Eco-friendly strawberries all year round: the benefits of growing up

Strawberries are available year-round and are fresher, cheaper and more environmentally friendly – the promise of an indoor vertical farm.

Kiwi Arama Kukutai – CEO of Plenty – is about to open one of the largest vertical farms in the world. Using LED lights and robots, the US-based facility can grow a whole lettuce in 10 days: “That’s 15 to 20 times faster than a field,” he says.

Lots of farms will supply fresh produce to retail Walmart. Next, Kukutai will transfer the technology to the east coast of the United States and, perhaps one day, to New Zealand and Australia.

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Kukutai (Ngāti Maniapoto, Tainui, Te Aupōuri) challenges anyone who believes that traditional farming receives free sunlight and water. Many crops require irrigation, which consumes energy.

It is estimated that Plenty Farms uses only 5% more water than a conventional farm. “We measure the amount of water in individual plants, we measure the nutrients. We have data at the plant level. We know how the plants work.”

Sunlight also means exposure to the elements and pests. “It could be a hailstorm that kills all the strawberries. It could be insects or pests that attack the crop,” Kokutay said.

Plenty's vertical farms use robots to harvest their crops as well as grow seedlings for the next cycle.

plentiful / supplied

Plenty’s vertical farms use robots to harvest their crops as well as grow seedlings for the next cycle.

Most Plenty farms are run by robots, but not exclusively. With plants growing faster under intense UV light, a farmer can harvest once a month. “We can change the whole system to produce different vegetables on the fly. The retailer gets the products they want whenever they want them.”

A 2018 report on vertical farming noted that the process was only suitable for some crops — Plenty currently grows leafy greens and expands into tomatoes and strawberries. In addition, the report on New Zealand has ended Exorbitant costs From creating internal systems the savings outweighed. But Kokutay said the climate crisis is now changing the balance.

Outdoor crops will increasingly weather droughts, storms, wild winds and floods. Indoor plantings will be better protected from these.

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There is a risk that indoor farms may worsen our carbon production.

Already, kiwi greenhouses burning coal and natural gas To keep crops warm in winter.

Kukutai acknowledged that farm LED lights are energy-intensive. If electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, then vertical farming could increase greenhouse emissions. He had hoped to pair the new Plenty facilities with renewable power generation projects. “It aligns with our mission… Renewable capacity is a priority.”

He added that one hectare of vertical farming can cultivate between 200 and 300 hectares of conventional fields. This means produce can be grown closer to cities, reducing food miles. “When you’re close to the customer, you don’t ship the product left, right, and center.”

Arama Kukutai is the CEO of Plenty, a vertical farming company based in the United States.

Kay Schwerer / The Stuff

Arama Kukutai is the CEO of Plenty, a vertical farming company based in the United States.

It doesn’t use a lot of pesticides or herbicides. He said indoor farming significantly reduces food waste. “Up to a third of the food produced in the field is lost.”

Kokutay added that lower delivery times mean produce stays fresher for longer, as fewer foods purchased end up rotting and taking out trash.

Given these efficiencies, Kukutai believes that vertical farming should be able to produce products that are cheaper than traditional farming systems. He added that this achievement has not yet been achieved. ‘But this is the point of investing in technology to reduce cost.’

The CEO said agriculture could also allow more land to be used for other purposes such as carbon sequestration. “Land is a precious resource. We will discover other ways to use it.”

Kiwi Business 26 Seasons operates vertical farms in Auckland, Foxton and WellingtonGrowing small greens and strawberries.

When asked if Plenty would join them on the shores of New Zealand, Kokutay couldn’t say anything definitive. But he thought a small farm could be feasible. “I have a slight bias, being a kiwi.”

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