Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Vertical farming

By Dr Rob Hancock, James Hutton Institute

Invergowrie

The Advanced Plant Growth Centre (APGC) at the James Hutton Institute is a new £27M project, funded through the Tay Cities Deal, that aims to exploit advances in controlled growing environments, environmental and plant monitoring technologies to bring about a step change in the way our research supports agriculture.

Following a detailed design and planning phase the APGC build is anticipated to start in 2020. We will measure the impact of the project primarily through anticipated increases in interaction and co-funding of research with the agricultural industry and other academic partners, and the resultant economic value added to the associated supply and value chains.

The capacity to grow large numbers of plants in highly controlled environments provides us with previously unavailable opportunities to accelerate the breeding of climate resilient crops required for the future of agriculture. For example, by optimising the environment to promote plant growth and development, we are able to produce multiple generations each year. Combining this with high throughput imaging technologies that allow us to rapidly assess the performance of individual plants will provide us with opportunities to massively accelerate our breeding programmes, bringing the varieties that growers need to the market place much sooner. These same imaging technologies have enormous value in the field: not only to monitor crop performance at high spatial resolution providing vital information for precision agriculture, but also for early disease diagnosis allowing farmers and growers to deal with pathogens before they impact yield and quality.

Although still in the design phase, a key element of the APGC has been extensive industry consultation right from conception, through to funding and now design. A big part of the successful bid was our capacity to demonstrate industry relevance. This was in no small part exemplified by the decision of Intelligent Growth Solutions Ltd. (IGS), a pioneering automated vertical farming company, to co-locate onto the Invergowrie campus of the Institute. The cross fertilisation of knowledge and ideas has challenged both organisations to think in the broadest possible terms about the application of their respective skills and knowledge to the broadest possible industrial base, including not only agriculture but also other applications in automation, big data, sensing and lighting technologies.

Although the project is still in its infancy, we’ve found the dialogue between industry and academia has been important to allow us to ensure the facility will meet the research challenges of the future.