The rise and rise of data-driven indoor farms

Chris Davies of Harvest London planning network of "data driven" indoor farms to supply food and drink sector and could look to Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.

The boss of a vertical farm supplying London’s restaurants with locally-grown herbs and greens says he wants to open more “data driven” farms across the UK.


Chris Davies and Matt Chlebek founded Harvest London four years ago and now run a hi-tech farm in Leyton that has grown more than 100 different edible plants - including basil and lettuce.


Vertical farming is becoming more popular as a way of growing food in the UK that would otherwise have to be shipped from overseas. The hydroponic systems mean plants can be grown indoors under controlled conditions without pesticides and using far less water.


Harvest London is now on its second farm - and CEO Chris says it is operating at 100% capacity as demand remains high with customers becoming increasingly aware of the need to reduce food miles.


Chris says his five-year vision is to create a network of farms across the UK to allow it to service more customers without adding food miles.


He said: “The first one that we're looking to build is definitely going to be in London - within the M25.


“The next one - we have opportunities that we're exploring in Birmingham, we have opportunities that we're exploring up in Manchester and Edinburgh.


“By all of these farms being connected and being a single network, the vision is that we should be able to understand where demand comes from, and be able to service that demand from the closest farm.


“So if we for example had a farm in London, a farm in Manchester and a farm in Edinburgh, and an order came in from Sheffield, then we need to be able to look at the capacity across the network, and we should be able to shift and move things around, so that we're servicing the customer from the nearest farm, thereby improving sustainability in production.”


Chris said the last three years had seen “a massive uptick in vertical farming investment”.


He said: “If you think about farming as a continuum -on the left hand side you have traditional agriculture, in the middle you have greenhouse growing right, which is a tried and tested method of growing, and then on the far end of that continuum we have vertical farming.


“We have a level of precision that neither of those other older methods of growing have.

“The level of precision allows us to fundamentally operate like a manufacturing organisation. We just so happened to be manufacturing green leafy vegetables.


“This isn't a matter of ‘will it or won't that grow’. It's a matter of how well you can make it grow, and the data side of things is a very important aspect in terms of how can we constantly optimise, and grow more and produce more with minimal impact.”

Before founding Harvest, Chris worked in management consultancy. He met plant scientist Mark - and became excited about the potential of vertical farming, which was then a relatively new industry.


He was fascinated by the level of control that vertical farmers can have over their produce without the use of pesticides - for example being able to adjust the flavour profile of basil by using different colour lighting.


The company won support from NatWest through its climate accelerator programme for sustainable businesses. After opening its first proof of concept farm and showing its success, Harvest was able to open the bigger farm in Leyton.


Chris is proud of Harvest’s ability to grow basil that meets the demanding standards of the restaurant trade.


He said: “Even in Italy, Basil only grows three months of the year. So the basil that we can get in this country will come from eg Israel or Egypt, the remaining nine months - which is even farther away, and has even greater of an impact.


“One of our major customers is a London pizza chain called Pizza Pilgrims. We made them do a blind taste test of the best basil they could get their hands on, versus the basil that we grow in a warehouse in East London.


“We go from harvest to delivery in four hours, as opposed to the days or weeks that imported basil has to travel.


“We knew we were going to win, just because of the locality of what we're doing. And in the process, not only are we improving Pizza Pilgrims’ sustainability, we're massively improving the quality of their produce, and saving them at least 150,000 food miles per year.”


Source: Agritech Future