A new research centre for vertical farming technologies that aims to enable Scottish farmers to transition to sustainable growing techniques opens in Dundee next week.

The Innovation Hub for Controlled-Environment Agriculture (IHCEA) at the James Hutton Institute is a collaboration between government agri-tech centre Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), and Liberty Produce, a London-based farming technology company with expertise in horticultural lighting and fertigation systems.

The centre has been purpose built for research and development and will help the industry to understand and tackle barriers to the adoption of hydroponic production systems.

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The aim of the centre, which houses Liberty Produce's Future Farming Hub, is to drive innovations that reduce operational costs and improve the yields from controlled-environment farms, providing benefits to growers, food processors and consumers, as well as help farmers meet food requirements and limit further damage to the environment.

Director of Liberty Produce, Zeina Chapman said: "What we do is develop technology with a focus on trying to reduce the operational costs and the capital costs of running these systems, as well as improving the yield.

"The biggest challenge growers have at the moment is that vertical farming is really only on the cusp of commercial viability and that's because the cost of the capital expenditure required to build these systems is enormous, the operational costs are still very high, they're still quite labour intensive."

Because of this, most producers can only grow high value crops such as micro greens, which can be sold for up to £40 per kilogram, and herbs.

But Liberty Produce, founded in 2018, wants to change that by developing new technologies with a focus on reducing costs these systems can be adopted globally.

Vertical farming grows produce in layers indoors in sometimes soil-less systems aided by LED lights either by hydroponics, where roots are continuously in moisture in the growing medium, or aeroponics, where the produce is misted and doesn't rely on a growing medium.

They are seen as a sustainable alternative to cultivating land not currently used for food, can withstand variable and increasingly extreme weather, eliminate the use of agrichemicals and reduce water use.

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Liberty Produce will lead a £1.3 million project with eleven partners to accelerate the development of the UK vertical farming sector.

Using the funds, awarded by Innovate UK, the farming hub will

support the creation of an integrated technology system focused on reducing operational costs by 25 per cent, improving crop yield by 30 per cent and reducing necessary grower intervention through improved decision support and automation in lighting, nutrient and environmental control technologies.

Some of the innovations that will be carried out at the centre will include designing high-efficiency LED lighting systems; test growing regimes, lighting applications and nutrient mixes in a variety of crops.

Vertical farming crops will complement traditional arable farming but Ms Chapman believes that more produce will be grown via the method as technologies advance and natural resources struggle to cater to growing populations.

She said: "I think they will become more mainstream for crops that are currently grown in fields or in glass houses. I think we'll start to see a more broadening of the crop types growing in these systems."

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Growers are looking to produce baby leaves commonly found in salad bags with the vertical farming method, moving away from polytunnels and indoor track systems.

But utilising the vertical method for wheat, barley and potatoes has a way to go yet.

Ms Chapman said: "I think we'll start to see a patchwork of of new growing systems coming in to help support and take over some of the more traditional growing systems."

Vertical crops are grown in a controlled environment with light levels, temperature, carbon dioxide and applied nutrients all closely monitored and as an indoor crop, no pesticides are required.

Ms Chapman said: "Improved technology in this sector will increase the adoption of these sustainable food growing systems, reduce the environmental impact of crop production, improve food security and create opportunities for the growth and export of UK agricultural technologies.”