Innovating for fair, sustainable farming

The farmers and business leaders breaking new ground

22nd December 2023

As the climate and nature crises deepen, and pressure on land and supermarket shelves continues to mount, more and more farmers and entrepreneurs are finding innovative ways to make the best use of land and bring sustainable, healthy food to market fairly and profitably.

From new technologies to progressive business and supply chain models, people across the UK are showing that it’s possible to support the UK’s food resilience whilst also delivering for nature and climate.

We caught up with some of the experts and business leaders breaking new ground.

Vertical farming is a burgeoning industry that involves growing crops in vertically stacked layers. The common perception of vertical farming is that it requires millions of pounds of investment and promotes a model of land sparing (i.e. that smaller portions of land should be used to intensively produce food, leaving larger areas of land for climate and nature) rather than land sharing (taking a multifunctional approach to land).

A vertical farm growing salad crops.

But while this is true of some vertical farming outfits, there are innovative, accessible models that are being integrated within diverse farm businesses – these not only help a wider range of farmers grow food all year round in the UK’s hugely varied climatic and topographical conditions but also create jobs in rural communities, increase farm profitability and help meet national targets for climate and nature.

In a recent opinion piece for Wicked Leeks magazine, Riverford founder and farmer Guy Singh Watson reflected on some of the controversy surrounding technologies like vertical farming saying, “There will be few universal solutions; the definition of ‘good farming’ will be as varied as our topographies, soils, climates, and the tastes of the customers we serve.”

Guy’s view that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to vertical farming is shared by Professor Derek Stewart, Director of the Advanced Plant Growth Centre in the James Hutton Institute, an expert on pre-and post-harvest solutions for crop production, including vertical farming.

Professor Derek Stewart, Director of the Advanced Plant Growth Centre.

“Vertical farming can be as low-fi as stacking shelves in a glasshouse with a light on each shelf. That’s still a vertical farm. It can also be really high-fi. What we do at the Advanced Growth Centre is optimise the technology for efficiency, health, sustainability and taste. We want to see vertical farms used for multiple different end uses.

"For example, you wouldn’t want to grow potatoes in a vertical farm, but you might want to grow seed potatoes because they’ll be clean, healthy and disease-free. You can also grow other crop or tree seedlings to then plant outside. It essentially allows farmers to diversify on their land, and in their business.”

Vertical farming also offers some protection from some of the extreme weather events we’ve been seeing in recent years, from 40-degree heatwaves to unseasonal rainfall. “With a vertical farm, a farmer is guaranteed a crop all year round, regardless of the weather. They bring diversification and resilience.”

It’s an attractive offer for many farmers around the UK. “Uptake is growing. People may think that farmers are recalcitrant to change. But they’re incredibly adaptable, and they can pivot to different systems if they choose to.”

Derek also thinks it could revitalise rural economies and attract new entrants to farming. “Right now, there are huge problems with seasonal labour in the horticulture sector because it’s both temporary and offers relatively low wages – it’s a race to the bottom. But vertical farming happens all year round, and the new technology is an attractive proposition for people interested in food growing, sustainability and innovation.”

There are opportunities to bolster local food systems, too. “Big retailers have a chokehold on producers. But more and more, we’re seeing new models emerge where vertical farms sell direct to local customers because they have more control and certainty over their crop. It’s a more equitable supply chain.”

He does, however, acknowledge that vertical farming requires a capital outlay – and this can be off-putting. “It’s a big investment, a leap of faith and a leap of knowledge. But growers will see a return on their investment in as quickly as three years' time depending on the crop being grown – which is fast – and once they’re exposed to the system, they tend to become keen proponents of it. For farmers who can’t afford the initial investment, cooperatives are a good option. I think we’re going to see a shift towards these kind of business models.”

Another criticism routinely levelled at vertical farming is that it’s incredibly energy intensive. “Vertical farming that runs off fossil fuels can have a significant carbon footprint. But here in Scotland, almost all of our electricity is renewable. We have the capacity to power this kind of technology AND deliver low emissions food. There are multiple sources of renewable energy available to farmers and so this model for sustainable food production can be adopted and promoted by them.”

Derek sees a future where farmers can create a more circular, closed loop system on their land – with a mix of farming and land use types. “If you can give over some of your land to renewable energy, like wind turbines or solar panels, then you can use some of that energy to fuel a highly productive vertical farm. All that, alongside growing trees, increasing biodiversity, grazing livestock and growing crops. There’s a place for it all.”

Livestock grazing in and amongst wind turbines.

With recent data from The Royal Society showing we would need additional land twice the size of Wales to meet all the targets set by governments over the last few years, this kind of multifunctional approach is not only desirable but necessary – and technology can help drive this forward.

In Scotland, for example, farmers are using NoFence collar technology to improve outcomes for nature and conservation on their land. NoFence collars use a GPS system to keep livestock within certain boundaries, all through an app on their phone – and this means herds can be moved around easily to ensure land is over-grazed.

For crofters like Donald MacSween on the Isle of Lewis, the technology has been a game-changer. “We’re trying to farm with nature, not against it. The immediate benefit of NoFence is that I’m able to use a croft that hasn’t been grazed on for years because it’s not secure. I’ve been born and raised on traditional crofting, but I’m always looking for opportunities [to innovate].”

Donald’s open-mindedness to new technology that will enable a more climate and nature-friendly way of producing food is shared by farmers all over the country, but as ever, they need more support from government to shift away from the status quo towards more sustainable methods.

In addition to the developments in vertical farming and mob-grazing technologies, growing numbers of farmers and businesses are finding a range of creative and innovative ways to bring sustainable, healthy food to market fairly and profitably.

Rose Lewis, Programme Manager at Woodoaks Farm in Rickmansworth, has been combining nature-friendly farming with other enterprises to diversify the farm’s offering and create a thriving local food hub. After putting out a call to aspiring food and farming entrepreneurs for business ideas to run, Woodoaks has over 80 pitches ranging from mushroom farming sheds to sustainable fibre production for clothes: “We're stacking the enterprises on top of the small mixed farm, engaging the community right at the beginning to come on the journey with us, to ensure that our market is our local community.”

Rose Lewis, Programme Manager at Woodoaks Farm in Rickmansworth.

Rose is also passionate about establishing direct local supply chains: “You can achieve farmer-friendly pricing and citizen-friendly pricing if you take out the middle chunk, which is currently where all the value is. You've got the opportunity to actually allow farmers to make a decent amount of money while selling at affordable prices for citizens.”

It’s a sentiment shared by musician, farmer and food innovator, Andy Cato. Earlier this year, his regenerative grain company Wildfarmed announced a new premium for crops grown on land with high plant diversity.

Wildfarmed works with hundreds of restaurants, retailers and bakeries across the UK, including Marks & Spencer. By offering nature-friendly cereal farmers more security in a volatile commodity market, Andy and his team are demonstrating that sustainable food can also be mainstream – if alternative routes to market are developed. As he says, it’s about “It’s about demonstrating that... food from farming systems that are making a difference is available on the high street at a price that most can afford.”

It’s clear that there’s no shortage of inspiring and forward-thinking farmers, local leaders and food businesses who are working towards a fairer, greener and healthier society for all. What’s needed now are the guardrails and incentives from government to ensure this innovation can create real change at scale and pace.

FFCC is speaking to more of the innovators and business leaders breaking new ground for fair and sustainable farming at the Oxford Farming Conference. The event is now sold out, but we’ll be sharing a recording of the discussion afterwards. Sign up to our newsletter to get it to your inbox when it’s live.