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Tom Bastian of Meissner AG on the OrbiPlant vertical farming system:

"Minimal water consumption is paramount in times of climate change"

The consequences of climate change, above all, the issue of water availability, are shaping today's agriculture and, at the same time, contributing to the fact that new innovative cultivation methods, such as vertical farming, are rapidly gaining in importance. After about two years of development and the construction of its own pilot plant, the Hessian mechanical engineering company Meissner AG, with scientific support from the Fraunhofer Institute, has succeeded in bringing a process to market that is ready for series production. The system, called OrbiPlant, has a number of advantages over the hydroponic shelf system commonly used in the industry, explains Tom Bastian in an interview.

Research results from the Fraunhofer Institute show that the biomass increase is significantly higher compared to NFT systems. Water consumption is also about 30 percent lower than with classic vertical farming technologies, he adds. Bastian says, "The main advantage, however, is that the system can be automated much more easily and cost-effectively than the rack systems currently in use. Ultimately, this means that operating costs and, consequently, product costs are significantly lower than with other technologies."

In general, a total height of eight meters is recommended to bring about the optimum cost-benefit ratio per square meter of cultivation area.

Process stability and ease of maintenance
Process stability but also the conveyor belt were top priorities during research and development, Bastian continues. "After all, we have to make sure that the system runs smoothly and trouble-free even under difficult conditions, as failures could lead directly to crop losses. Another point is ease of maintenance. Since certain maintenance and cleaning work is necessary at regular intervals, a simple solution must be available here for industrial use. Finally, the plant was prepared for full automation. This refers not only to seeding and harvesting but also to cleaning the conveyor belt."

Given the sometimes exponential rise in energy and equipment prices, it is impossible to compete with traditional agriculture at this time, he said. Bastian: "But that's not the primary goal of vertical farming either. If you take into account the transport distances, the savings in fertilizer use, and the significantly lower water consumption and environmental benefits when looking at the costs, the picture is much different."

"Specifically, in view of the drought currently prevailing in Italy, Spain, and France, the consumption of only about three percent of the amount of water used by conventional agriculture is an overwhelming factor in these times of climate change. Certainly, in light of the fact that agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of global freshwater use. Another decisive advantage of our system over conventional vertical farms is the low labor costs. We have clear advantages over rack systems due to the fact that the same planting and harvesting zones are always used. In addition, partial or full automation is possible depending on customer requirements."

Research is currently being conducted into the use of sunlight in the form of a hybrid solution to reduce energy costs and make the system competitive even with conventional agriculture.

Potential for use and the future
The process could be applied in many areas, according to Bastian. "It makes particular sense to use it, as with basically all vertical farms, for microgreens and various types of lettuce and vegetables, but also strawberries. Currently, we are constantly testing new crops, especially protein crops such as peas and soybeans, and the results so far are promising. Since we, as Meissner AG, are already globally active in our traditional business areas, there are also no restrictions for us in purely geographical terms. At present, we see that research institutes, in particular, are showing interest. However, there are also increasing inquiries from industry in the form of pilot plants."

Tom Bastian, Tom Eckhardt, and Magus Acker from Meissner at this year's GreenTech.

Pictures: Meissner AG

For more information:
Tom Bastian
Meissner AG
Tel.: 06461/802-0

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