21 August 2023, London: Vertical Future – the fastest-growing UK-based next-generation vertical farming technology business, has announced its work as lead organisation on a DEFRA funded research project through Innovate UK, aiming to optimise the propagation environment of strawberry plants in indoor vertical farms whilst maximising yield potential to reduce the UK’s reliance on imported produce.
The project will grow strawberry plants (propagules) in vertical farms before being transplanted into glasshouses or polytunnels. These high-health plants can produce 40% higher yield, allowing farmers to grow more strawberries in the same growing area. The increased fruit productivity will be driven by controlled environmental conditions such as temperature, relative humidity and light to optimise flower induction and plant development, which can enhance production in polytunnels.
85% of UK-produced strawberries are grown on imported plants, and vertical farming has the potential to displace these imports by enabling plants to be available to farmers all year round. Using vertical farms to grow strawberry plants (propagules), more plants will be grown in the UK, thanks to a controlled environment guaranteeing supply. The increased yields that these new home-grown plants promise, will allow UK growers to take a larger share of the strawberry market. Each year, the UK imports 186 million pounds worth of strawberries (2020) accounting for 32% of the market.
The three-year project will research new methods to produce high-quality, high-yield and disease-free strawberry plants within a vertical farm environment for onward cropping in polytunnels, glasshouses and vertical farms. This will guarantee quality produce all year round, reducing the UK’s reliance on imported goods and increasing revenues for the UK strawberry industry.
With the rising fears of global food insecurity caused by the rapidly rising global population, extreme weather conditions caused by climate change, along with political factors such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Brexit, maximising the amount of locally grown fresh produce through technology-based innovations is imperative in reducing the economic and environmental costs affecting the agriculture industry. The unreliable nature of the UK weather limits effective and efficient propagation, making advanced vertical farming an ideal environment for producing consistently high-quality strawberry plants.
To deliver the project, Vertical Future is working in partnership with various agri-tech and berry industry leaders. The partners are, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), the University of Reading, Berry Gardens Growers Limited, Hugh Lowe Farms, Clock House Farm, Linton Growers, Blaise Plants, Delta-T Devices, and Cocogreen.
Jennifer Bromley, Chief Scientific Officer of Vertical Future, said: “Strawberries have gone from being a highlight of British summers to a year-round staple, but this has meant a boom in imports of the crop. By adding vertically farmed strawberries to the supply mix – UK consumers will be able to have tasty, locally grown fruits, with a lower environmental footprint. Innovation is also required to produce high-quality, disease-free, pre-programmed strawberry propagules with guaranteed high cropping potential for all UK growers, whether in polytunnels or vertical farms. Our R&D farm and berry research site will be a vital part of the project, along with our UK-designed and built vertical farming software and hardware.”
Adam Whitehouse, Project Leader – Strawberry Breeding at NIAB, said: “NIAB is excited to be working in partnership with Vertical Future and we look forward to actively participating and contributing to this project along with the other participants. Our established expertise and resource in soft fruit research will help play a vital role in refining and maximising research-led outputs that can be scaled to a commercial setting, in a sustainable, and cost-effective way.”
Andrew Barclay, Propagation Manager at Linton Propagation, said: “As part of Clock House Farm, Linton Propagation has been leading soft fruit growing innovation since 1903, and we are excited to be playing a part in the industry’s next chapter. We alongside fellow propagator Blaise Plants will be providing commercial trialling expertise and industry insights, as well as guiding exploitation and commercialisation activities, including selecting the varieties of fruit that will appeal best to consumers.”
Professor Paul Hadley, University of Reading said: “Strawberries are a firm favourite with UK consumers, and we are proud to be participating in research to make them more sustainable. We will provide expertise in photo-thermal responses in propagules and CEA cropping systems, to analyse the performance of the varieties and provide guidance to the team on how to improve efficiency.”
Notes to editors
About Vertical Future
Founded in 2016, Vertical Future is a London-based vertical farming technology and data company, with global reach. The Vertical Future team design, manufacture, and build a range of proprietary hardware and software technologies, including an integrated vertical farming system – fully-automated from seed through to harvest. Powered by its proprietary “DIANA” SaaS system that tracks, analyses, and improves the entirety of the growing process and underlying crop science, Vertical Future is building a global network of data-enriched, smart farms.
Vertical Future’s partners, customers, and farms can be found across the UK and as far as Singapore. Growing in a Vertical Future farm means greater efficiency, higher quality crops, less land use, and enhanced water and fertiliser conservation compared to broadacre and glasshouse production methods.
Vertical Future – Pioneering technologies, inspiring smarter crop production.
NIAB’s operation at East Malling in Kent is the UK’s largest centre for horticultural R&D, undertaking work in perennial and clonally-propagated crops. It provides scientific research, technical services and practical advice to improve the yield, efficiency and resilience of crop production across the sector.
About University of Reading
The University of Reading is a research-intensive university founded in 1926. Home to more than 23,000 students, the University is proud to welcome staff and students from all over the world at our award-winning campuses in Reading, Henley-upon-Thames, Johannesburg, and Iskandar.
About Berry Gardens Growers Ltd.
Founded in 1972, Berry Gardens Growers Ltd (BGGL) is the UK’s leading berry and stone fruit production co-operative comprising 42 members located across the country from Kent to Scotland. Strawberries are the biggest berry grown and the co-operative’s growers produce them from mid-March until November using a range of varieties and growing techniques. Berry Gardens’ growers have benefitted from the increased demand for soft fruit in recent years, which has been driven by the health trend, improved varieties, and greater demand for British-grown produce.
About Blaise Plants
Blaise Plants propagates soft fruit plants for UK growers serving the demanding retail market, and is an approved propagator for the Driscolls and Malling Fruits breeding programmes.
About Hugh Lowe Farms
Hugh Lowe Farms is an innovative and long-established fruit growing business in Mereworth, Kent, with a sister business in Australia. Run by the same family for 5 generations, HLF focuses on meeting market demands for quality berries, and on sustainable growing practices. Both HLF and Blaise Plants are delighted to be cooperating with Vertical Future, NIAB and others in the consortium to explore novel and cost effective ways of propagating healthy planting material.
About Clock House Farms
Clock House Farm (CHF) is a family-run grower based in Coxheath, Kent that have been farming for over 100 years. CHF team are well-respected in the soft-fruit industry internationally as innovators, and producers of high-quality berries, with commercial experience of growing in polytunnels, CEA and TCEA growing systems. The business grows 1,750 tonnes of strawberries each year across five soft fruit production sites, and it supplies all the UK’s major retailers.
About Linton Propagation
Established in 2019, Linton Growing is a vertically integrated plant growing company that specifically focuses on varietal development and propagation and supplies plants to CHF. Linton Growing is based on a 30-ha site and is developing protocols to improve plant quality and security of supply of strawberry plants to CHF.
Delta-T design, manufacture (in the UK) and sell environmental science instrumentation in over 80 countries and many products are utilised by researchers to investigate the effects of climate change on crop growth and forecasting, and resource use such as water, fertilisers and light.
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