7 Apr 2023

The vertical farms of tomorrow

From Country Life, 7:15 pm on 7 April 2023

A French agriculture professor developing new indoor plant varieties and an Auckland man installing vertical farming tech in private homes were two of the attendees at Aotearoa's first-ever Controlled Environment conference this week.

Vertical farming was on everyone's lips at the Hamilton gathering, and farming tech experts proclaimed New Zealand has a golden opportunity to grow vegetables for the world's rapidly growing population.

The Living Pantry is offered through a monthly subscription.

The Living Pantry is offered through a monthly subscription. Photo: Supplied

Ben Buckland's Living Pantry service delivers multi-layered stacks of plants which can the owner can tend by remote-controlling their temperature, light, and water levels.

It's all about helping Aucklanders to grow fresh leafy greens and herbs at home, he says.

"We're using hydroponics as a method of growing the plants. Our units are outside so we don't have any lighting requirements. We kinda have horizontal trays that are stacked which the plants are in so I think it can be considered vertical."

Living Pantry founder, Ben Buckland.

Living Pantry founder, Ben Buckland. Photo: Supplied

Buckland's growing set-up is not considered a "controlled environment" as aside from the temperature of the water, nothing else is controlled, Buckland says.

"Some plants just prefer a warmer root mass and grow better in warmer conditions. We tend to try and keep the reservoir at a stable temperature during winter.

"We've wrapped a complete system around it so there is nothing the customer needs to do in terms of measuring the nutrients in the water...we've created a dosing system that takes care of that.

"It's actually an aquarium fish heater that heats the water. Very simple, just trying to use what is out there."

Buckland's start-up concept followed a realisation that his children were unaware of where their food came from.

"I became aware that [my children] were losing touch with where food came from. So I decided to get a little vegetable patch together so they could engage with the food.

These days, only 67 percent of New Zealand children can name common vegetables, according to data from the gardening education charity Garden to Table.

The Living Pantry provides a garden on your back deck.

The Living Pantry provides a garden on your back deck. Photo: Supplied

Only 45 per cent of Kiwi kids know what a bean is and just 24 percent can identify a courgette.

Many families don't have a garden or access to a garden, have knowledge of gardening and lack time, according to Buckland's own research.

"The connection to food was a big driver for me. I get comments from customers who say, 'My kids are so much more engaged in eating now'. I think as soon as you see something grow you are way more likely to at least want to give it a go."

 Living Pantry - which charges a monthly.subscription fee - is currently only offered in the Auckland region so Buckland can personally deliver and install the customers' at-home vertical farming operation, 

Another conference attendee, French agriculture professor Paul Gauthier, gave a presentation on why and how New Zealand should develop its controlled environment industry.

In support of  Australasia's vertical farming industry, Professor Gaulthier is currently based at the University of Queensland, researching how to increase the number of plant varieties that can be grown indoors.

He believes New Zealand has not had the need to look indoors before

Until very recently, New Zealand has not had the need to look at indoor farming, he says, but as the global population grows so too do our export opportunities.

"I think New Zealanders have a very incredible opportunity [with vertical farming] considering that Asia is going to need more food for in the future.

"They have a certain amount of land, but at some point, they can't produce all the food that they need... for their needs."

The Living Pantry was created in an effort to connect Aucklanders with their food.

The Living Pantry was created in an effort to connect Aucklanders with their food. Photo: Supplied

Australia and New Zealand are in a prime position to easily export to Asia, Gauthier says.

Gauthier said the tech-based industry would be attractive to young people looking at farming.

Yields from vertical farming could also increase by 200 percent - useful with a looming food crisis.

"Arable land available for us to grow food is decreasing per capita, meaning that we have less space to grow food.

"So certainly we need to find a way and instead of going horizontally, we go vertically. So the yield is huge compared to what we could get in the field.

"Of course, it has a price which is energy, but maybe that is a price we want to pay."

Gauthier believes that the world has needed a solution like vertical farming for ten years now.

"Vertical farming can come up as a positive future...for food security in the future because you cannot predict what the weather is outside but you can predict what the weather is inside."

He noted recent weather events, such as Cyclone Gabrielle, that saw crops and farms decimated. 

"What we have seen around the world is also the ageing of the farmers, some of them are retiring very very late. There is not necessarily a lot of youth going into farming, so who is going to feed us?"