Eco-friendly strawberries all year round: The benefits of farming upwards
Strawberries available year-round that are fresher, cheaper, and even eco-friendlier – this is the promise of an indoor vertical farm.
Kiwi Arama Kukutai – the chief executive of Plenty – is about to open one of the world’s largest vertical farms. Using LED lights and robots, the US-based facility can grow a fulllettuce in 10 days: “That’s 15 to 20 times faster than the field,” he said.
Plenty farms will supply fresh produce to discount retailer Walmart. Next, Kukutai will take the technology to the US East Coast, and possibly one day, New Zealand and Australia.
Kukutai (Ngāti Maniapoto, Tainui, Te Aupōuri) challenges anyone who believes traditional farming receives free sunlight and water. Many crops require irrigation, which consumes energy.
Plenty’s farms use just 5% of the water compared to a traditional farm, he estimated. “We’re metering the water onto individual plants, metering the nutrients. We’ve got data at the plant level. We know how plants are performing.”
Sunlight also means exposure to the elements and pests. “It might be a hailstorm that kills all the strawberries. It might be bugs or pests that attack the crop,” Kukutai said.
Plenty’s farms are mostly, but not exclusively, manned by robots. With the plants growing faster under intense UV light, the farm can harvest once a month. “We can change out the entire system to produce different greens on the fly. The retailer gets the products they want, when they want them.”
A 2018 report on vertical farming noted the process was only suitable for some crops – Plenty currently grows leafy greens, and is expanding into tomatoes and strawberries. In addition, the New Zealand-specific report concluded the high costs of establishing indoor systems outweighed the savings. But the climate crisis is now tipping the balance, Kukutai said.
Outdoor crops will increasingly weather droughts, storms, wild winds and flooding. Indoor farms will be better protected from these.
There’s a risk indoor farms could exacerbate our carbon output.
Already, Kiwi greenhouses burn coal and natural gas to keep crops warm in winter.
Kukutai acknowledged that the farm’s LED lights are energy-intensive. If their electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, vertical farming could increase greenhouse emissions. He hoped to pair Plenty’s new facilities with renewable generation projects. “It’s aligned with our mission… Renewable capacity is a priority.”
One hectare of vertical farming can grow the food of between 200 and 300 hectares of traditional fields, he added. That means produce can be grown near cities, reducing food miles. “When you’re close to the customer, you’re not shipping product left, right and centre.”
Plenty doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides. Indoor farming also significantly decreases food waste, he said. “As much as one-third of the food produced in the field gets lost.”
Decreased delivery times means produce stays fresher for longer, Kukutai added, with less purchased food ending up rotting and binned.
Due to these efficiencies, Kukutai believes vertical farming should be able to grow produce that’s cheaper than traditional farming systems. That milestone hasn’t been achieved yet, he added. “But that’s the point of investing in technology, to drive down cost.”
Farming up could also allow more land to be used for other purposes such as carbon absorption, the chief executive said. “Land’s a valuable resource. We’ll figure out other ways to utilise it.”
Kiwi business 26 Seasons operates vertical farms in Auckland, Foxton and Wellington, growing microgreens and strawberries.
Asked if Plenty might join them on New Zealand shores, Kukutai couldn’t say anything definitive. But he thought a small farm could be feasible. “I have a small bias, being a Kiwi.”