A farm in the north-east of Scotland is experimenting with growing alternative crops, including nutrient-dense microgreens and vanilla, as part of its diversification to fill a fallow time of year.
The 300-acre Waterside Farm, which grows wheat, barley, rye for distilling and hemp, recently invested in a vertical farm tower to grow alternative crops throughout the year and secure income year-round for the farm.
Graeme Warren, who manages the farm and the vertical farm business, Vertegrow, for owner Martin Dickie, Managing Director of Brewdog, explains: “There’s not much that grows in the north-east of Scotland outside April to October, so we were looking at ways we could diversify the business to fill the other six months of the year.
"With Martin’s background in food and drink, we knew there was demand for fresh, local produce from the restaurant trade and local retailers. "With consumers and businesses also increasingly discerning about how their food is grown and its sustainable credentials, and accustomed to buying outside seasonality, the vertical farm ticks a lot of boxes.
"It’s like another piece of farm machinery that helps us produce good food efficiently and effectively - and to meet our own ambitions to be a carbon neutral business.”
The sixth case study as part of RHASS Presidential Initiative’s exploration of the science behind food and drink takes a look at how vertical farming can co-benefit field-scale cropping to sustainably produce fresh food for a growing population.
The main focus at Vertegrow has been on growing leafy and micro greens and herbs in the nine-metre tower, which was installed on the farm last Autumn following two years of experimentation in shipping containers.
It was built by Scotland’s Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), which in addition to the engineering of the vertical ‘farm in a box’, has an extensive team of crop scientists based alongside the James Hutton Institute in Dundee who are constantly researching the perfect ‘recipe’ of conditions – airflow, light, nutrients and water – for different crop types.
Vertegrow has just this month been awarded research funding alongside the Hutton and the Rowett Institute to work with a major retailer to improve the nutrient profile of certain plant products for the health-conscious consumer.
Other trials using the IGS tech include tree saplings to meet the extraordinary demand for forestry planting, ‘ripen at home’ produce, and bringing on strawberry plants for Scotland’s fruit growers.
With a world shortage of vanilla, Vertegrow is also currently experimenting, with the support of IGS’ crop scientists, to see if it can generate 3-4 annual flowerings as opposed to the 1-2 in the crop’s origin countries such as Madagascar and India.
Over 350 IGS towers are currently being built for customers across four continents.
These have been commissioned to combat challenges such as land shortages in Singapore, retaining freshness and flavour of Caesar salad leaves by reducing the distance from source for New York’s restaurants and water scarcity in the Middle East.
Here in the UK, IGS CEO David Farquhar cites the absence of salads on our supermarket shelves earlier this year to illustrate how by growing some produce in these controlled conditions, we could reduce our reliance on imports and give farmers greater certainty: “Vertical farming complements, not competes with, field-scale farming.
"We can reduce our reliance on imports across a range of produce that we couldn’t grow otherwise but also the environmental burden these incur.
"It also gives farmers a greater control over costs and management: it removes the weather or disease unknowns and the need for chemical inputs or fuel and uses only the energy and water needed to create the perfect conditions to maximise yields.
"Not only can it provide diversified income for UK farmers but the potential lies in how it could offset labour shortages, attract a different, tech-orientated demographic into agriculture and produce more food from less land, while all the time reducing the impact on the environment on a number of levels.”
Ewan Pate, a director of the RHASS Presidential Initiative, which will have a full showcase at the Royal Highland Show in June, said: “It’s an extraordinary time in farming and global food production, and exciting to see how science like this can help accelerate solutions for worldwide agriculture to be more efficient and secure, from Scotland.
"In time, we could see a thriving network of vertical growing hubs to provide even the remoter regions of Scotland with fresh, locally grown food year-round.”