Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes

I live in Denbighshire, North Wales and have worked in the food and farming industry for the last 15 years.  I live with my husband Philip (NSch2001), and two football mad boys on our family farm, a mixed beef, sheep enterprise.  We have diversified into tourism with a caravan park, renewable energy including solar, ground source and are currently building a farm based Anaerobic Digester plant.  I run a separate business growing edible flowers (Eat My Flowers) processing them into crystallised flowers and edible flower lollipops which are sold into the wedding, hotel and retail market in the UK and abroad.

I studied Agriculture and Environmental Science at Newcastle University before training to become an Agronomist with Countrywide Farmers then moving to work for Syngenta Agrochemicals.  After marriage to a Welshman, a move to the uplands meant leaving behind my arable background. I then worked in agri- marketing and tourism before setting up my own business. Outside work, much of my time is spent standing on side-lines watching football or rugby matches! Until recently, I ran the local Beaver Scout group, was PTA treasurer and I still volunteer in a local primary school. I enjoy cooking and walking my dog. The rest of my spare time is spent being quizzed on my limited knowledge of various premier league and international footballers by my children.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the AHDB for their generosity in sponsoring my Nuffield Scholarship.

Study Overview

Media coverage of Vertical Farming and Controlled Environment Agriculture suggest it’s the panacea to all our problems, ranging from: feeding a growing population, solving the environmental issues surrounding conventional horticulture as well as producing a high-quality crop where customers are prepared to pay premium prices. Is there any truth in these claims and if so what are the economics behind this growing system?

As a grower of edible flowers, which are processed and sold into a high value niche market, and living on a mixed sheep and beef farm in a Less Favoured Area of the UK, can the Vertical Farming model have anything to offer me? With increasing land prices, a shrinking and ageing rural workforce, increased climate variability and business challenges and opportunities post-Brexit - can this compact and highly productive growing system stack up economically as a viable way to grow a crop?

The report considers Vertical Farming and Controlled Environment Agriculture systems, the different crops and business models available, the main costs involved in the systems, advances in technology, the effects of automation and robotics, the stakeholders and investors and, finally, where is the UK currently in this industry.

The primary aim of the report was to look at examples in countries identified as being at the forefront in this type of growing system: Japan, the Netherlands, the USA, Dubai and Germany. It also covers other areas of technological advancement in the conventional glasshouse growing system to see if lessons could be learned here too. The findings should prove useful to growers considering investing in this technology, as well as stakeholders and investors considering ventures and partnerships.

The main issues occur when potential stakeholders focus on the growing method first i.e. Vertical Farming production techniques without first finding the best way to produce the crop as part of a robust business model. The technology is available to grow a wide range of crops under controlled conditions, but this requires high levels of technical skill and investment both of which can be difficult to access.

There are business models where Vertical Farming/Controlled Environment Agriculture would work well, such as seed breeding and medicinal plants; however other models, such as niche crops, fodder and leafy greens, appear more marginal.

Some of the arguments for sustainability are difficult to substantiate in relation to energy use, even if it is renewable energy. However they are more convincing when applied to water use. Data collection and plant growing algorithms are a valuable piece of intellectual property for companies, and the advances in light manipulation and the effect it has on plant growing characteristics are a new area of knowledge in this industry.

There is an exciting future for controlled environment agriculture and Vertical Farming, but it may not be in the crop areas which are hitting the headlines now. For conventional horticultural products a hybrid system may be the answer, taking the best of both systems to maximise growing production.

For those thinking of using this growing system the ideal would be to model all the variable costs of each different Controlled Environment Agriculture system to assess its economic viability. This could be revisited if the situation changes: for example as LED lighting costs reduce, electricity costs change, or conventional production method costs increase. This would allow potential businesses to assess when the ‘sweet spot’ was hit in terms of economic viability.

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