First person: David Farquhar hails a system set to revolutionise the indoor growth of crops
Beyond that, imagine a tiny slice of the world in which farmers can create a range of perfect conditions for growing a wide variety of crops in substantially different climates that sit less than two feet apart from one another.
This world exists. Welcome to the IGS Vertical Farm – designed in Scotland by my company Intelligent Growth Solutions and shipped to local growers around the globe. In this world, farmers are able to advance or retard the growth of crops to meet sudden changes in consumer demand, in the event, for instance, of supermarkets being told of unexpected weather in the world outside and deciding to cancel half their salad order for the coming weekend.
This is a farm free of pesticides; free of diesel-powered ploughing, planting and harvesting vehicles; a farm where water is constantly recycled and crops aren’t washed in chlorinated water, substantially increasing their shelf-life.
This is also a farm that can be located within walking distance of the people who will consume the food it produces 365 days of the year.
The crops that any Intelligent Growth Solutions-supplied farm produces are of Michelin-star quality and are organic in all but name, yet their farm-gate price can be as little as one-tenth that of the wholesale prices at Old Spitalfields Market in London.
How can this be possible? We have spent six years and some £6 million developing technology which deliberately defies the accepted norms of how to power, handle and ventilate indoor agricultural operations.
Indoor agriculture is not new – coops, sheds, sties, barns, then cold frames and glasshouses date back many centuries – but the current trend of computerised farming operations has seen numerous attempts to grow high-yield produce of consistent quality under LED lights.
The problem is those pesky computers. Many high-profile indoor farming operators have raised capital from major IT companies or their billionaire founders and investors, so of course their designs are bristling with computers. Do farmers want to manage big IT departments and have the blue screen of death suddenly switch off the sun, the wind and the rain?
We at Intelligent Growth Solutions have designed out the computers, cables and capacitors from our systems and replaced them with good old-fashioned, safe and entirely reliable low-voltage electricity hooked up to the cloud – the worldwide network that we all access 100 times a day on our mobile phones.
Intelligent Growth Solutions owns a patent to the delivery of this special kind of power which also allows the farmer to send instructions to the farm to make the light, wind and rain the crops really need.
The system itself can be pre-programmed with a “weather recipe” to do this automatically, using artificial intelligence. Because the system also uses the same communications to monitor the condition of the crop and the farm in real time, the farmer always knows what’s going on and can respond unless the farm does it automatically and just updates him.
We have patent on the automated robotic handling of the trays of crops in the vertical farm: placing, re-ordering and picking them for harvest. Our final patent is on a serious challenge: ventilation in a closed space. This involves keeping the crops at an even temperature under hot lights, without ruffling their leaves, while balancing the CO2 they inhale and the oxygen they exhale, capturing, condensing and re-using the water vapour they emit.
These innovations serve to reduce manpower costs and energy consumption while delivering high-quality crops at competitive prices: it is nothing less than “agriculture reimagined”.
David Farquhar is chief executive of Intelligent Growth Solutions.
This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s autumn Vision magazine. A digital version can be found here.