseen circumstances beyond our control.
Last but not least, our team grew bigger and became more tight-knit.
We are happy that during this uncertain time our company was spared from layoffs. On the contrary, our team grew from 70 to 93 people in 2020. Ensuring the health and wellbeing of each team member was the number one priority for us. After introducing new support measures for the employees in case they fall sick, we were conducting numerous tests, reimbursing treatment costs, and patiently waiting for everyone to return to work.