A mechanised growing system with the potential to improve New Zealand's food production security will be set up in Ashburton by the end of August, with planting to commence in early September.
It will be the first opportunity for New Zealand horticulturalists to see a full-sized Vertical Farm Systems XA Series (VFS) growing system in operation, courtesy of the New Zealand supplier, Landlogic.
The Ashburton set-up is a Landlogic initiative to showcase what a vertical food production system can do. VFS is a modular system designed for warehouse installation with plants grown in multilevel trays contained in climate and light-controlled cells.
Landlogic CEO Alan Cottington said the fully automated vertical growing system offered an essential alternative to producing commercial levels of leafy greens in the horticultural industry, where traditional outdoor growing systems have taken such a massive hit in recent floods and storms.
"The increasing unpredictability and frequency of severe weather events, attributed to global warming, along with the rising costs impacting traditional open-field farming, mean it's more important than ever to consider new approaches to sustainable agriculture," Cottington said.
"Our food security is vulnerable when we rely on traditional farming methods or importing for leafy greens, which are a basic and healthy food essential."
The system is heavily automated with computer-controlled feeding, watering, lighting, and sensors monitoring temperature, pH, EC and humidity levels. Loading, harvesting, recovering and re-using the growing medium and reloading the trays is also automated.
The commercial production of leafy greens, herbs or plant seedlings in agribusiness using multilevel growing systems has rapidly expanded worldwide. Cottington said New Zealand needed to get on board with this technology to remain competitive and ensure there will always be a reliable and efficient alternative to in-ground production.
The VFS system is best suited to fast-growing crops, including leafy greens such as loose-leaf lettuce, baby spinach, arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, endive, pak choy, bok choy, beet chard, and herbs such as coriander, parsley, and basil.
"With VFS, there are no 'seasonal crops' and no crop losses."
Cottington continued that harvest times and end product quality are consistent and reliable, allowing commercial growers to confidently commit to delivery schedules and quantity agreements.
"VFS crop turn-around times are 28 days, regardless of external influences. By comparison, outdoor planting to harvest takes approximately 65 to 80 days for midsummer plantings and up to 130 days for Autumn/Winter plantings."
Cottington said a VFS machine in Australia produces around 600kg of greens a week and only takes about three hours per week of human labour. The system also has an automated packaging machine, taking the greens straight from the VFS system into eco-friendly bags or boxes for distribution.
In addition to helping with local food security, Cottington said the VFS system was better for the environment, especially in water quality, fertiliser use and pest control chemicals.
"The system does not use pesticides or herbicides and requires significantly less water than in-ground systems, with a water efficiency rate of 99.9 percent."
Cottington added that the product was nutritionally equal to, if not better than, in-ground plants and the nutritional levels were much more consistent.
Landlogic is the importer and distributor of Vertical Farm Systems for New Zealand and the Pacific and a sales agent for the rest of the world, except Canada, Scandinavia, the Philippines and the USA. Cottington stated vertical farming was an ample opportunity for Pacific Island countries to combat growing concerns about food security and access to nutritional foods.
"We already know that increasingly unpredictable weather, more severe storms, and sea level rise is compromising food production in the Pacific.
The VFS system offers Pacific governments, working with their farmers and horticultural companies, the chance to ensure essential greens will always be available, whatever the climate.