Automated indoor vertical farm will produce 30,000 heads of lettuce per day

Spread vertical farm
© Spread

This farmerless farm will also be soilless and sunless, instead relying on robotics, LEDs, and hydroponics to grow more than 10 million heads of lettuce per year in Kyoto, Japan.

The future of local food production, at least in some densely-populated areas, might look a lot more like a factory than a field, and may reduce labor costs considerably by taking the farmer out of the loop in favor of automation. Using highly efficient methods for plant growth, such as hydroponics and aeroponics, can reduce water loss to a minimum, as well as enable the recycling and reuse of water, and engaging energy-efficient LED lighting that can be 'tuned' to plant-friendly spectrums can cut indoor farming energy demands, and when coupled with assembly line techniques, can provide perpetual harvests every day of the year, regardless of the weather outside.

That's a far cry from the backyard garden or neighborhood farm, but it's also a method of producing more food throughout the year, closer to where it will be eaten. If you want fresh lettuce in the winter, and you live in a climate with cold weather, you'll either need your own heated greenhouse or indoor growing space (and probably some supplemental lighting), or you'll need to buy it from someone growing it indoors locally, or you'll (most likely) buy it from a grocery store that imports the lettuce from far away. So unless we all start eating completely seasonally and locally (and probably stop eating lettuce in the winter), most of our food will continue to come by way of a fairly lengthy journey. In light of that, urban indoor farms, especially vertically-stacked farms that can grow food in much smaller spaces than conventional soil-based farms, could be one way of reducing the food miles in our diets.

A few years ago, I covered this former semiconductor factory that has been converted into an indoor farm producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day, which seems incredible until you read about the future "Vegetable Factory" from Spread, which is expected to be able to harvest some 30,000 heads of lettuce per day.

The new facility, a 3,500m² building in Kizugawa, Kyoto (Kansai Science City) will break ground early this summer, with an expected first harvest in the fall of 2017. The new growing facility builds on Spread's first iteration of indoor farming, located in Kameoka, Kyoto, which produces some 21,000 heads of lettuce per day, and adds another layer of automation to the growing process, eliminating the need for human labor for the stages between seedling and harvest, effectively slashing labor costs.

According to Spread:

  • Labor Costs were reduced by 50% due to full automation of the cultivation process from raising the seedling to harvest.
  • We have developed low-cost LED lighting in-house that are specialized for plant factories. These lights are also use less energy and are highly efficient which has helped us achieve the goal of cutting power consumption by 30% in our new factory.

  • We have created a recycling, filtering and sterilization system with the goal of recycling 98% of the water used.

  • We have reduced the amount of water required per head of lettuce down to 0.11L with our recycling filtration system.

  • Large Area Air Conditioning Control System (Temperature, Humidity, CO2): We have made it possible to grow vegetables anywhere in the world in an ideal environment by developing air conditioning technology for humidity and the optimization of temperature that is necessary for the growth of vegetables using photosynthesis.

Of course, we can't live on lettuce alone, so one key element of effective indoor agriculture is learning how to grow a diverse selection of foods, which the company claims it will be pursuing once the Vegetable Factory system proves its worth.

And lest you think that if this continues, then our robotic overlords will soon be controlling everything in the food chain, Shinji Inada, president of Spread, told CNN that traditional farming isn't in danger from these vertical indoor farms:

"I don't think vertical farming will take over the whole farming industry. I still think seasonal and local vegetables are very important and unique and is something to embrace.

"Our business and existing farms have to cohabit together. If you think about the global food situation there is a need for this kind of farming."

Learn more about this project at Spread, or learn more about vertical farming through the lens of one of its biggest proponents, Dickson Despommier.

Tags: Agriculture | Farming | Technology


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