An article dedicated to vertical farms was published on the SBER Pro website (Sberbank media portal featuring cases of Russian business leaders and professional analytics). These facilities, being introduced all over the world, are already called “the future of agriculture”.
Although automated multi-storey greenhouses are a relatively new trend, they have already become very popular. And, surprisingly, not among the representatives of the agricultural sector: such farms are created by IT entrepreneurs, and then purchased by restaurateurs and large retailers. So why haven’t the agrarians adopted this promising trend and aren’t operating the multi-storey constructions on an industrial scale?
The authors of the article made an attempt to answer this question. Among the invited experts were Alexey Shemetov, the Vice President for production of ECO-Culture, the leading greenhouse agricultural holding in the country.
But before we start looking at comments given by the experts, it is worth getting acquainted with the technology itself. According to the creators of the startup, these farms can be used to grow up to 350 times more products than in traditional greenhouses of the same area. At the same time, the water and substrate expenses are expected to be several times lower. Probably, these figures have made such a great impression on investors that in 2017 the project received 200 million dollars of investments – an amount record-high for the agricultural industry. At the same time, the author of innovative technology was never in agriculture before but worked in telecommunications.
The main feature of vertical farms is their technological effectiveness. Inside the construction, all processes are controlled by artificial intelligence, based on the indicators of sensors. All the production processes and indicators – irrigation, lighting, ventilation, and temperature – are being monitored by special software. The innovation can be used not only in rural areas but in the urban environment as well. The farms can be of industrial scale and small “home” versions – for restaurants, hotels, schools, and shopping centers.
And while Alexey Shemetov admitted the technology to be promising, he still believes that it should be so far considered only as a way to produce niche products – spices, lettuce, micro-greens. As for mass-demanded vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers), those grown in vertical greenhouses will hardly be able to compete with conventional greenhouse products in terms of price, as long as marginal optimization of agricultural methods has not yet been carried out.
All in all, large domestic agricultural complexes and organic farms are in no hurry to adopt the new format. According to Alexey Shemetov, ECO-culture management still doesn’t consider multi-storey greenhouses to be a promising direction. The main difficulty is high energy intensity of production with each level of the vertical farm requiring additional lighting.
In addition to higher energy costs, there is another reason for their low profitability – the lack of specialists in the country able to provide maximum performance of such complexes. The Vice President for Production expressed the opinion that in a few years’ time there will be enough expertise to meet the market needs. And it’s then when it will become possible to talk about the large-scale implementation of multi-storey greenhouses.