Vertical farms will end imported soft fruits and herbs in ten years, claims Ocado-backed JFC

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Jones Food Company/Fergus Franks
Image: Jones Food Company/Fergus Franks

Related tags Food security vertical farming

Ambitious UK vertical farmer Jones Food Company claims its new research centre will help the country end its reliance on the import of soft fruits, herbs and cut flowers within the next decade.

The Ocado-backed company currently supplies 30% of the UK’s fresh cut basil to major retailers, equating to thousands of stores each week.

It operates a facility in Lincolnshire (called JFC1), opened in 2018, which it claims is Europe’s single biggest vertical farm.

It is also building a new multi-million-pound farm in Gloucestershire (called JFC2). This will offer 148,000sq ft of growing space, which it declares will make it the world’s largest vertical farm.

Once the JFC2 opens in autumn 2022 the combined growing space of its vertical farms will equate to 96 tennis courts stacked in vertical layers, the company claims.

The business has now opened a specialist, state-of-the-art Innovation Centre in Bristol to further cement its ambitious plans to be at the forefront of what it describes as a burgeoning sector within British farming.

The Innovation Centre will act as a testbed for the types of crops that will be grown at JFC2.

The research and development team will closely study the growing requirements of various plants and varieties as the business evolves the produce range from the leafy greens currently grown at the original site in Lincolnshire.

Vertical farming and food security

JFC believes it can grow soft fruits, flowers, vegetables and even vines on a commercially viable scale in the coming years, thereby significantly impacting the UK’s food security.

Traditional agriculture in the UK has always been affected by seasonality and limited land space, with nearly half of the food Brits consumed imported in 2020, estimates the UK’s 2021 food security report.  

Instead of suggesting it will be growing everything itself, JFC told FoodNavigator it is looking to develop the technology that would make growing soft fruits, herbs and cut flowers through vertical farming methods commercially viable.

With hydroponic growing and precisely controlled environments the variables of weather and land are removed, it said. Growing this way, it claims, also removes the need for pesticides, uses 95% less water and reduces food miles (air and road) and allows planting and harvesting 365 days per year.

A criticism of vertical farming is its very high demand for energy, though JFC claims scale can be achieved using 100% green energy.

High initial and operational costs, on top of the challenge of the sophisticated skills required to operate a vertical farm, are other challenges.

It couldn’t reveal the size of the latest investment. But thanks to its backing by ‘the world's largest dedicated online supermarket’ The Ocado Group, JFC claims to have world class expertise in automation, robotics and food retail to build the highest quality facilities growing first class produce.

“We already know we can grow products other than leafy greens, from mushrooms to blackberries to tulips, but our task through this new facility is to push the speed of growth to work on a commercial scale,”​ said Glynn Stephens, Head of Growing, Jones Food Company.

“We want consumers to be able to pick up vertically grown peppers, tomatoes or berries at their local retailer, and know that that product is sustainable and hasn’t had to travel hundreds of miles to get to their plate.

“JFC is leading the charge with this mission, and our goal is for vertical farming to become the main supplier for the UK’s fresh food in the coming years.

“This is very much an area where we’re seeing relatively quick developments, and we believe that having a fresh punnet of British strawberries at Christmas or eating a homegrown salad in winter, is very much in sight through the work we’re doing here.”

Enabling the UK to become ‘wholly reliant on homegrown fresh produce’

James Lloyd-Jones, JFC founder and CEO, Jones Food Company, added the company is at the vanguard of a huge opportunity to develop technology that impacts consumers both here and around the world.

Consumers, retailers, government and everyone involved recognises the importance and benefits of reducing emissions, reducing food miles, reducing pesticide use, reducing water use and generally being more sustainable in the way we grow our food,”​ he noted.

“With the launch of our new Innovation Centre, our aim is to build on what we’ve already achieved and to diversify our produce range at scale, so that the UK can be wholly reliant on homegrown fresh produce. It’s clear from what we've achieved and are planning that, within the next 10 years, the UK could be in a position where we no longer have to fly-in soft fruits and herbs from southern Europe, north Africa, the Caribbean or anywhere else.

“We will now be able to test, trial and adapt quickly, and I’m sure the learnings here will pave the way for not only the future of UK vertical farming, but the future of UK farming.”

JFC’s research and development team is supported by a number of young talents that are new to the agricultural industry, from impressive academic backgrounds both here and abroad.

“We have chosen Bristol as the home for our Innovation Centre for several reasons. Firstly, it’s very close to the site in Lydney where we’re building the world’s largest vertical farm so there are operational benefits; secondly, there is a large and well-educated workforce from which to attract new talent in the space where agriculture and technology collide; and lastly, of course, as a city, Bristol is among the most sustainably-minded in the UK so there is a strong attitudinal link.”

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