Five years ago stuck in traffic behind a supermarket lorry I could see its destination up ahead. There was a massive supermarket that frequently had empty shelves beneath a roof area of several acres used only to carry their heat exchangers dumping heat. The refrigerated lorry pushing out exhaust fumes and adding to the congestion was no doubt carrying salad crops already half way through their shelf life. Not only that but those lettuces were coming from an expensively heated greenhouse. There had to be a better way! Looking at what traditional growers do and, seeing the ever increasing drive to encourage local food, we studied the approach of our competitors. What we saw surprised us. Here in the UK standard thinking appears to have taken one of two paths. On the one side interested consumers have sought to bring the traditional allotment style growing into cities. Some are doing a remarkable job with containers and small rooftop facilities. The other route is based on bringing the standard rural greenhouse business model into the city. This appears to be the common approach around the world.
There are many examples of people taking over disused buildings and then looking at what they can do to grow inside with controlled conditions. Some are looking to install standard greenhouse structures on "brown field". Neither of these have long term viability. A disused building was once an expensive commercial asset. A brown field site is invariably where an old industrial building has fallen into disrepair and been demolished. A few are growing in edge of city warehouses. All of these facilities rely on using sites that are already or will shortly be highly prized commercial assets – and subject to the same local taxes (business rates) and rental charges as any other commercial building.
Like traditional growers they look to add heat, carbon dioxide and for those inside lighting as well. The argument goes that they have reduced their transport costs. We argue that all they have done is swap the cheapest element of transport with some very expensive overheads.Sometimes it feels like my whole life has been all about preparing me for building City Farm Systems into the business it should be.
On occasion I have wished I had qualified as an accountant many years ago - until I remember that would have meant doing it before PCs were present on every desk!
My ability to find cost saving measures sent me down the path that has resulted in forming City Farm Systems. Stuck in traffic on my way home one day I found myself waiting behind a supermarket lorry - in sight of its destination. Here was one of the most expensive vehicles on the road doing nothing but creating further pollution. It was delivering "fresh produce" - that we now know was 3 days old. The chilled bagged salads on board had now travelled 500 miles. Having come from a supplier paying to heat his greenhouses it was about to arrive at a supermarket that had a large unused roof space - apart from the equipment dumping heat.
Several years later we have patent pending technology that shortens supply chains.
With current suppliers saying it can take 500miles and 3 days to get bagged salads to the retailer. Leading retailers say 60% of bagged salad ends up wasted. With a City Farm Systems installation they could give those 3 days to the consumer.
The savings we can offer are enormous – no transport, less packaging and lower costs and pollution.Combining these insights with the guidance we found in many meetings with academics and professionals has driven us to seek an alternative. Over the past 5 years we have researched and thought about urban farming and studied the approach of our competitors. The result of this development – going through several prototype stages is that we have now filed a patent to protect our IP and defined a set of parameters that drive our design process. These essential rules for our systems allow us to design systems that are ideal for the market place as we see it.
Looking out over a city there are a huge number of rooftops doing very little. Many of the larger, flatter rooftops cover retail outlets. Very quickly you can identify the food retailers... they are the ones with big air handling units in a corner. They are paying to dump the heat energy from fridges and freezers while their suppliers are paying to heat their greenhouses.
Whilst our competitors started with a big solid base and built giant boxes to hold their thinking we looked out and saw giant boxes we could sit on. Why restrict ourselves to growing inside a box when our potential customers already had huge rooftops and could give us free heat?
Whilst our competitors built massive frames to carry Zip Grow towers or trays with a vast array of piping to water them and walkways to access them we looked at roof constructions. Placing their systems inside their expensive buildings we could see they would still need to deliver their produce. By growing above a retailer we could do away with transport altogether. Rather than design, develop and pay for tooling to produce bespoke growing trays we looked at the standard items used by traditional growers. In most of Europe the horticultural industry uses Danish Trolleys together with a range of trays designed for single use. As such they are a disposable item and cost a few pennies. This was a wheel that did not need reinventing!
By using space framing techniques our modular systems both carry our technology and form the frame of a rooftop greenhouse. Rather than leave expensively heated and lit areas for the workforce to access the growing crops we do away with the need for a workforce to access the roof. Unlike some greenhouses where they need to drive a tractor inside (a big reason the crops need washing) we use the whole volume for production. By using automation to transfer crops to and from the rooftop facilities we can fill the volume. By doing away with the need for a rooftop workforce we have no problems with high insurance costs and can utilise typical low pitch roof areas.
There is a big disconnect between most growers and consumers. Much of the growing industry has concentrated on quantity rather than quality for far too long. A few growers are happy to concentrate on "micro greens" and high priced produce for top end restaurants – but they cater for a niche market.
Traditional industry has worked to maximise their output to the detriment of taste quality. As such they have a very high Minimum Efficiency Scale (MES). To put this another way it means they have to fill a whole lorry on every trip. This invariably means a mobile workforce is taken to one location today and another tomorrow. The only way this can work is to supply a distribution centre. The produce is grown as quickly as possible and chilled during distribution. Much of the most perishable produce is 3 days old by the time it reaches the retail shelf. With our systems there is no need for empty shelves as a fresh supply is only ever a few minutes away.
It is well know that tomatoes lose their flavour below 5oC. James Wong (@BotanyGeek on Twitter) talks of how basil grown at 15oC has a fraction of the flavour if grown at 25oC and had written books on the subject of how to maximise flavour.