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Spain: Vertical farms slowly but surely taking over cities

​​In the Gracia area in Barcelona, an Urbanfresh employee puts on a white coat, gloves, and a hair net. In her hand, she holds a tablet full of parameters such as environmental humidity, light, temperature, etc. She enters an ethereal room with shelves filled with what appear to be lettuce, microsprouts, and countless other leafy vegetables. Everything is illuminated with small bands of LED lights, and there are no windows or any type of natural light. The girl checks if the crop is at the perfect harvest point, if the vegetables have had enough light, and if they need more watering.

Temperatures were very high during summer in Madrid, so Inés Sagrario, another farmer, has started working remotely from the Galician coast. From her phone, she controls her hop plantation in Alcobendas, where she can see real-time images, environmental humidity, pH, or CO₂ levels. She is not worried that it is 40 degrees in Madrid, or that it hasn't rained for 15 days. Because her hop plantation is located in a basement and she has automated the irrigation with LED lights powered by solar panels.

All of these scenarios, as if taken straight from a novel by Isaac Asimov, are starting to be replicated in different parts of the real world, with one common denominator: all of these orchards are in vertical farm format. They are located in the cities, whether in the center of Oviedo, a warehouse on the outskirts of Madrid, a basement in Seville, or an abandoned building in Brooklyn.

Julia Roncero, an agricultural engineer and author of several articles and 47 botanical books, explains that not everything in vertical farming is advantageous. The initial investment is still rather high since vertical farming requires much more qualified technology and personnel than traditional cultivation. The crop variety will also be decisive. Will it be more profitable to use this type of crop with leafy vegetables, or micro-sprouts due to their rapid growth and the space they occupy? Because of that, the cultivation of eggplants, tomatoes, onions, or carrots continues to be the domain of traditional agriculture.

Tesa Portillo and Javier Espina, biologists and CEOs of Cantábrica, a company founded in Oviedo in 2020, work among carrot sprouts, sorrel leaves, nasturtiums, and Thai basil. In their flowerpots, there are labels from the Auga or Ferpel restaurants, both of which have a Michelin star. It's fair to say that the garden is beginning to get some notable recognition from restaurants in the area. With a sales price per pot of between 6 and 9 euros, it is within what the market dictates. However, the main advantage they have is their immediacy, which in the world of restaurants translates into freshness. Their sales are growing exponentially, and they recognize that, even though Cantábrica is currently profitable, they are looking for a boost or investment from businesses.

Urbanfresh is located in Barcelona, and with four years of experience behind them, specializes in the micro shoots and micro leaves market. Their clients are chefs from Barcelona and the surrounding area who are aware of the slow food movement, such as Gat Blau or Mont Bar, both with a Michelin star to their name. Their main value is their proximity to the end consumer, and as they say themselves, they are in a growth phase thanks to the great market demand.

Ekonoke, unlike the others mentioned, began in 2017 by testing aromatics and leafy vegetables. However, in 2020, disappointed with the market response and after several very positive tests, they switched to hop cultivation. Inés Sagrario, co-founder and CEO of the project, comments that, thanks to this type of agriculture, they achieve total control of the crop. Her small plant on the outskirts of Madrid is equipped with over 14 sensors, which are used to measure CO₂, pH, temperature, light intensity of the LEDs, fertilizers, and much more. All of this is being managed from an online platform so that they barely have to enter the plantation. Currently, they are setting up a plant of about 1,000 square meters in Chantada (Lugo), together with the company Hijos de Rivera, for research into indoor hop cultivation.


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