UK Plans to Build Its Largest Vertical Farm Yet

The 32-acre site in Scotland will reduce dependence on EU produce imports.

Nick Green, Shockingly Fresh
Nick Green of Shockingly Fresh stands in the Offenham farm location.

Shockingly Fresh

Bringing home food production is crucial for post-Brexit Britain. One solution to reduce reliance on European imports is to find ways that allow more food to be grown on less land. For this, vertical faming offers some interesting options. 

Land use is a key consideration in the future of farming. In order to tackle the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity losses, we must consider how we can feed our ever-growing populations while also rewilding natural landscapes and overhauling the current farming sector. 

Vertical Farms

Edinburgh-based company Shockingly Fresh has opened a vertical farm in Offenham, Worcestershire, and has plans to open many more such vertical farms across the UK. Working with salad producer Valefresco and indoor farming specialist Saturn Bioponics, Shockingly Fresh has developed its current three-acre site, designed to "showcase the system at scale, although it is one-tenth the size of our future sites."

Plans for a huge 32-acre site in West Calder, Scotland, are now forging ahead. This will produce around 30 million plants each year and employ 40 farmers, and it could be the largest vertical farm in the United Kingdom.

These plans are part of a growing interest in vertical and hydroponic production, which can provide higher yields with less land use, fewer pesticides, and less water. A soil-less system means any type of land can be utilized, opening potential on marginal and lower quality agricultural sites.

Nick Green, business development director of Shockingly Fresh, told Treehugger, “Not only can any type of land be used as the soil is not important, [but] the system uses 95% less land than the global average to produce the same amount of crop.”

The West Calder project site is located between Glasgow and Edinburgh, in a former mining area most recently used for livestock grazing. As well as developing a main vertical hydroponic growing area and attendant facilities, space on the site will be landscaped with native species to enhance overall biodiversity.

“Vertical farming addresses head-on some of the key challenges facing the UK food chain,” explains Green. “Hydroponics allows us to grow salad crops throughout most of the year, reducing our reliance on EU imports. This means the farms we are developing can ... [extend] our early and late season into times consumers would normally rely on salad imports from the EU.”

Offenham farm worker
A worker in the Offenham vertical farm.

Shockingly Fresh

Hydroponics With Natural Light

What sets these vertical farms apart from other similar developments is that they do not use heating or artificial LED lighting, but rather rely on natural light. Though the production is not as linear as in fully lit systems, the schemes can still grow crops such as seasonal fruits like strawberries in the colder months. This helps reduce the need to import non-seasonal produce to meet consumer demand. 

Green had previously told the Guardian, “It is ultimately better for the environment. I can’t say it’s carbon-neutral but it isn’t as carbon-hungry as an LED vertical farm would be.” 

Saturn’s technology setups, implemented by Shockingly Fresh, require far less upfront capital than a fully enclosed vertical farm; and yet, they deliver most of the benefits, which is already driving the high demand for hydroponically-produced crops. Treehugger reached out to find out more about the inputs for the system.

“We use a mix of fertilisers in the system depending on the crop type. It's important to note that the fertiliser is absorbed directly by the roots; any that it is not is recirculated 'round the system. This means that less is wasted, and none runs off into watercourses,” said Green. 

While hydroponic systems like this one cannot, according to Green, be integrated into aquaponics systems (combining hydroponic growing and fish farming), which would reduce or eliminate the need for external fertilizer inputs, they do offer a use of land that's compatible with the concepts of rewilding and nature conservation. They also reduce reliance on far more damaging external agricultural systems and land use.