For thousands of years, life on a farm was marked by soil-caked fingers and a painful sunburn. That won’t be the case with the farms of tomorrow: speckless and tightly sealed chambers that won’t need any sun or soil — and few, if any, humans.
But why wait for tomorrow? Right now, in a secret location in northern Lincolnshire, England, an ultracontained, ultraefficient and highly automated indoor farm is taking shape. Housed within a giant, gleaming white box that’s three stories tall and covers more ground than an American football field, it’s one of the largest such farms in the world and will ultimately yield 420 tons of leafy greens each year. And the technology inside it could transform the way we meet the global population’s growing demands for food.
When the farm, built by Jones Food Company, is complete, visitors will feel like they’re stepping into the Matrix, with miles of racks stacked 17 levels high streaking into the distance. Every hydroponic (soil-free) rack will have its own water and nutrient supply, while just inches above each plant will be Arize LEDs from Current by GE, the division of GE focused on intelligent buildings and cities. Some 7.6 miles, or more than half the length of Manhattan, of these lights will shine year-round on basil, coriander (cilantro), chives and other greens destined for U.K. grocery chains.
Visitors will also find themselves, perhaps unexpectedly, bathed in a soft pink glow, says Paul Challinor, one of the three co-founders of Jones Food Company and its chief technology officer. “It contains the right wavelength of light for optimum plant growth,” he explains.
Challinor and his team have spent the past year collaborating with GE to create customized light diodes that emit a precise combination of red, blue and white wavelengths. Red works well for fruit and shrubbery, says Malcolm Yare, the horticulture business development manager for GE Current in Europe, who oversaw the partnership with Jones Food Company. “If you want a compact head of lettuce that’s really dense, you would apply lighting towards the blue end of the spectrum.” White wavelengths are more likely to get reflected back into the space if they’re not absorbed by the plants, creating more light overall. The idea was to create LEDs that could be flexible and efficient enough to grow a “strong, balanced plant,” says Challinor.
In addition to the LEDs, which Jones Food Company first tested on a minifarm on Challinor’s property, the company found several other ways to make the venture efficient and avoid joining the graveyard of failed indoor-farming startups. For instance, it will pump pure CO2 into its building and keep it from being replaced by outside air, so that plants can “breathe” in carbon dioxide at least 50 percent more efficiently than they would in a traditional greenhouse unit. The farm draws power from the grid but will eventually install solar panels on the roof to be as self-sufficient as possible, and it’ll use GE’s cloud-data system to monitor electricity usage from its LEDs and heating and cooling systems.
The farm’s energy costs will ultimately end up a third lower than is usual for an indoor farm, in part because the Arize LEDs from GE will produce less heat than alternatives like compact fluorescents and high-pressure sodium lights, says Challinor, which means the additional costs of cooling the space will be lower. The farm is aiming for a lower carbon footprint with its lighting methods, too. Replacing around 30 traditional 60-watt bulbs with LEDs, for example, would more than halve the CO2 produced annually to 205 kilograms, from 475 kilograms.
Jones Food Company wants to avoid the costly risk of pathogens that can reduce crop yield, so the team is keeping the farm as clean as an operating room. “No external air can get inside,” says Yare. Workers will be under strict guidance to wear hairnets and take an “air shower” that blows away dust before walking in wearing protective clothing. The upside: no need for pesticides or to wash the produce before harvesting it.
Labor costs will get a trim, too. Jones Food Company is limiting the people entering the facility to just three at a time, which will mean 60 percent fewer humans than on a typical indoor vertical farm, says Challinor. He and his co-founders got this and other ideas a year and a half ago when they visited an indoor vertical farm in Japan that had slashed its labor costs by 50 percent by using automated machinery.
Even then, the Japanese firm was employing people to move up and down the racks to take produce out by hand, “which we thought we could improve upon,” says Challinor. Jones Food Company will do that by using a self-driving forklift truck that can insert and take out growing trays — perhaps an indoor farmer’s answer to the Tesla.
“There’s nearly no human intervention during the whole production cycle,” says GE’s Yare, and in one way that makes the facility more of an “intensive plant nursery” than a farm. It marks a step in the direction of industrialized farming, adds Emma Moreau Bouché, Current by GE’s growth leader in Europe. “It’s like a factory.” Such developments are one reason why the market for indoor-farming technology is set to nearly double to $40 billion by 2022, according to Report Buyer, an industry intelligence firm.
Helping Jones Food Company jump into that market saw GE’s Yare cultivate a long-term partnership. For the past year he made a weekly two-hour drive from his home in Guisborough, a town on the cusp of the picturesque North Yorkshire moorlands, to meet with the Jones Food Company’s founders in North Lincolnshire. Before the company found its construction site, those meetings took place in the quaint market town of Thirsk, where both sides compared notes over caffeinated beverages in a local coffee shop — humble beginnings for a project with the scope to produce tons of produce for human consumption daily.
They really had to get those LED specifications right, says Yare, who with all his input was eventually dubbed an honorary “fourth member” of Jones Food Company’s founding team. “The lighting is at the heart of the system.”