David Farquhar, CEO of IGS, gives us a tour of this budding enterprise that’s changing the future of the food industry. Its mission is to engineer sustainable solutions to enhance indoor environments across agricultural and commercial spaces.
It depends where you are in the world. Jurisdictions vary hugely in their rules, how rigorously (and consistently) they apply them, how vital they consider this industry, and how they see vertical farming as a way to offset other issues (such as climate change, habitat loss and food security).
There are also exceptions for agricultural use, as well as requirements for developers to contribute to local communities for example, when building housing developments, by making cash payments to improve infrastructure and capacity in schools. Putting in vertical farms would be a far more sustainable solution, useful to the local community and able to bring an additional yield to landowners.
The IGS vertical farm design is clever because technically it’s not a building as such, but a machine. The “walls” are actually insulation panels through which the racking is tied to the exoskeleton so there isn’t an internal frame onto which cladding or a skin is applied. It’s no more a building than a combine harvester.
Also, we just need a patch of flat land, so there’s strictly no need to erect or buy a warehouse. We’re also able to vary the height of our farms from 6m to 9m to 12m in order to fit with local planning guidelines and any adjacent structures.
Although there have been some delays, IGS customers (farmers and growers) have never, to date, been outright denied planning permission at urban, rural or island locations in any of the 15 countries (across four continents) where they operate.
Energy and labor are the two largest costs in vertical farming – and in controlled environment agriculture in general. We’ve managed to reduce the energy costs in several ways.
Our farmers mainly use low cost, locally generated renewable energy such as wind, solar or even Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plants on things like dairy farms. Operating close to the point of generation via a private wire removes distribution grid taxes and tariffs. We use low voltage electricity in our patented Power & Controls system to create a series of electrical, electronic and lighting efficiencies that reduce energy consumption.
Every patented physical sub-system: illumination, irrigation, ventilation and automation, has been optimized to reduce energy consumption. We use crop science to speed up crop growth and determine the optimal lighting regime for every crop type throughout its growth cycle. We use only the color spectrum and light intensity that really adds value.
The superstructure ensures zero emissions and complete separation between the external climate and the conditions inside our Growth Towers. It will withstand 120mph winds and endure temperatures from -60°c to +80°c, again removing the need to expend energy in fighting the local environment.
We’ve learned how to massively reduce crop cycle times, for example: leafy greens by 50%, broccoli from 60 days to under 15, seed potatoes from 18 months (including six months’ energy-intensive cold storage) to 75 days. Fewer days = less energy – a great step towards finalizing the economic viability of all these crops.
All in all we use about 50% of the energy required by comparable systems.
Labor is far simpler: our patented automation system has been proven by running over 700 non-farming towers globally, 24/7. The movement of trays within the racking system is undertaken by a lift and hoist mechanism which also carries the irrigation/fertigation system to each tray as required. It’s all managed through the cloud based on our weather algorithms with no human intervention.
Crops are monitored remotely using a network of multiple sensor types, so again there’s no need to put humans inside the growing area. Humans bring pests and diseases, requiring the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. These in turn require crop washing, which reduces shelf life and increases waste.
The Growth Trays are fetched from the seeding area by a robot and trailer, taken into the growing area through a bio-secure airlock and lined up against the aperture of the designated Growth Tower. Here, they’re hooked by the racking system and pulled onto the lift for assignment to a vacant slot in the racking.
All this takes out around 80% of the labor required by other systems.
Really, it’s consumers and communities everywhere. Anyone who wants fresh, seriously tasty, healthy, nutritious and safe food, with a longer shelf-life, locally grown and with reduced carbon emissions. We’re also working with nutritional experts and crop scientists to maximize key qualities in the crops our farmers grow.
These farmers and growers are our customers and they fall into four broad categories:
New breed urban farming entrepreneurs seeking to buy rather than build the technology they need – this always happens as tech markets mature. They’ll probably grow leafy greens, herbs and salads from seed to harvest.
Traditional broadacre farmers seeking better starter plants, business diversification and a way of keeping the next generation on the land. They might not even be currently growing fruit and vegetables, but may be dairy farms or other operations capable of generating renewable energy.
Existing indoor growers seeking better starter plants including soft fruits or vine fruits, extending the growing day and season to maximize returns, but also now able to diversify their operations.
Similarly, foresters seeking better starter plants: the tree nursery industry is massively inefficient and in need of renewal.
In turn these growers serve four main sorts of “offtakers”: food service (contract catering), food manufacturers, grocery retailers (including home delivery) and hospitality.
All these sectors want reliable supplies of fresh, premium, sustainable ingredients at attractive prices. Many of the larger operators are under pressure to improve their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) credentials, which the IGS system can greatly assist. Some are even looking to disintermediate traditional food supply chains.
Finally, many governments are seeking sustainable food security from localized, or re-localized production in-country.
As noted above, the IGS system requires zero pesticides and fungicides: in fact we’ve even found a way, using light, to remove any small flies that emerge from natural, sustainable substrates.
In many ways, some described above, but also: the 17 patents across our six sub-systems, ease of use, and the fact that we’ve successfully grown over 150 varieties of roots, fruits, flowers and trees as well as leafy greens. The economics (low cost of production, rapid ROI/payback) are far superior to other systems and there are zero emissions.
The system is productized, which means its deployment, construction, commissioning and operation are totally reliable. It’s scalable, meaning you can buy two Growth Towers then add two more or 20 more or 200 more as your business grows.
It can be on an industrial scale, and we’re now taking orders to deploy over 100 Growth Towers per site as well as far smaller versions. It’s modular, which allows us to switch off a single Growth Tower for routine maintenance whilst the rest of the system is still running. It’s easy to add more modules (two Growth Towers and connecting corridor for robot access).
Finally it’s agile: each Growth Tray is a microclimate and can be retuned every day to create full growing cycles; they can be double- or triple-spaced for taller crops such as strawberries, tomatoes and potatoes; they can take different types of propagation trays with varying sizes of plug.
And finally our promise to the market: we will never grow crops for commercial sale, only for crop and machine research. We sell to and support real farmers or new growers all over the world.
It’s very easy to operate because of full automation in the growing area and simple, well-proven, semi-automated, third-party systems for seeding, harvesting and packaging. The weather algorithms are managed in the cloud and Internet of Things (IOT) enabled so there’s relatively little for the operator to do.
We use AI to monitor crop condition and the status of the machine so the Growth Tower Management System will be able to predict when maintenance tasks are required. The IGS Support Team provides 24/7 support coverage and monitoring services.
Yes: it’s made trade harder and more expensive, both exporting vertical farms and importing components. Our teams have been turned away at borders due to changes in paperwork and even differing QR code systems.
Some mainland EU countries’ officials are openly hostile to “UK” business. When I travel now, I do so wearing a badge or clothing that clearly identifies me as being Scottish and tend to receive a warm welcome because most people in Europe recognise the difference in the way we voted.
IGS-powered vertical farms, indeed the whole of the vertical farming industry and even the whole of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) globally, will never solve world hunger or “feed the world” on its own, but we firmly believe it can make a significant contribution. The key is to be able to operate at industrial scale and we believe that IGS is uniquely positioned to enable this.
The global population is growing exponentially towards 10 billion in 2050 (according to the UN) requiring 7,400 trillion calories (source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN). There are 570 million farms worldwide. 76% are smaller than 1 hectare, and half of them less than ½ hectare. This makes it pretty much impossible to automate. We will also be confronted with new and emerging climates throughout the globe.
Some academics suggest we already grow enough food to feed the world but we grow most of it in completely the wrong place, which isn’t sustainable. 72% of world food is exported/imported between continents or sub-continents (source: CIAT, International Center for Tropical Agriculture). This isn’t sustainable.
It’s common to find home delivery providers using produce which is at the very limit of acceptable quality and shelf life. Some are proposing “use me first” to improve the customer experience and reduce waste. This is a great example where IGS vertical farms can make a difference, by adapting in real time with the forecast demands, maximizing freshness, and shortening delivery miles.
Home delivery companies and/or affiliated dark kitchens could operate their own vertical farms using the IGS design which allows the grower to slow down, speed up and even “hold” production altogether for a period. IGS Growth Towers can be partnered with delivery or transport hubs, so collapsing food miles even more.
Most home delivery offerings are mixed boxes. In a 9m-high IGS Growth Tower we have 52 Growth Trays, each able to be managed as an individual microclimate. On each Growth Tray we can grow numerous crops such that the output can be small amounts of a very wide range of crops.