The countryside faces transformation as farmers seek permission to replace their fields with giant, multistorey greenhouses where they can grow crops all year round with no concern for droughts, floods or frosts.
Agricultural companies have announced plans for at least 50 “vertical farms”, with crops in stacked containers. They can produce tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peas and other salad crops throughout the year. Farmers harvest crops weeks after planting instead of tending them for months outside.
One, the Edinburgh-based Shockingly Fresh, plans 40 sites, with five already under development — one in Scotland and four in England — covering a total of 123 acres. The firm says it can grow up to five times the amount of greens as traditional farms.
Another, Jones Food Company near Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire, has opened an intensive salad farm in a three-storey building housing 17 levels of leafy greens growing under eight miles of lighting strips and producing 420 tons of food a year. Backed by Ocado, it now plans a plant four times the size near London.
“For thousands of years, life on a farm was marked by soil-caked fingers and a painful sunburn,” says a report by GE, which supplied the lighting for the basil, coriander, chives and other greens being grown in Lincolnshire.
“That won’t be the case with the farms of tomorrow: speckless and tightly sealed chambers that won’t need any sun or soil — and few, if any, humans.”
Such farms can also fit into cities. Growing Underground, which grows salad in defunct air-raid shelters under south London, has plans for six more urban sites.
The scale of the trend emerged in research for Farmers Weekly magazine. It has official support with Innovate UK, a government agency investing £1m in vertical farm research.
Scientists and farmers have long known that plants can thrive indoors but the energy costs of providing light made it a niche sector exploited mainly by cannabis growers.
Modern low-energy LED lighting has, however, removed such constraints, said Leo Marcelis, professor of plant sciences at Wageningen University in Holland, who will be a keynote speaker at the International Conference on Vertical Farming in Nottingham in April. He said: “The major benefit is the better and consistent quality of fresh produce, which also has a longer shelf life.”