Technology will be the driving factor behind the next agricultural revolution, according to David Farquhar, Chief Executive of Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS).
“Agriculture 4.0”, Farquhar asserts, will not only deliver improvements to efficiency in farming – such as boosting crop yields or improving energy efficiency – it will also present an opportunity for farmers and producers to re-shape their relationship with customers.
“What we are on the cusp of now is Agriculture 4.0,” he says. “If we have complete predictability and control in terms of production, the relationship between the buyer and the seller of produce is flipped on its head, or at the very least equalised.”
“Rather than having a farmer go cap-in-hand to a retailer to offer produce, if we can ensure the predictability of volume and quality, then I believe we’re going to create new business models, such as Farming as a Service,” he adds.
IGS wants to place control of production firmly in the hands of farmers by providing them with the technology to improve processes and streamline operations.
Vertical farming will be key to this in the long-term, Farquhar believes. IGS created Scotland’s first vertical farm in 2018 and the indoor site enables producers to grow crops all year ground; providing complete control over environmental factors such as lighting, airflow and temperatures.
In vertical farming, crops are stacked in layers indoors. This method uses less space than traditional agricultural methods and has great potential as a sustainable, energy-efficient process.
“If you could wave a magic wand, for example, and design the weather and make it happen, that is effectively the IGS promise,” he says.
“All we really need from a farmer is to know which crop they grow and what the ideal conditions for growing that crop are,” Farquhar adds. “We then work with the growers, the technology and crop science to create these conditions – through this, we can perfect crop production.”
The company’s IoT-powered lighting and communications platform, which is commonly used in greenhouses or polytunnels, can deliver up to a 50% reduction in energy consumption for producers and drastically cut labour costs.
This confluence of technologies meeting to enhance production represents the future for farmers both in the UK and globally.
Thus far, Farquhar says the results have been promising, with IGS’ lighting platform capable of adding 50% to the average growing day. In vertical farming, the degree of control is exceptional and capable of cutting the growth cycles in half.
“We have effectively halved the crop cycle,” Farquhar says. “In one of our growth towers in the vertical farm, that will produce – at the moment – just over 20 tonnes of crop each year. We have a plan to almost treble that in the near future.”
“Compared to your average field, the vertical farm is extremely efficient, especially in terms of footprint,” he adds.
This industrialised environmental control offers huge benefits to farmers and enables them to offer a remarkable level of consistency – which Farquhar says is crucial to the survival of many farms.
IGS was originally founded in 2013 just outside St Andrews by an Aberdeenshire farmer. The founder had several decades experience of growing high-end produce for major retailers, Farquhar explains, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants.
“He was growing premium produce, so baby veg, microgreens and herbs for the ‘upper end’ of the food chain, if you like.”
Ensuring quality produce year-round was challenging, especially given the temperatures and lighting in Aberdeenshire at certain times of the year. With vertical farming, however, year-round production is very much a possibility. Additionally, the level of control a farmer has at their disposal ensures both quality and volume.
“At the moment, some farmers don’t know if they are going to make money from one month to the next, let alone one season to the next,” he asserts.
“If you’re growing a crop that requires you to produce 14 tonnes an acre, and you get two seasons of six-eight tonnes an acre, then how do you negotiate with your customers, with supermarkets or wholesalers?”
Farming as a Service will be a likely outcome of the agritech revolution, Farquhar insists. Producers will be capable of ensuring a steady flow season-by-season, which ultimately keeps shelves filled and restaurants stocked.
“This is one of the most exciting things we’ll see come out of Agriculture 4.0,” he says. “When you have the ability to go to a retailer and now guarantee they’re going to get this much, of this quality, with these nutritional qualities, it changes the dynamic entirely.”
“Through this way, farmers could be paid a subscription for produce, as an example. This provides a guarantee for the seller and the consumer,” Farquhar explains.
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Since joining IGS as chief executive in 2017, Farquhar has seen a huge increase in awareness and interest in the vertical farming space.
Investment is flowing into the industry, and IGS has capitalised on this thus far. Last year, the company secured £7 million in funding from US-based venture capital firms, including Chicago-based S2G Ventures, as well as the Scottish Investment Bank.
“Customers are now moving from simply trying to satisfy food security to having these new business models I described earlier, and so they need a guarantee of performance,” he explains.
Ensuring this performance guarantee has led the company to engage with some of the world’s biggest food manufacturers, groceries and retailers.
“We’ve also engaged with some celebrity chefs to help raise awareness of the quality of the produce that a vertical farm can deliver,” he says.
Another significant change in recent years, and proof the industry is progressing at significant pace, has been that major players are looking past vertical farming operations on just a national basis, but instead aim to establish farm networks throughout whole regions.
“That might be the Gulf, Western Europe or even Southeast Asia,” he notes. “We’re seeing this all over in different parts of the world.
“Along with these new business models, such as Farming as a Service, governments are increasingly coming to view farming as a key part of their infrastructure, and therefore must be invested in,” Farquhar insists. “These are all big, big drivers of change.”
The impact of vertical farming goes beyond the commercial relationships between farmers, retailers and consumers. Indeed, global hunger is already a significant problem that, in years to come, will likely be exacerbated by climate change.
A rising population, combined with tumultuous and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns will inevitably affect crop yields – and for nations that already find themselves in a precarious position of food security, the outcome could be devastating.
A study published in July highlighted the potential benefits of vertical farming in wheat production, which is one of the most widely-grown crops on earth.
The report, published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, showed through simulations that vertical farming could provide up to 1,940 tonnes of wheat per hectare of land every year. Compared to traditional farming methods, which generates an average what yield of 3.2 tonnes per hectare, the benefits appear obvious.
Long-term, vertical farming could be crucial to addressing global issues such as hunger. In this burgeoning global industry, Scottish companies can stand out and play a key role, Farquhar believes.
“Three of the most prolific agritech venture capital investors are S2G Ventures, AgFunder and Ospraie AG Science, and they’ve done their due diligence on all the big, well-publicised firms in the US and other parts of the world,” Farquhar says.
“They chose to invest in Scotland; I think that tells us all we need to know,” he notes.