ULTRA NATURA WHERE NATURE MEETS NURTURE November 3, 2022

Vertical farming, a new technology for our industry

Within our industry we are familiar with product shortages, poor crops, climate induced disasters, plant diseases, supply chain issues and rising transport costs. We also know the value of on-site extraction. This means that we as an industry inevitably contribute to the global shipping pollution by transporting our tea tree from Australia to Iceland. The reality is that our industry is not alone. The growing global population has put pressures on farms, farmland and the shipping industry.

Fresh produce travels thousands of miles to reach the customer, losing in excess of 50% of the nutritional value along the way. Research indicates the next three decades will witness unforeseen challenges with rapidly altering climate conditions and fuel costs. So, we look to new technologies to help support our farms and customers.

WHAT IS VERTICAL FARMING ? 

Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops vertically in controlled indoor environements rather than the traditional horizontal rows in fields. This allows for conservation of space and produces higher crop yields per square foot of land. Vertical farms can be placed anywhere in the world and use a range of technologies including LED lights, artificial intelligence (AI), hydroponics, sensors and cameras and intelligent feeding systems to create for the plant ideal growing conditions irrespective of the external climate. It is this optimisation of the growing environment that makes this interesting to our industry. The global vertical farming market is expected to register a CAGR of 20.2% from 2022 to 2026, and Ultra International is growing with this technology.

ULTRA NATURA- PROJECT NATURE

It’s a rainy afternoon in London, as it usually is. Our shipment is delayed at the port. The current geopolitical crisis is holding up the order and prices are rising. We don’t know when we will get the material and we don’t know when we next will. The botanical isn’t native to the UK and the cost of traditionally farming in northern Europe would price us out of the supply chain. So, we take inspiration from the salad market, for price stability, increased production yearly, better taste and guaranteed on time delivery. So, the idea was planted. We then started exploring what we would like to grow; our focus is to localise growth of exotic plants and speciality ingredients. We have selectively chosen plants not grown in Europe or north America, plants requiring difficult growing conditions, plants shipped around the world or facing climate induced disasters, geopolitical disasters or diseases. We worked out CO2 emissions vs growing the botanicals locally and the electricity required and started on a mission for net zero carbon emissions. In early 2022 a plant scientist, agronomist and lighting engineer joined our team to work out what (from our wish list) is feasible to grow within these controlled conditions and Ultra Natura germinated. Then in July 2022 it all kicked off. Our pilot R&D site and our container farm arrived at the Ultra UK facility in Chertsey, West London. Trials began on an initial few plants such as coriander, basil and patchouli. Unlike traditional vertical farming we are focused on the value addition of these plants. We focus on reducing growing times, aroma, oil yield within the plant (as we have onsite extraction) and working on being as sustainable as we possibly can. Plants are packed in neat rows, 95% of the water is recycled to feed the plants pesticide free and take measures to ensure our electricity contribution is only coming from sustainable sources. Our engineer works on packing in the most biomass possible, off-setting costs and what actions we can take to reduce our carbon footprint. Our agronomist looks at improving the growing conditions of the plant and tailoring the environment to produce a high quality consistent essential oil from the biomass. Our QC here in Chertsey, analyses our extracts from the pilot production to feedback when we are onto a winning “recipe”.

We have selectively chosen plants not grown in Europe or north America, plants requiring difficult growing conditions, plants shipped around the world or facing climate induced disasters, geopolitical disasters or diseases.

 THE CONTAINER FARM – ULTRA NATURA PILOT FACILITY

 The Ultra International container farm is customised to cater for research on short-grow and tall-grow crops with grow chambers that are completely controllable and with multiple flood and drain trays for water recycling. These specialised irrigation systems allow the excess water in this system to be pumped through the pipe network and collected into the plant room, before being pushed outside. This nutrient rich water can be re-used, thus saving water during the entire process. Two independent climate zones have been created to provide suitable conditions for a varied crop collection. The system allows monitoring and data collection of all parameters. Remote access and state of the art cameras have been placed to check on our plants 24/7 allowing us to monitor and adjust environmental conditions. A lot of research has gone into designing and customising the container we wanted to suit any growing conditions; relative humidity, temperature, light intensity and wavelength to be possible within the grow room giving Ultra the flexibility to conduct simultaneous tests on varied plant types.

NEXT STEPS – EXPANSION OF R&D

During the next few months, the aim is to shift towards data harvesting, and begin construction of a larger R&D centre. This phase will witness the addition of new crops to the programme such as lemongrass and saffron. Achieving price stability is a key objective of Ultra Natura. Towards this goal a multi-layered plan has been put into action. While the use of innovative ingredients is being studied, research and parallel talks with key customers are also in the pipeline. Once all the data are collated, our scientists will perfect recipes to obtain optimal results. In our upcoming R & D facility we hope to conduct trials on untested plants and build a comprehensive database for growing in a controlled environment. We hope our larger R&D centre will be ready for Spring/Summer 2023. Vertical farming provides unique solutions to the problems of feeding a growing planet. The next Ultra Natura facility will enable us to control the entire journey of a crop, from seed to store. It allows us to produce more, use fewer resources and reduce transportation.

Ultra International is committed to sustainable practices and Ultra Natura was born to promote this agenda. The idea was proposed to localise growth of exotic plants and speciality ingredients. To ensure consistent availability, quality and price, plants were propagated in controlled indoor environments. We want to offer our customers sustainability, transparency, traceability, and net zero carbon emissions. Vertical farming is paving a path towards a greener future. It provides unique solutions to the problems of feeding a growing planet. The Ultra Natura facility enables us to control the entire journey of a crop, from seed to store. It allows us to produce more, use fewer resources and reduce transportation. We are committed towards a sustainable future. Are you?