There’s going to be a party in August, at Europe’s largest fully-automated vertical farm in Finland, to celebrate its first harvest. Guests will arrive from around the world and there will probably be a cake, drinks with bubbles and speeches.
But, more importantly, guests will get to taste the first commercial-scale herbs and salads from Fujitsu Greenhouse Technology Finland, a joint venture between Fujitsu and Finland’s Robbe’s Little Garden Ltd (Robbe’s Lilla Trädgård Oy)1.
The reason for all the excitement? This is an important milestone for Fujitsu Greenhouse Technology Finland, which aims to grow and deliver a steady, year-round supply of vegetables, such as baby greens and leaf lettuce.
The significance of year-round supplies is because this is Finland, which has few hours of sunlight during its harsh winters. Fujitsu also aims to package the know-how and cloud services resulting from this business, to deploy them throughout the European Union.
To supply fresh produce to consumers, it is important that it is produced close to where it will be consumed. In northern regions, however, the short days and weak sunlight of winter make it a challenge to grow anything.
Finland has supported plant-factory operations able to grow produce without being affected by the country’s typical northern climate but has not been able to deliver a quantity of produce that satisfies the country’s demand, leaving it partly dependent on imports.
Leafy vegetables, in particular, are mostly grown in southern Europe and imported to northern regions, resulting in a longer delay between harvesting and delivery to consumers, and diminishing freshness. As a result, prices are high for good quality fresh salad during the winter months.
Greenhouse Technology Finland’s vertical farm is equipped with the latest technologies to overcome the winter light deficit and is connected to the Fujitsu Intelligent Society Solution ‘Akisai’ Food and Agriculture Cloud. This is Fujitsu’s food and agricultural cloud service, along with fully artificial lighting, multi-tier growing trays, and full automation for watering and harvesting.
It integrates Greenhouse Horticulture SaaS2, a cloud service for greenhouse operations based on Akisai, together with sensor information collection utilizing the Ubiquitous Environment Control System3, hardware which controls greenhouse equipment, as well as the production techniques of Robbe’s Little Garden.
The growing environment is lit exclusively by artificial light using LEDs, and the plant factory is fully automated to rotate multi-tiered growing trays for both efficient plant growth and to control air conditioning.
From metaphor to reality
The concept of vertical farms has been with us since 1915, when Gilbert Ellis Bailey wrote his book ‘Vertical Farming’.
At the time he was using it as a metaphor for ‘vertical’ life forms, specifically the underground root structures of plants. But in the late 1990s the term came back into use, with a new emphasis as an alternative method of agricultural production in which plants are grown in layers, whether in a multi-story skyscraper, an old warehouse, or a shipping container.
There’s even a Fujitsu facility in Japan which grows low-potassium lettuce in a former semiconductor factory that was damaged by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
Revitalization of the vertical farming concept was driven by the rapid spread of urbanization globally, the realization that agricultural land was under pressure and that alternatives will be needed. The key evangelist in this reawakening of interest in vertical farming was Dickson Despommier, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology and Public Health at Columbia University in New York, who predicted that by the year 2050 close to 80% of the human population will live in urban areas.
“Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends,” he argues, “the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20 percent more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80 percent of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use… Historically, some 15 percent of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?”
Choose your crop carefully
As Despommier acknowledges, vertical farming as things currently stand is not the complete answer to the coming crunch between rising population levels and declining agricultural land availability.
The necessity to provide artificial sunlight for the plants in northerly latitudes means that the cost of production is high. As of 2018, commercial LEDs were about 28 percent efficient, which keeps the cost of produce high and prevents vertical farms from competing in regions where cheap vegetables are abundant.
However, lighting engineers have demonstrated LEDs with 68 percent efficiency and energy costs can be reduced because full-spectrum white light is not required. Instead, red and blue or purple light can be generated with less electricity.
Although it’s theoretically possible to grow anything in a vertical farm, the energy cost component means it makes more sense to focus on quicker-growing crops that yield a high market value – herbs, baby greens for salad and edible flowers, as Greenhouse Technology Finland is doing. These fetch a lot more per kilogram than low-value crops such as root vegetables.
So, don’t expect farms near you to suddenly transform into high-rise, high-tech bastions of agriculture. But change is coming sooner than we think in specialist markets, such as high value crops in northerly latitudes.
More futuristically, Despommier is advocating for a focused switch of resources in urban environments: “If cities produced just ten percent of the ground crops they currently consume, by employing sustainable indoor vertical farms and greenhouses to do so, then nearly half of the damaged portion of the Brazilian rainforest could theoretically be restored (340,000 square miles worth) and a significant amount of carbon would be sequestered as the result.”
As LED efficiencies continue to rise and sustainable energy sources proliferate, there is the real possibility that Gilbert Ellis Bailey’s concept and Despommier’s vision could become an important part of the mix in tomorrow’s agriculture.
1 Robbe’s Little Garden uses greenhouse cultivation in Finland to grow and sell agricultural products. It has annual sales of approximately €2.5 million and around 20 employees.
2 Greenhouse Horticulture SaaS is a cloud service that uses data gathered by sensors to visualize the production process, remotely monitor greenhouses, and remotely control equipment.
3 Ubiquitous Environment Control System is Japan’s dominant communications standard for greenhouse cultivation. It is an information platform that allows interconnection of all the various environmental monitoring and control devices in a greenhouse, and that implements autonomous, distributed, and cooperative “smart” ICT environmental monitoring and control.