Vertical farming will complement rather than replace existing outdoor food production systems, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor says.
The indoor farms are increasingly popular worldwide as countries grappled with food security.
This is one of the reasons the government is backing New Zealand’s first commercial vertical farm, Greengrower, O’Connor said at the farm’s site at Waikato Innovation Park in Hamilton.
“We are a food-producing nation, we take great pride in that and we are very innovative, and in my view this is just one more innovation.
“It’s not a replacement or an alternative, it’s an innovation and smart utilisation of the resources we need including fertiliser to grow food that the world needs.”
It will also help reduce food and resource wastage, he said.
Greengrower started commercial production late last year with, having one tunnel (production line) running; in it, seedlings are grown in a largely automated system where light, temperature and water are all controlled.
The facility is self-contained and uses 1% of the water used in outdoor farming, with none of the runoff or leaching typically seen in an outdoor farming system.
The resulting vegetables are bagged for the retail market. Currently, the site is producing around 4000 bags of leafy green vegetables a day. Capacity will grow as two other tunnels are completed this year.
Once finished, Greengrower should deliver the equivalent production of a 150ha farm.
“If you’re getting the equivalent of production from 150ha of land in a building like this, you can very quickly go through the calculations and think that this can be a pretty smart and sustainable investment,” O’Connor said.
“Whilst conventional horticulture is reliant on the weather playing ball and providing high volumes of water, this kind of innovative vertical farming is done indoors and can use up to 95% less water to grow produce in half the time.”
Greengrower’s capability as a food producer is being tested in a Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures (SFFF) fund programme, which O’Connor launched.
Greengrower subsidiary Sustineri Limited is contributing $5.29 million to the four-year programme, with Massey University providing research and development support.
The government has provided $3.53m to support the four-year programme.
The first phase of the SFFF programme is largely complete. It saw early-stage trialling and testing carried out to determine whether plants could be grown.
The second part of the programme will take place over three years and look at trialling more plant varieties in an indoor growing setting.
Greengrower chief executive Tom Schuyt said the programme will look at how it can deliver new products in the New Zealand environment.
“A great example of that is pōhā – a native crop that hasn’t been able to be grown in a commercial environment. How do we use the technology that we have built to deliver some of those new crops in the market where there may be demand, but it hasn’t been met yet?”
Berries, peas, and beans are other potential crops that can be looked at, he said.
The science component of the programme will be undertaken in small trials at Massey University.
If successful, Greengrower then takes that work to test it on a larger scale.