World’s largest vertical farm worked by robots sends food production onwards and upwards

The Garden of England is to be replicated inside a huge warehouse in Gloucestershire by a British company that is building the world’s largest indoor vertical farm.

Rows of LED-lit trays stacked to the rafters will be tended by an army of robots and provide 148,000 sq ft of growing space – equivalent to almost 70 tennis courts.

James Lloyd-Jones established The Jones Food Company (JFC) in 2017 with a focus on scaling up vertical farming in the UK.

He said: “Kent is traditionally described as the garden of England with its fertile soil and abundance of farms.

“Vertical farming allows us to create ‘gardens of England’ in every part of the country improving food sustainability, reducing food miles, reducing use of pesticides and allowing everyone to grow locally.

Kent got its moniker as the “Garden of England” due to its warm climate and fertile ground, and earned a reputation as one of the best places in the country to grow crops.

The county specialises in fruit and, as of 2016, it has almost 10,000 holdings growing them, more than any other county and a third of England’s total.

Vertical farming is the practice of maximising space and growing crops in various stacked layers in a controlled environment, with water, nutrient levels and light all strictly controlled.

LED lights are controlled by timers, plant food is administered by ultra-efficient hydroponic systems and air in the building is rich in CO2 to maximise plant photosynthesis and growth.

Basil flourishes under the LED light

JFC opened its first facility in 2018 in Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, which is the biggest of its kind in Europe and then received funding from Ocado in 2019 to go even further.

‘UK is at the vanguard of this global movement’

Now a second facility, JFC2, which is almost three times the size of the first, will be built in Lydney, Gloucestershire, and open in 2022, with ground being broken on Wednesday.

Mr Lloyd-Jones called vertical farming “a global movement, revolutionising the way the world grows produce – it is the future.

“Building the world’s biggest vertical farm puts the UK at the vanguard of this global movement. We’re leading the revolution.”

Prospects for growth in vertical farming

The vast facility covers 60,000 sq ft and has 17 rows of trays standing nearly 40 ft high. It will be manned by 16 people who will look after a team of robots.

“Given the technology we have and the pressing need for more sustainable forms of farming over coming decades, we plan to be able to supply 70 per cent of the UK’s fresh produce within the next 10 years,” Mr Lloyd-Jones said.

He added: “We already supply thousands of British retail stores with basil grown in our first facility in Lincolnshire but this new site will allow us to supply tens of thousands more stores and to widen our product offer with our partners.”

Vertical farming in numbers

Vertical farming is not designed to replace traditional methods but to supplement existing technologies.

A swelling population, increasing appetites and dwindling staff willing to work the fields has led to supply chain disruption and food shortages in the UK, with myriad images of empty shelves and a lack of fresh goods in supermarkets.

The ability to grow and harvest plants with robotic assistance could alleviate some of the concerns and bolster the farming industry.

“From an environmental perspective, vertical farming allows us to grow in 17 layers, so every acre becomes 17 times more productive,” Mr Lloyd-Jones said.

“It allows us to grow entirely without pesticides and using 95 per cent less water. And it means we can significantly reduce the air and road miles of the foods we grow.

“But vertical farming doesn’t just make environmental sense, it makes economic sense too. 

“Scale is vital in order to create a cost base that allows us to deliver delicious, healthy herbs, salad leaves, cut flowers, fruit and veg at a price the average shopper also really likes.  We fully anticipate more facilities in other parts of the country and around the world in coming years.”

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