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Employees versus automation

How many working hours does it take to run a vertical farm?

The main factor in determining how many employees a vertical farm will require is the degree of automation of the farm. The sky really is the limit when it comes to automating a vertical farm. Nearly every activity can be automated. Since vertical farms offer unprecedented levels of control over all of the elements (including temperature, humidity, light, pests and more) operators can choose to design their farms with a much higher level of automation than what would be possible in the semi-controlled environment of a greenhouse, for example. 

But of course, the higher the degree of automation (and control), the higher the initial price tag (CapEx) to build the farm. Installing trays that move automatically and robots that take care of seeding and harvesting roughly doubles the initial price tag of building a vertical farm. Meanwhile, operating costs (OpEx) will be lower on farms with higher degrees of automation. That's why it's always necessary to consider local salary levels when calculating the long-term cost efficiency of automation.

Smaller farms — about 300 square meters or less — require minimal staffing. And just one person can often handle all tasks for a farm with around 100 square meters of growing space.

On a 1,000 square meters farm, employees are responsible for a range of farming tasks, including preparing the planting containers, sowing the seeds, cleaning the farm facility, and harvesting and packaging the final product. (Employees aren't limited to just one role or function; one person can perform multiple tasks.)

Sowing seeds
The first step in the growing process is planting seeds directly in a "cassette", or planting tray with small sections for each plant. This is the beginning of the crops' lifecycle.

After the seeds have been planted, the cassettes are moved to a germination chamber, which has higher heat and humidity than the other areas.

Planting Area
When the seeds have germinated, the cassettes are grouped into "cells", which are then stacked on shelves, and they remain in the planting area for about 10 days.

Once the seedlings have outgrown the cassettes, farm employees transplant them to larger trays or palettes and move them to the main growing area. There, they are stacked on shelves under LED lights for about 15 days before being harvested.

Salads (for example, frize) are planted in trays of 60 cells per shelf, while herbs (such as mini-arugula and sorrel) are planted with 80 or more cells per shelf.

Farm cleaning & maintenance
Basic cleaning and maintenance tasks vary by the setup of each farm. They generally include employees washing hands, cleaning the work stations, filling the irrigation systems, sweeping floors, and transporting clippings to compost. Specific requirements also depend on local regulations.

Harvesting the crops
When the crops are fully grown, they are harvested by hand. The pots are then cleaned and reused for the next cycle of plants, except for those crops (such as herbs) that are sold in their original growing cup.

Packaging food for distribution
Packaging is very flexible. Each farm designs its own system based on its needs, the crop type, and the demands of its clients (including whether their clients are primarily restaurants, who make bulk orders, or grocery stores that sell smaller quantities). There are endless options for the material to use and the product's weight to be included in each package.

For example, herbs are often sold to the final consumer packaged in their original growing pots, with a cone-shaped, plastic film for protection. 

Monocultures or salad mixes (containing up to four different crops) are often packaged in hard plastic shells or in plastic bags containing 1 kg of produce. Larger salads require less time to harvest, as workers need to cut fewer plants to reach the required weight for each pack.

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