Inside the world's most advanced vertical farm which will soon be run by a robot - and it's in Scunthorpe

By Scunthorpe Telegraph | Posted: 26 Nov 2018

Constant pink light, endless stacks of trays and not a lump of soil in sight - this warehouse may not be most people's idea of a farm, but the Scunthorpe facility is about to make history with its revolutionary farming techniques.

Indoor farms are nothing new, but this one has gone a step further by taking advantage of the ability to stack plants to push their efficiency to new heights.

Several fields' worth of crops are compressed into a regular sized warehouse with trays stacked 17 high.

Vertical farm at Jones Food Company

This is the world's most advanced commercial vertical farm, and it is preparing to harvest its first crops grown there.

It will soon be producing around 500 tonnes of herbs and other plants a year - but it requires just four people to run it, along with a robot named Frank.

Crops are grown in perfectly controlled temperatures inside the facility (Image: David Haber/scunthorpelive)

Whereas vegetables in a field would take up to nine months to grow, the Jones Food Company's facility can produce 12 crops a year, regardless of the weather outside. The thousands of trays give it the growing space of 5,120 square meters.

Although vertical farms exist on small scales in Japan and America, this is the first time a farm has been large enough to be commercially viable.

Director of the firm, Dr Paul Challinor, said: "This is the future of farming. We're able to do it on a much more intensive scale than traditional agriculture, and we're not affected by any unusual weather conditions like sun or rain - the plants are all grown in the perfect environment."

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The first crops were planted five weeks ago and test samples have been sent out to clients, who Dr Challinor believes won't be able to tell the difference from those grown in the ground.

He and his fellow directors, Gary Thorney-Croft and James Lloyd-Jones, have been planning the venture for several years and settled on the site in Scunthorpe - a disused cold storage facility on the Foxhills Industrial Estate - 18 months ago.

Inside the farm

Anyone entering the facility must first don full protective gear - overalls, wellies, hair nets and hoods which have all been completely cleaned. An air shower like something out of science fiction blows any dust off you, and then you're into the high-tech facility.

The room where pallets are seeded and later harvested is almost painfully white, but it's the room next door that grabs the attention.

Full protective gear must be worn inside the facility and even the air is carefully monitored (Image: David Haber/scunthorpelive)

The warehouse is bathed in a pink fluorescent glow. Towers of trays extend in every direction, although the company is still ramping up production. The racks are less than half full at the moment, but by spring, crops will be growing from every surface.

Above each tray are red, blue and white lights which add to the psychedelic effect.

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After trays have been soaked in mineral nutrient solutions and placed in a humid germination room for three to five days, they will be added to the shelves.

At the moment, this is done by forklift but will soon be completely automated thanks to a robot named Frank. It will monitor the farm for 12 hours at a time completely independently, with the four humans taking care of delicate tasks like seeding, weeding and cleaning.

Today's crops include coriander, basil and flat leaf parsley. However, in the future they will focus on plants used in cosmetics and pharmacuticals.

When fully running, the vertical farm will be able to compress several fields' worth of space into one warehouse (Image: David Haber/scunthorpelive)

Dr Challinor has used special mineral techniques called hydroponics to ensure the plants get all the nutrients they need without being planted in soil.

As new trays are added, the fully grown ones are pushed to the back until they are ready to be harvested. The entire facility follows extremely high standards of hygiene, with the plants only touched once or twice in the entire growing process.

A farming revolution?

Dr Challinor is upfront that the intensive vertical techniques they employ will never replace conventional farming - but they still have huge potential.

The fact that crops are grown in a nutrient-rich environment with the perfect conditions mean that they may actually be more nutritious than plants grown outside which have to fight the elements. The businessis currently working with a university to see whether they can verify this.

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Dr Challinor is also excited by the ability to build similar facilities wherever they are needed. They could be custom built right next to a supermarket or hospital that would use them, eliminating transport costs.

The crops grown by Jones Food Company are also immune to the conditions outside. While most farmers have had to battle with the Beast from the East and a scorching summer this year, plants grown inside are kept at the ideal temperature.

The company believes the vertical farm's crops may be more nutritious than their outdoor counterparts (Image: David Haber/scunthorpelive)

Every element of the facility is carefully controlled to maximise growth and cleanliness. The air is filtered and pressurised to ensure insects can't get in, and the water is pH and UV tested after every use.

For anyone worried about the bill for running so many lights constantly, the facility uses solar panels which produce much of its energy.

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In every way, it seems that vertical farming has an advantage over old-fashioned horizontal farming. The facility and the science that goes into it is truly staggering.

The technology has the potential the change the way our food is grown - and it's happening right here in Scunthorpe.

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