"We believe CEA will be fuelled by the diversity of crops. We need to focus on products for consumers and food producers, looking forward to other stable crops we can produce. We have to break the perception of what can be grown and what cannot be grown in CEA as we believe it's the future of growing crops, sustainably and locally," says Jaime Guerrero with consultancy firm Accenture.
Last week he joined the Indoor AgTech panel on the pathway to competitive production. During the panel, it became clear that several growers are looking into ways to diversify their crops.
The panel session, lead by Jaime Guerrero with Accenture, was joined by growers, such as David Freidenberg the CEO of Saffron Tech (Israel) and David Soo the CEO of Australian Vanilla Plantation (AU), that are already growing unusual products. Also, other growers are looking to find a unique position in the market, but not specifically with rare products.
Mark Tester, Co-Founder and CSO of Red Sea Farms (UAE), said that genetics is absolutely essential in order to improve plants and make them profitable in the long run. Red Sea Farms is turning salt-tolerant plants into salt-tolerant plants crops. Currently, the company is growing tomatoes but is moving into cucumbers soon as, Mark shared.
According to Sam Norton, founder of Heron Farms (US), many CEA companies were running into the same problems in the beginning but didn’t tell. "We won’t be going away from leafy greens as fast as predicted, I think it’s leveraging the whole CEA community."
David Soo added that when talking about rare spices, the market has to look at where the costs come through. With vanilla, it’s the number of crops that go into a cubic meter. Resulting in 20% more cubic meters in the Vanilla Dome Greenhouse in comparison to a regular greenhouse. "It’s important to get the right yield density- and volume for each cubic meter you have to manage.
Overall, David Freidenberg thinks that it’s going to be a lot of AI, machine learning using data to succeed in vertical farming. “We have to leverage the knowledge we have today, implementing it into this business.”
Growing vanilla in a hybrid solution
David Soo said that "Vanilla is the second spice in the world. However, naturally grown (open field) vanilla only satisfies 2% of the world's demand." As a result of a brainstorming session during a dinner, David said to have come up with his 'Vanilla Dome greenhouse' which is a hybrid-growing solution, where high volumes of vanilla are produced.
According to David, every dome greenhouse holds 200 vines that are growing to 20m. The company targets to grow 4km of vines of which 1 ton of beans can be yielded, two harvests a year.
Saltwater as a resource
Heron Farms is a saltwater farm, combining seawater and carbon dioxide into a useful product, helophytes. "We brought the system indoors by growing vertically, controlling the photoperiod and the salinity of the irrigation water," noted Sam Norton.
It's solving two major environmental problems; excess carbon dioxide and excess seawater. As a result of combining these, the farm has multiple outputs; food, fresh water and salt. "We're not reinventing any models, but we're following the models that have worked already," Sam affirmed.
In order for the tomato plants to grow, the salinity tolerance of plants is increased. "We're using molecular genetics, biology to accelerate salt-tolerant plants in CEA," noted Mark Tester.
At Red Sea Farms salt-tolerant tomato plants are grown in a CEA greenhouse using saltwater resources. Their produce is sold around Saudi Arabia, whereas, according to Ryan Lefers, the company is planning to expand throughout Saudi Arabia and plans to enter the UAE.
Challenging the saffron market
Saffron Tech is growing saffron in vertical farms, to challenge the traditional agriculture market. Allowing for more sustainable growth of saffron year-round at a solid price. Normally, saffron is very expensive in terms of labor and its fragility given its stems that can easily break. "We'll start to launch our first commercial vertical farm soon, ready for sales to retailers," says David Freidenberg.
The shape of the dome works more efficiently than a rectangular as there's better airflow and humidity. David Soo adds, "All we have to do is help it along with a few fans. We can grow tropical plants in subtropical areas."
Australian Vanilla Plantation
David Soo, CEO
Sam Norton, CEO
Red Sea Farms
Mark Tester, Co-Founder and CSO
David Freidenberg, CEO