Growing in vertical farms around the world with Philips LED Systems

Roel Janssen copy

Following on from partnering with the Staay Food Group to build Europe’s first large-scale commercial vertical farming specifically supplying retail, city farm project manager for Philips Lighting, Roel Janssen, takes PBUK through the “growing recipes” behind the LED systems and examines the needs of different vertical farming markets around the world. 

The outdoor temperature in the remote regions of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Canada have recently been around the minus 30 degree mark - but inside its high-tech greenhouse herb growers Ecobain Gardens is witnessing dramatic changes in its crops as well as big energy-saving impacts, following the Philips LED system installation.

By upgrading the fluorescent lighting previously used in the facility to LED, Philips Lighting is helping the vertical farming pioneer to produce at commercial scale, accelerate growing cycles and grow healthier, more consistent plants, while saving up to CAN $30,000 per year.

From less than 1,400 square feet, the facility produces approximately 73,000 pounds (33,112 kilos) of produce each year through farming methods which use up to 98% less water, no pesticides and now the latest LED technology.

“Saskatoon is really in the middle of nowhere with extremely low temperatures, so for Ecobain CEO Brian Bain, the key was to supply basil and other produce throughout the whole year, even while it was well below zero degrees outside,” Janssen tells PBUK.

“The big advantage now for his operation is year-round supply which is premium quality, has uniformity, looks the same and tastes the same, and has the same nutrient content.

“At Ecobain, growing cycles are now considerably shorter and they are producing commercial scales of produce like basil, where now more than 10,000 plants are produced a week.”

A value-added aspect of Philips LED from a growers point of view is the low heat output which produces a healthier, more consistent plant growth by reducing the heat stress on the plant canopy and root zone as well as providing uniform lighting.

Light recipes

“When a plant is growing it uses red and blue lights most optimally and if you start trialling LED lights it’s fairly difficult to see what is the best combination of red and blue. We’ve been active in the LED lighting industry for horticulture for the past 9 to 10 years looking at that specific combination of colours that are what we call ‘light recipes’ and they can be optimised for a specific crop or sub-optimised for a range of crops or leafy greens,” adds Janssen.

“If you look specifically at growing without daylight, there are three main advantages for growers; the first is reliability because it's a controlled production cycle so that when everything functions in the right way - the climate, the carbon dioxide, irrigation, the right seeds, the right lighting - it’s always the same production cycle.

“There is no pressure from disease or pests and it’s basically always summer inside. And because you grow in a controlled environment it’s always free from pests so you don’t need any pesticides to get rid of the disease compared with outside where you cannot control the environment and are exposed to the risks of disease and pests.”

The second advantage, Janssen, explains is quality; because of the uniformity a controlled environment under LED offers, plants can be optimised for taste, colour and nutrient content with more than 90% less water because its easier to recycle resources when growing indoors.

The third plus point - and it’s a big one - is yield.

“Yields can vary depending on the light levels and the varieties that you use, but for example, in open field production if you talk about head lettuce, you would go to 15 to 20 kilograms per square metre of growing area per year to, in the most advanced high-tech greenhouse, 60 to 65 kilograms. And if you grow without daylight, you could grow above 100 kilograms per square metre per year.

“That’s growing square meters so if you do that in ten layers, you could go for one square metre of floor space and get 1,000 kilograms of production.”

Ecobain Gardens has partnered with Star Produce to distribute its produce throughout Canada to retailers like Loblaws, Federated Co-op, Safeway and Sobeys, as well as other local grocery stores.

The differences in vertical farming around the world

The Ecobain Gardens project is about locally-produced crops being grown year-round in an area not ordinarily associated with growing herbs and microgreens.

Part of Janssen’s job is to travel the world investigating the specific growing recipes for a myriad of vertical farming growers who want to tap into the potential of LED. He’s the man behind the Eindhoven-based GrowWise Research Centre facility - where R&D teams work in eight “climate cells” researching how to optimise crops further and streamline light recipes.

Since GrowWise first opened in July 2015, Janssen explains how he has witnessed quite a big shift in the interest from industry.

“At first, there were a lot of entrepreneurs wanting to do something within horticulture. They didn’t necessarily have a horticulture background or sufficient knowledge to build a greenhouse, but they saw indoor controlled environments as a an opportunity and if the technology functions in the way it should do, anyone can be a grower.

“But you still need horticulture knowledge and green fingers because if something in the system doesn’t function, you really need someone who can steer the product in the right way.

“What you see in North America and Canada, which are big markets for us, is that most of the lettuce, leafy greens and salad that is produced comes from California. The produce is in a truck for five days before it reach cities like Chicago and Saskatoon in this case, and it’s not as fresh as if you would harvest it on demand and then straight away give it to the consumer. That’s a big advantage when you’re in a remote area.”

In contrast, the indoor vertical farms of the US and Europe, are known as “plant factories” in China and Japan, where the focus is more about food safety and getting access to fresh produce in massively populated urban areas like Singapore and Tokyo.

“In Asia they typically talk about “plant factories” and like the controlled conditions and the safety aspects. That’s basically the idea; they want to push food safety and accessibility.

“Whereas in the US it's more about being local, in Asia the focus is on food safety and accessibility to food is really important.

“We had a lot of customers in Japan with a lot of operational indoor farms.”

Over the last two years, Philips Lighting has seen increasing interest, not just from growers supplying the market, but from retailers and food processors.

Last month during Fruit Logistica, Philips Lighting and the Staay Food Group announced Europe’s first large-scale vertical farm will be built in Dronten, the Netherlands, to serve supermarkets with fresh-cut lettuce grown using LED horticultural lighting.

The indoor vertical farm will have more than 3,000 squared metres of growing space to produce its pesticide-free lettuce - something that appeals to retailers who need to provide high quality bagged or loose lettuce with zero contamination issues.

“When we first met the owner of Staay he wanted to tap into the possibilities of growing in an indoor farm and we started discussing it. Eventually he decided to build a farm and his key reason was that so he could grow locally in the facility where he also uses his pre-cuts salad.

“The level of MRLs on the leaves is really low which is a big added value for them going forward with stricter rules from retail and of course there are no bugs.

“If we play with our grow recipes, we can also extend the shelf life of lettuce, get more dry matter into the lettuce, get it crispier; it’s exactly the same process as growing outside but it’s controlled so if we know what triggers red colouration in a plant for example, we can use a specific light recipe to trigger that colouration and get a nicer colour or trigger dry matter so the shelf life is extended.”

Once the facility is complete, the Staay Food Group can do everything under one roof; grow, pack, process with very low risk of contamination from the pesticide-free lettuce.

UK loves “home-grown”

Janssen explains, UK-based growers like to market produce as “home-grown”, something that particularly resonates with the British market. But why do vertical farms tend to focus on salad crops, microgreens and herbs?

“In the UK we also see that it’s a real added value to have UK-grown products and there are companies growing other crops apart from lettuce and herbs such as Flavour Fresh which grows tomatoes year round using our LED solutions.

“Typically a leafy green is produced within three to five weeks and cucumbers after a few weeks already started giving fruits. We’re also investigating growing fruiting crops but because of the speed or the short crop cycles, at least at this point in time, the main focus is on leafy greens because they offer the biggest opportunities.

“We managed to grow strawberries in our GrowWise facility, but the difficulty of growing completely without daylight is that it’s better to have fast rotating crops with really high yields that you can improve because the economics around it are much more interesting.”

Taking the case of strawberries, Janssen, explains the challenges associated with growing this kind of fruit.

“If you put the seed into a substrate and the strawberry needs two months before it starts fruiting, during those two months you need to put on your lights and climate system, whereas with lettuce, leafy greens and short cucumbers, they’re really fast in how they rotate.

“We’re not saying that we can feed the masses with this but it is a market where there is added value to be found. In Asia it’s mostly about food safety and availability, in the US it’s mostly about the local movement and pesticide-free production, but in Europe it’s for processed optimisation.

“Growers in Europe are triggered by retail to look into this technology and they are stepping into the business. We expect this to grow when Staay is operational later this year because I think they will set the standard in the level of contamination you can have on a leaf which is very close to zero at that point.”

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