"We've been witnessing serious growing pains within the vertical plant farming sector lately, seeing many businesses downsize their operations or close up shop. Macroeconomic factors, labour, and misaligned investor's expectations being several reasons responsible. Many of the risks encountered by operators could have been mitigated, and there are many lessons to be learned from shuttered farms before. I believe the publication of this thesis is a timely elixir to help pioneers or newcomers in the industry reflect on their next steps," says Francis Baumont de Oliveira, Ph.D 

The past five years Francis undertook a PhD to address as many of the limiting factors of vertical farming as possible— interviewing over 20+ farm operators across the world, from the UK to Japan, and even Sweden and Australia, to understand the drivers of success and failure. "We interviewed the biggest sample set of failed farms to date. I gathered a list of all the risks and failure modes reported. On the back of this research, I focused on the triangle of constraints for scaling: economics, labor, and environmental sustainability. The thesis covers a buffet of tools and strategies to break down those constraints— presented as multiple peer-reviewed journals and book chapters."

"The nascent vertical farming sector has experienced economic viability, standardization, and environmental sustainability challenges. Practitioners and academics call for a comprehensive financial analysis of vertical farms, but efforts are stifled by a lack of valid and available data," Francis says. 

Francis Baumont de Oliveira 

New research by Francis Baumont de Oliveira, a University of Liverpool graduate, shared his thesis on 'A decision support system for economic viability and environmental impact assessment of vertical farms.' 

"The document is intended as a buffet of tools. Start wherever you want, and take what you like, leave the rest! It has many ideas pertaining to lessons learned, typologies, economics, risk assessment, environmental impacts, lean principles, gaps in knowledge, and more." 

Examining vertical farms for over five years, Francis is ready to share his findings with the industry. In specific, he found that, after reviewing the economic estimation and horticultural software, there is a need for a decision support system (DSS) that facilitates risk-empowered business planning for vertical farmers based on historical data, a knowledge base of best practices and case studies, a model library, and a user interface. 

Emirates Crop One farm pictured

Need for a decision support system
Francis proposes an open-source DSS framework to evaluate business sustainability through financial risk and environmental impact assessments. Data would be centralized in the proposed DSS using imprecise data techniques. These techniques have been applied in engineering but are seldom used in financial forecasting. "This could benefit complex sectors with scarce data to predict business viability."

The drivers for DSS adoption show a pathway of compliance and design thinking to overcome the 'problem of implementation' and enable commercialization. Francis suggests further work to standardize vertical farming equipment, collect benchmarking data, and characterize risks. "This work will reduce risk and uncertainty and accelerate the sector's emergence," he concludes. 

Future suggestions
Further work is required in the analysis of risks associated with vertical farms and the interactions between events. Especially technology and labor are areas that are still relatively unexplored and open to novel contributions.

Lack of knowledge of food safety
In the interviews held, it showed that various practitioners poorly understand food safety practices, identifying the crop limiting factor, process flow, crop growth recipes, and standardized data are all elements that require further research. Without guidelines for these, many farms engage in duplicative efforts that detract from commercial growing. 

Improving labor
Further research in principles of motion economy to improve manual work in vertical farms is needed to improve the quality of life for workers and improve labor efficiency. In automation, there is no literature showing the cost-benefit and labor efficiency savings from introducing automated machinery within vertical farming, e.g.

CRYSP farms pictured

Financial risks
More case studies are required to provide more general conclusions on the financial risks of vertical farming. According to Francis, the financial model could be heavily improved by integrating market sentiment and climate control. Many default parameters require further validation to improve the precision of the results and reduce uncertainty. Additional risks and their distributions can be incorporated with longitudinal risk data. 

Combining renewables to boost sustainability
Based on data gathering, it's shown that vertical farms can be more environmentally sustainable when land use is considered alongside renewable energy and circular economy system designs. However, even when considering a farm powered by renewable energy sources, it is worth considering the environmental impacts and land use requirements to facilitate energy generation. This would enable more accurate analysis.

Moreover, techniques are being developed in the industry to reduce energy use considerably, such as recycling waste heat or improving energy efficiency through direct-current electricity use and improved lighting designs.

To conclude, Francis recommends doing a more elaborate study to see whether compliance-based software that addresses necessary regulations can catalyze technology adoption in technology-averse farmers.

"Data collection can be labor-intensive, and it can often take second priority unless data is automatically collected. It is essential to develop sensor infrastructure that can minimize data collection time. It is worth delegating the responsibility to particular employees to keep records and utilize data that aligns with business goals," says Francis. 

Click here to access the entire research. 

For more information:
Francis Baumont de Oliveira , Ph.D. Researcher in Business growth and risk analysis of vertical farms 
Liverpool University