The Future of British Farming is … Vertical?

By Emily Goodwin

The largest vertical farm in the world is due to start producing food in the Spring of 2023 in Easton, Norfolk.

Image by Emily Goodwin

The £25 million building began construction in June 2021, though the seeds for this project were planted in 2015 by then Environment Secretary Liz Truss. She wanted the UK to produce more “great British food” and rely less heavily on imported food from the EU. Grants of up to £50,000 were made available for Food Enterprise Zones (a small proportion of the millions of pounds needed to build and establish vertical farms) but funding for projects such as these was also found by local councils and investments from large companies, such as Fischer Farms.

The CEO of Fischer Farms, Tristan Fischer, planned not only for the vertical farm, but also the energy needed to supply the robotics and lighting. With the current cost of energy rising (an increase of 58% between December 2020 and July 2022), other vertical farms are vulnerable. The vertical farm in Bedford opened in June 2022 and has already had to lay off half of its workforce. The Fischer Farms Ltd website shows how they are different: their “purpose built, ground-breaking environment will be powered by 100% green energy” and they are working towards operating “using only sustainable energy sources and providing yields 250 times greater than conventional farming.”

DigiVid created by Emily Goodwin

Phil Courtier, Director of Place at South Norfolk and Broadland District Council, explains that a vertical farm is a “big warehouse with lots of big polytunnels out of the back. Inside is a bit like a DIY store … where you have lots of plants on the shelving, lit with artificial lighting, which enables plants to grow in that environment.” The South Norfolk and Broadlands Council has been involved in the project, helping to source funding from the EU as well as publicly endorsing the development.

Male technician in clean suit, rubber boots, and hair net examining development of basil plants in multilayered hydroponic environment. Image: Pixabay.

Phil’s description of the vertical farm contrasts to the rural agricultural landscape of the Norfolk countryside. Norfolk is celebrated as the ‘breadbasket’ of the UK and the agricultural output of the county totalled £3.3 billion in 2018.

An interview with South Norfolk and Broadland Councillor Phil Courtier about the near-completion of a vertical farm in Easton, Norfolk.

Clarke Willis MBE is the Director of the Food Enterprise Park where the vertical farm is located. “Elon Musk made a Tesla having never making a car before” he tells me when I ask about Tristan Fischer’s farming background. “Tristan is not a farmer, but he understands technology and where the future is heading.” He insists that the vertical farm is not in competition with local farmers; “70% of Norfolk’s wheat goes to feeding pigs and poultry, not people.”

Criticism for this form of farming has centred around the fact that vertical farms are currently only producing salads and herbs rather than a more diverse range of produce. Right now, this is intentional at the Norfolk vertical farm, Clarke explains, as in the winter the UK imports large quantities of salad items from warmer countries. Focusing on the production of leafy greens will reduce the carbon footprint and increase the shelf-life of the herbs and lettuces we find in the supermarket.

There are plans to diversify further in the future. “There will be a three-stage process,” Clarke says. “Stage one will focus on the production of leafy greens and herbs. Stage two, in a few years, will see the growth of soft root strawberries. Finally, we will be producing soya and wheat in stage three.”

With the world facing a global food crisis, both Phil Courtier and Clarke Willis stress that the development of vertical farms will relieve pressure on UK farmers whilst securing fresh, long-lasting, sustainably-grown and high-calorie fruit and vegetables for the future.

Fischer Farm’s Vertical Farm is due to open in Spring 2023.

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