Food production is one enormous balancing act: an ever-growing population and the necessity of limiting the environmental damage done by food production and distribution. These farming innovators are also considering the extreme weathers caused by global warming, limitations of natural resources and human eating patterns.

Developments in different technological fields are being adapted to create new ways of farming. This ‘vertical farming’ is part of the solution to these problems and a way to establish more sustainable agricultural practices for the future. Genuinely amazing work.

What is vertical farming?

If you’re in the industry, you already know the answer to this. If you’re not, here’s a very brief explanation.

The term ‘vertical framing’ refers to the method of stacking layers of growing plants. The farms go up, rather than across multiple fields. It is indoor farming at its most high-tech, using LED lighting to match the requirements of the different crops. This is where it differs from the more common glasshouses, or greenhouses, that we’re used to.

A vertical farm uses no sunlight at all. This means that it can be set up in buildings, tunnels, shipping containers and, as we’ve previously reported, disused mineshafts.

It is soil free and requires specialist knowledge to create and maintain the completely controlled environment, which includes: climate, lighting, fertigation and irrigation.

How big is this new area of agriculture?

In financial terms, it is estimated that the global value of vertical farming was £1.72bn in 2018. Predictions put this at £9.84bn by 2026. Phenomenal growth in a short time period. At the moment, the USA and Japan are the leaders in the field.

Several large new projects started in the UK this year.

  • Ocado invested £17m, in a new joint venture called Infinite Acres. Working with an American company (32ha) and a Dutch company (Priva Holdings). They also are 58% shareholders of Jones Food in Lincolnshire. They produce 420 tonnes of leafy green vegetables per year.
  • Growing Underground: Salad and micro greens that are grown underground in London.
  • Shockingly Fresh: Edinburgh based company with five vertical farming sites, one in Scotland, four in England. And the ambition to build 40 across the UK.

What are the scientific and technological R&D aspects of developing vertical farms?

There are different elements involved in creating vertical farms, most of which are either scientific or technological in nature. (As HMRC would define them for R&D tax relief purposes.) If your company invests in improving any of these existing factors, or develops new elements to the process, you will probably be able to claim R&D tax relief.

For example:

Lighting: Advances in LED lighting has made all the difference to the plants’ growth. Wageningen University’s Leo Marcelis explains: “This is the most interesting bit. LED lights, which are essential for replicating natural daylight, can be used to change the way plants grow, when they flower and how they taste. It’s all about varying the spectrum used at different growth stages. They can be positioned between plants and layers, produce hardly any heat radiation and are more energy efficient.”  The next step is reducing the amount of energy necessary to power the LED lighting.

Aeroponics: Instead of being submerged in water (hydroponics), the plants’ roots are open to the air They get their water and nutrients through a carefully balanced spray.

Software: to automatically control the environment and provide all the data necessary to satisfy the quality control standards of supermarket purchasers. Connected to sensors and robotics which are all specifically designed for their particular role. This kind of automation also keeps the cost of labour down.

Are you claiming the R&D tax credits you’re entitled to?

According to the last available HMRC statistics, companies in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing sector received an average R&D tax credit claim of £48,780. A substantial figure. But claims from this sector only amounted to 0.61% of the total number of R&D tax relief claims made overall. Which leads us to the conclusion that if you are at the cutting edge of tomorrow’s farming, you are unlikely to be getting this investment.

This is a growth area of agriculture, with an increasing amount of investment. It is the technological and scientific research that enables businesses to hone current practices and develop new skills. At least some of these costs will be allowable for R&D tax credits, you just need to invest a little bit of time.

What are the positives of vertical farming?

Due to its nature, a vertical farm can be set up nearly anywhere. Therefore there is the potential to be everywhere. Every community could have their own local supplier. The carbon footprint of the actual produce is reduced, with less need for imported food. We would also be able to rely on food of consistent quality that is unaffected by the increasing numbers of extreme weather events that we are witnessing. The crops would not be wiped out by freak floods or unprecedentedly long hot spells. An ingenious solution to a consistent problem. We want to make sure that you get all the funding available to further your own growth.

Jamie Smith