While indoor farming is a global trend, this type of growing isn’t necessarily the best option for UK growers, Produce Business UK discovers
Whether it’s vast glasshouses glistening like skyscrapers, or fields of polytunnels resembling festival teepees, protected cropping – or indoor farming – is both a familiar sight and an established practice in the UK.
It is easy to assume that this trend of what some growers affectionately call “putting a roof on it” will continue. Will buyers be sourcing more British indoor-grown fresh produce in future? The launch this year of several London-based urban farming projects, including GrowUp, suggests this will be the case. However, many fresh produce growers and industry representatives claim that investing in indoor production is not always the best option and its viability depends on various factors.
Something a bit different
One of the primary reasons for growing indoors is to extend the season of a product. But, as Jack Ward, chief executive of British Growers Association (BGA), points out, you need to have a strong brand that’s not easily producible anywhere else in order for this to work. Ward uses the example of British summer fruit such as strawberries – which he says “are not of huge value at this time of year, but in April/May or November they become very valuable.
“What people are looking for, and what they are prepared to pay for, is something a little bit different – such as something that is out of season that they do not normally eat at that time of the year. And if you are a fresh produce producer, it’s difficult to make a living unless you do something a bit different. You have to be innovative in order to compete. And how do you access parts of the market that have not been traditionally available to you?”
A fine romance
Some UK soft-fruit growers are investing in new glasshouses or technologies to extend the British season. The producer organisation Plantsman PO, for instance, last year invested in a 3.5 hectare glasshouse for soft-fruit production near Colchester. Essex-based grower Chris Batchelor, whose farm Wallings Nursery in Manningtree is geographically close to this glass, is a member of Plantsman PO and, with the help of a grant from his customer Sainsbury’s and expert advice from scientists at Stockbridge Technology Centre in Yorkshire, has utilised LED light bulbs in a trial-sized area of his nursery to help fool his strawberry plants into producing fruit outside of their usual fruiting period.
He says: “You need to use the English growing season to your best advantage, and so growing early or late in the year is the best way to do it.” This year (2015) Batchelor successfully produced a small crop of fruits in March. Whilst consumers are evidently keen to snap up British-grown strawberries at unusual times of the year, summer fruits are, Ward reminds us, “a very different commodity” to some other crops, such as cucumbers. “People want English soft fruit,” he says, “but I’m not sure that English cucumbers or peppers have the same appeal. So those crops are then competing with other parts of Europe that have cheap fuel and labour costs.” Batchelor agrees. He says: “Strawberries are a lovely crop to work with. Cucumbers are the same crop whether they come from England or Spain or Holland. They don’t hold much romance.”
It’s a small world
Cucumber Growers’ Association representative and technical consultant Derek Hargreaves reveals that in East Riding of Yorkshire – an area known for its cucumber growing tradition – most of the strawberries that are being grown indoors are being grown in old cucumber glasshouses. He says: “I don’t know anyone who has built new glass to grow strawberries. They are doing it by running old glasshouses that are no longer used for growing cucumbers.” This is because, he explains, some cucumber growers have gone out of business after struggling to make sufficient returns. Hargreaves explains: “People are still making money growing strawberries because they do not need very much heat and they do not require much labour – and so they are a lot cheaper to grow than cucumbers.”
Hargreaves confirms that in Europe, what he describes as “huge amounts” of money are being spent on protected cropping – and similar scales of investment are also happening in the United States and Russia for all the major crops, he says. But he warns that in some cases, fruit and vegetables are being over-produced in Europe – a situation that can negatively affect the UK market.
Batchelor points to prices for strawberries grown under glass that are the same as they were 20 years ago. For this reason, he believes that it’s more likely to be the larger, existing growers who will aim to expand the season and invest in new technologies.
However, he also says: “It will be people with knowhow or niche growers like me. It’s not that easy and with the high level of investment [required] you need to know what you are doing. We are not getting paid any more and so you cannot afford to make any mistakes really. You cannot get away with a poor job. You have to grow better quality and [produce] better yields.”
Hargreaves and Batchelor also both point out that the practice of growing crops using LED lighting is very much in its infancy. Batchelor says: “It will take off eventually but right now people are still trying to work out the best way to use them.” Hargreaves adds that some growers using LEDs are already experiencing teething problems. “No one will really know the situation until someone spends a couple of million pounds on a new set up and sees how long it lasts. For example, the wetting agents that growers use are currently causing problems in some glasshouses with LEDs.”
While he concedes that urban farming is set to increase, he predicts that some such start-up businesses may experience pest and disease issues that might initially affect the rate at which this type of indoor production can expand. “People will get problems. Nature finds a way. It’s Darwinism,” he says.
A good mix
The desire to extend the season is obviously not the sole reason for investing in protected cropping. Valefresco technical manager Jackie Harris reveals that the Evesham-based grower has accelerated its investment in protected over the past few years – either in the form of new glass or Spanish-style polytunnels. She says: “We have invested in protected cropping for a good mix of reasons,”– citing the weather as being one of these factors, plus the fact that customers’ requirements are so strong. “We want to be as clean and as sterile as possible, and so it’s easier to control the climate inside these structures.”
Evidently, the UK’s changing climate and retailers’ requirements are adding to the appeal of growing indoors. But, as BGS’s Ward reminds us, salads remain the fresh produce commodities that are still often grown outside of the UK. He says: “The baby leaf salad industry is a case in point. In this day and age it’s easier to run a [baby leaf] farm in Spain and grow them there and then bring them here [to the UK]. We are now so mobile as a society that moving our production operations around Europe is perfectly possible.” There are obviously benefits to growing abroad, and benefits – such as reducing food miles – to growing here. Perhaps, therefore, the future of indoor farming in the UK will be much like the art of growing fruit and vegetables – some crops will thrive because the conditions will be ideal, while others will dwindle and fair better in a different environment.