Digital Is Making Farming Perpendicular

Image credit: iStockphoto/Perception7

In meeting the challenge of feeding an ever-increasing population amid supply chain chaos and escalating geopolitical tension, agriculture is turning to a combination of ancient techniques and exponential technologies.

In Australia, one company exploring the boundaries of what is possible is Queensland-based startup Stacked Farm. This week, it secured AUD56 million in funding from a group of investors, including leading U.S.-based alternatives investor Magnetar Capital.

The funds will be used to develop a planned 7,000 square meter facility in the Gold Coast region south of Brisbane, which is forecast to deliver the largest output of leafy green produce per square meter of any indoor vertical farm in the world.

Stacked Farm is nothing if not ambitious. The automated farming group was founded in 2017, but the new facility could transform into the number two vertical farming operation in the world after U.S. company AeroFarms, which is headed for a stock market listing in the U.S. worth around USD1.66 billion.

In creating vertical farming, Stacked Farm uses end-to-end automation to deliver the highest yields and achieve commercial scalability. The company has developed its technology in-house, comprising a proprietary software platform that regulates energy and water consumption.

The farm is Australia’s first fully robotic indoor vertical farm, using a process that has eliminated physical human interaction at every step, from seeking through to packaging.  The produce ticks the organic box, and the process guarantees full supply chain traceability, which retailers and consumers increasingly demand.

Power and water savings

Powered by green biogas, the company says it achieves a 46% reduction in power consumption and a 95% reduction in water use compared with industry peers. Its operation is carbon negative, delivering 22,000 tonnes of carbon credits each year.

"We've got a continuous rotation of drought in this country, where every three or four years we tend to drop back into it — add to that floods and bushfires, and the supply chain becomes very challenging," said Conrad Smith, the company founder talking with the Australian Financial Review last year.

"Because we can control the environment in the temperatures, the light, the growing methods, we can get a safe, reliable product to market."

Stacked Farm has a headcount of around 35, primarily scientists and engineers, and they are working with 12 test chambers growing new products. Around half of its current facility is used to fulfill offtake agreements, while the rest is used for research and development.

"Because we can control the environment in the temperatures, the light, the growing methods, we can get a safe, reliable product to market"

Innovations already implemented include an in-house automated lift system, certified to heights of 20 meters, which can significantly increase the output per square meter.

People are involved in the operation, but labor is minimized. For a commercial size 5,000 meter commercial farm, only 15 people are required to produce 135 tonnes of leafy greens per growing cycle, compared to 100 people needed in a conventional operation.

This approach reduces risk in what has become a labor market full of shortages for this kind of work, guarantees supply chain delivery, and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In Britain, for example, the industry aims to meet net-zero emissions by 2040. This goal will require major investment in the type of vertical farming technologies pioneered by Stacked Farm.

The farms of the future are not only vertical; they will be full of nanosensors collecting an array of data. Out in the field, unmanned aerial vehicles will work with robots on the ground to map locations and perform labor-intensive tasks such as fruit picking and milking, which are done by workers today.

On the cusp of major growth

Stacked Farm is at the forefront of what analysts predict will be a significant growth industry over the next decade. According to a report from Market Research Future, the industry value is expected to reach USD25 billion by 2030, after 23.3% compound growth this decade.

The rise of vertical farming has also put the word “aeroponics” into more frequent use. The vertical farms are irrigated in mist environments rather than traditional watering techniques, giving rise to a supporting subsidiary industry that is also growing at more than 20% per year.

With its new funding line, Stacked Farm is positioning itself at the front of the pack in the new vertical farming industry, but there is still some way to go.

For example, its produce is currently focused on leafy greens such as salad — which have been mainly in short supply in recent months in Australia.

The automation systems it has developed work well for leafy greens but struggle to handle soft fruits such as berries. With a large R&D team and a funding pipeline, finding solutions to such challenges might not be too far away.

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and the NextGenConnectivity editor. He remains fascinated with how businesses reinvent themselves through digital technology to solve existing issues and change their entire business models. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Perception7