11 May 2022

Vertical farming: producing fruit and veg all year round

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 11 May 2022

New Zealander Arama Kukutai is the chief executive of Plenty - a California-based indoor, vertical farming technology company.

Plenty grows leafy greens and will soon be growing strawberries in tall columns, under LED lights in a fraction of the space required for a traditional farm.

It has recently constructed a 8800 square metre warehouse in Compton, California, with 2.9 metre-high ceilings, a secure truck court, and access to truck routes.

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Photo: supplied/ Plenty.ag

Kukutai tells Kathryn Ryan their Compton farm is the world’s largest vertical farm.

“We’re growing … year-round. The technology behind this has been developed by our company over the last seven years.

“We’ve invested close to US$1billion at this point in developing the technology and facilities that we have. They’re highly automated, they’re very clean from a standpoint we’ve never detected E coli, let alone had any food outbreaks.”

He says California is only one really bad fire season away from having major disruption of its fruit and produce, and indoor growing is part of securing that supply.

“We have real challenges here to being able to grow year-round and of course climate impact is one of the biggest factors but also the drought conditions we have.

“Having the ability to grow indoors year-round with a fraction of the water use is game-changing for being able to produce fresh leafy greens and vegetables all-year round.

“The world is, I think, in this very worrying situation where we’ve actually got the biggest threat to food supply chain resilience that we’ve seen in a very long time, for a host of reasons, not just the climate.”

Their method has proven its sustainability with yield improving by close to 700 percent in the last two years, compared to an average of 1 to 2 percent of year-on-year yield improvements often seen out in the field, Kukutai says.

“Half a hectare [of vertical farming] is producing something like 125 hectares worth of food production [depending on the crop variety].

“We can build a farm and put it anywhere, as long as we have power, and the town water supply and access to labour, to people, and just to basic logistics, these facilities can be put anywhere in the world.”

They also only use about 5 percent of the water that is usually used in outdoor farming, he says.

“In addition, because we control the environment so closely, we’re able to do things like, for example, pack the plants when we’re harvesting in cool room conditions which helps maintaining and retaining the moisture of plants.

“We also use a recirculating system where we’re effectively capturing and recycling that water back into the system in a closed loop."

The current energy crisis is also driving a stronger appetite for renewables and consumers are increasingly demanding local and fresh produce given climate concerns, he says.

“If you look at today’s food production globally, less than 1 percent of our food is grown in an indoor setting, and most of that is in greenhouses.

“Indoor growing in the form of vertical farming is just one of the methods that’s attracting a lot of investment and attention, there’s fermentations, there’s cultivated meat technologies, collectively this indoor growing food revolution is just starting to kick off.”

Plenty is also effectively doing photosynthesis without the sun, using LEDs instead.

“We also have environments that are very tightly controlled so that we are able to regulate the amount of oxygen, the amount of CO2, nutrients, humidity; every point you can think of to create the perfect environment for the plant to grow.

“All of those factors combined, notwithstanding energy use, make for a very, very efficient way of not only producing plants but also doing so in a way where very little is wasted. As much as 40 percent of the crop can get left in the field [in outdoor farms] due to [weather] conditions.

“And then what waste we do have, we dewater, we compost, and we reuse.”

Kukutai says the company is a ‘full stack developer’, designing everything from hardware like the vertical towers and LED lights, building their own software for automation processes, and researching up to 1000 variety of plants in their own centre.

“We haven’t found anything we can’t grow at this point with the sort of produce space … but it takes time getting each one of those the point where they’re ready for prime time in the market, so today it’s leafy [greens], strawberries next, tomatoes after that and then we’ll see.”

“Frankly, we’ve deployed a lot of capital to solve these problems and we’re still working on them we have a very large R and D team and spend, because we still think we’re at the front-end of innovation in this space even though we’ve accomplished so much, there’s still a lot more to go.”

Arama Kukutai who is Ngāti Tipa, (Tainui), Maniapoto and Te Aupouri on his father's side; and Scottish on his mother's side, grew up in Waikato and attended Victoria University of Wellington.

He will be speaking at  E Tipu: The Boma Agri Summit, being held 21-22 June in Christchurch and virtually.