‘The sky’s the limit for vertical farming’

Kate Hofman Founder and Chief Brand Officer of GrowUp Farms, UK
Photo: GrowUp Farms
Photo: GrowUp Farms

Sustainable food production is a major challenge for the farming industry and wider population with established supply chains coming under scrutiny for their environmental impact. Vertical farming offers a sustainable way to grow fresh, pesticide-free crops year-round.

What does the future hold for vertical farming in the UK?

Crops are grown in vertically stacked layers in a controlled environment to optimise plant growth. The tall towers of crops enable farmers to produce more food per area of land while minimising the use of water, fertilisers and pesticides. Vertical farming is growing in popularity, but its full potential is yet to be enabled. Kate Hofman, Founder of GrowUp Farms, shares her insight into the UK vertical farming industry and how it can be supported to make the nation’s food supply chain more sustainable.

Could you give us some background on GrowUp Farms and its role in sustainable food production?

GrowUp Farms is leading the way in sustainable agriculture by using vertical farming techniques to grow fresh, pesticide-free salad indoors all year round. Our state-of-the-art facility employs hydroponics and LED lighting to optimise growth conditions while minimising water usage and environmental impact. All of the salad that is grown at our vertical farm is harvested and packed onsite, which further decreases GrowUp Farms’ energy use by reducing the supply chain and food miles. It also means that all of the salad arrives fresh to supermarkets nationwide and has a longer shelf life. Growing a reliable source of longer-lasting leaves has allowed GrowUp Farms to be the first UK vertical farm to supply a major multiple retailer — Tesco.

What trends have you observed for food production and vertical farming, especially relating to sustainability?

There is a rising demand from consumers to buy from food brands that prioritise sustainability and produce longer-lasting locally grown food that helps reduce waste and cut supply chains significantly. The vertical farming industry is dedicated to accelerating resource efficiency and the sustainability of producing food indoors. GrowUp Farms has recently been awarded grant funding by Growing Kent and Medway to trial a new disruptive wastewater recovery technology, which aims to reduce our water use even further.

In addition, there is a collective push to standardise the way vertical farming companies speak about their claims of positive impacts on the environment and society. There is an international effort to improve benchmarking and standardisation in the industry, and GrowUp Farms is proud to be working with the Resource Innovation Institute on this.

In 2023 UK supermarkets were hit with shortages of salad vegetables due to the impact of climate change and over-reliance on overseas imports — the UK imports 90% of its lettuces in winter.[i] In addition, UK greenhouse growers have been faced with soaring production costs and energy prices. Vertical farming offers a way to support the UK food industry by providing reliable food production all year round. GrowUp Farms is scaling up its production to fill these gaps on the supermarket shelves. In fact, we’ve recently been given the green light to expand our farm in Kent. The expanded facility will allow us to scale up the growing and harvesting of bagged salads to supply more supermarkets and look at growing other crops.

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Vertical farming offers a way to support the UK food industry by providing reliable food production all year round. - Photo: Grow-Tec

Vertical farming offers a way to support the UK food industry by providing reliable food production all year round. – Photo: Grow-Tec

Energy has been described as vertical farming’s Achilles heel. How can this be overcome?

Energy is needed to maintain optimal conditions in vertical farming facilities by powering systems such as LED lights, HVAC air conditioning systems and water filtration systems. If you’re relying on electrical energy alone, the costs can be a barrier to the success of vertical farms, impacting their carbon footprint and increasing operating expenses — especially during the recent energy crisis. Vertical farmers can overcome this by powering their facilities with renewable energy.

Vertical farmers can overcome the costs of energy by powering their facilities with renewable energy

Our farm located at Discovery Park in Sandwich, Kent, is an example of using renewable energy to produce fresh, pesticide-free salad all year round. The state-of-the-art facility has a unique business model where it takes renewable heat and power from a bioenergy plant that is also located at Discovery Park. This has not only helped us to become more sustainable, but also means we aren’t at the mercy of rising energy prices that are squeezing so many other farmers in the UK.

It sounds like the location of a vertical farm can be very important. Were there any other factors you considered when locating at Discovery Park?

We are located at Discovery Park as it’s one of Europe’s leading science and technology parks and we are at the forefront of technological advances in the vertical farming industry. Locating at the park also provided us with a strong pool of local talent. In addition, the park’s road and rail transport links to the rest of the UK have enabled GrowUp Farms to build a strong and reliable supply chain

What changes still need to be made in the wider industry to continue to improve sustainability in food production?

In order for food production in the UK to become more sustainable, vertical farming needs to be put on a level playing field with traditional farming. Vertical farms operate in line with many of the Government’s major policy objectives to make farming better for the environment and boost green jobs and investment in the agricultural sector. Under the ‘Sustainable Farming Incentive’ in Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), farmers are paid to improve their farming practices and reduce pre-existing problems to deliver the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan, which includes setting goals to use less water, less nitrogen, producing less waste and with zero agricultural runoff and no pesticides.

Vertical farming can help enable the UK to meet its environmental goals much more quickly, however, there is currently no way for vertical farms to access government support for delivering these environmental benefits.

Vertical farming can help enable the UK to meet its environmental goals more quickly

If vertical farming continues to be treated as an emerging technology, we are missing a vital opportunity to grow the industry, create a sustainable and long-lasting supply chain and deliver the outcomes laid out in the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan. The extension of ELMS to include vertical farming would create a level playing field for more farming techniques that produce high-quality food and take care of the environment.