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China: Vertical farm exports berries throughout Southeast Asia

"We've successfully grown tasty, nutritious and pesticide-free strawberries in our indoor farms. Our strawberries were among the first to be exported to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries," says Dr Gary Hua, chairman of vertical farm supplier 4D Bios.

In 2007, Dr Hua founded Inventronics, a manufacturer of LED drivers. This was more than a decade before his first foray into vertical farming. "While working in the lighting industry," said Dr Hua, "I began to realize the immense potential of vertical farming. It struck me that Inventronics was uniquely positioned to support a new business with its resources and expertise in LED lighting." Having learned this, 4D Bios was then founded in 2018. Currently, the company offers comprehensive solutions for CEA, vertical- and container farms.

Gary Hua

High-value crops are the future of vertical farms
Dr. Hua believes that crops with short growth cycles and high profit margins are best suited for vertical farms, as well as smaller-sized plants for the sake of space efficiency. 4D Bios' R&D department has evaluated nearly a hundred types of crops, including various leafy greens, culinary herbs, edible flowers, watermelons, cucumbers, and bell peppers. Furthermore, medicinal herbs, such as Ginseng or A. roxburghii, constitute a significant avenue of research.

Strawberries do fit the profile described above, yet their tricky cultivation has posed a significant challenge for growers. In China, growers rely on film greenhouses and frequently encounter issues of inconsistent quality and yield. This is exacerbated by the seasonality of the best-tasting strawberry cultivars and their vulnerability to pest infestations. Vertical farms effectively address seasonality challenges and pesticide overuse.

Despite challenges such as high costs, consistent pollination, and precise environmental control requirements, 4D Bios has been able to cultivate pesticide-free strawberries in their indoor farms. "Currently, our strawberry varieties are licensed from the breeding divisions of domestic universities, and the average weight of a grade-A strawberry is about 45 grams," Dr. Hua shares.

Making the most out of local energy sources
Vertical farms consume a vast amount of electricity, which is a key limitation and significant cost in indoor farming, so finding a way to incorporate one's local energy sources can effectively alleviate this problem.

"Photovoltaic energy, seawater energy, off-peak electricity, and wind or solar energy can all be feasible power sources that come with their unique considerations for vertical farm design and operations," shares Dr. Hua. As an example, he describes how thermal power generation in China can result in peak-valley pricing schemes. To reduce costs, 4D Bios' vertical farms stagger their electricity consumption accordingly.

Long-term prospects of vertical farming
To assess the financial feasibility of vertical farms, Dr. Hua explains that "we should not only examine current inputs and outputs per square meter but also look at the bigger picture. He continues citing factors such as the lower equipment depreciation rates of vertical farms, the importance of strategic investments, and selecting the right locations to build plant factories.

With demographic shifts and labor shortages in Asia, 4D Bios believes automation to be a valuable asset to its growers, reducing the amount of time spent on physically taxing or monotonous tasks. Shortly after its establishment, the company began initiating partnerships with local universities and agricultural institutions to spearhead the development of robotic tools and automation technologies that can assist its cultivation efforts.

After a comprehensive evaluation of energy sources, logistics, and associated costs in China, 4D Bios has meticulously chosen specific locations for the construction of its new vertical farms. The construction of a 10,000-square-meter northern China facility concluded in 2023, with commercial production scheduled to commence early in 2024. The significant reduction in 4D Bios' cost per kilogram of strawberries is noteworthy and can be attributed to design enhancements, scale expansion, increased yield, automation, and reduced renewable energy costs.

Dr. Hua affirms, "We continue to invest heavily in R&D to enhance yield and reduce costs. With ongoing technological advances, strawberry vertical farms are rapidly becoming more profitable."

For more information:
4D Bios Inc.
Edward Guo, Communication