“Building vertical farms around the Central Belt of Scotland is ideal because there is a lot of available renewable energy, it is close to a large part of the population and has good support from the government. It is also the corridor through which much of the food distribution occurs, with a lot of retailers and distributors within a sensible distance,” explained Stephen Crosher and Graeme Warren.
Stephen is the CEO of RheEnergise and Graeme is the director of Vertegrow, both members of the V-FAST consortium that is fixing to build joint vertical farming projects in Scotland that combine renewable energy, energy storage and vertical farming. Also implicated in the consortium are UK Urban AgriTech (UKUAT) and Light Science Technologies Ltd., led by Johnny Stormonth-Darling and Simon Deacon, respectively. As well as, Intelligent Growth Solutions, LettUs Grow, James Hutton Insitute and Sprung Structures are also members of the consortium.
The consortium was formed to ensure that vertical farming develops in a sustainable and realistic way, with each partner contributing within their realm of expertise. In doing so, V-FAST hopes to avoid what it considers to be a major challenge in the vertical farming industry: the misdesign and mismanagement of farms based on the limited understanding of the underlying systems.
“The advantage of our consortium is that we have the right people around the table and we stick to what we know best, so we are all bringing our strengths. In agtech, we often see people going outside of their comfort zone and overcomplicating things as a result,” says Graeme.
No new business models required
Vertical farming has seen its fair share of business models, with many stakeholders currently at the stage of needing to prove the viability of their model in the long term. But as Stephen explains, developing new business models that combine multiple systems can be challenging for financial institutions and investors to understand, making it more difficult for vertical farms to access capital.
To circumvent these challenges, V-FAST is designing its farms to operate on a few well-understood business models that overlap minimally. For example, the combination of renewable energy and energy storage can be modeled as a typical purchase and offtake agreement between two parties, which is well understood by financial organizations. Selling products from the vertical farm would follow a similar model, while the use of the building boils down to a simple rental agreement.
“We are offered a combined solution without trying to combine the business models of the different systems. The overlap between the models is small and the models are simple, which is good as investors in the energy part of the project may be different from those interested in the vertical farming aspect,” explains Stephen.
Vertical farming and land reclamation go hand-in-hand
According to Johnny, there is a policy movement in Scotland to rewild land as the government provides incentives that can make tree planting more economically favorable than farming in some locations. Vertical farming can offset reductions in the country’s farmland and the associated sovereignty of its food systems. Concomitantly, the government is keen to develop and promote vertical farming in Scotland as it offers enhanced resource use efficiency with respect to land, nutrients, water, etc.
Through energy storage solutions, V-FAST will ensure its use of clean energy to operate the facilities throughout the year. And with Light Science Technologies’ sustainable LED lighting and sensor data collection and analytics, the growers will be able to truly understand what the crop needs and deliver only those resources.
“RheEnergise as an energy storage solution can help manage energy costs over long periods of time. In conjunction with renewable energy, it is a solution that can basically fix the costs of renewable energy,” explains Stephen.
“At LST, we work with vertical farms to ensure the grower has all the technology needed whether that be through optimum LED lighting for growth or sensor technology that helps growers understand exactly how the plant is performing to produce a healthy and high-yielding crop. We are assisting the shift towards resource use efficiency through sustainable, reusable products and real-time data collection to provide analysis and feedback,” explains Simon.
Automation to be balanced with job creation
While the farms will incorporate a certain level of automation, the facilities will still require highly trained staff and operators to oversee the various processes. Robotics and automation are especially critical from a food safety standpoint and for balancing labor costs, but V-FAST will nevertheless create job opportunities in the area.
V-FAST’s first vertical farms will begin with the production of leafy greens and herbs before advancing to more complex crops such as strawberries. The product offering will be driven by local demand and the provision of crops that cannot be grown year-round in Scotland.
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