When salesman Jack Hussey finishes his work day, he closes the laptop, leaves his home in Malahide and walks 10 minutes down the road.
At the bottom of his friend’s farm sits an outhouse with a coldroom which now hosts his side business, Upfarm. A farm that goes upwards.
Imagine a shelf rack, says Hussey. “We’ve kitted the roofs of each shelf with an LED grow light. It’s to replicate the sunlight basically.”
A photo of the farm shows purple light beaming down on thick heads of lemongrass and basil, stacked on shelves.
Yields from vertical farming are far more efficient than in-the-ground farming, Hussey said, on the phone last Friday.
He likens it to real estate. “You can have houses that are populated side by side or you can start going upwards with apartments.”
From Podcast to Table
Hussey always had an interest in food, he says.
Last year he and a school friend, Bill Abbott, began to look into urban farming.
“But we were saying, is farming in the ground actually the best route to go?” Hussey says.
It’s labour intensive, which didn’t suit the two guys, who work other full-time jobs.
Then, in March 2020, Hussey heard a podcast with American urban farmer Curtis Stone.
He had an urban farm where he was using a spin-farming method, says Hussey. “It’s what they call it. You rotate crops out of the ground in a much more efficient way.”
“Essentially he was able to capitalise on a third acre of land. He was able to take in 80k a year,” he says.
Hussey was inspired by that, by somebody making the most of a small bit of land.
So in June last year, in the middle of a pandemic and juggling working from home, Hussey and Abbot set about doing the same, albeit with a different model, and launched their vertical farm.
How It Works
Farmony, which specialises in tech for vertical farming, sold Upfarm with the tools to get up and running – shelves, special LED lighting, a watering system and humidifiers.
It is the ideal conditions for growing produce, says Framony co-founder John Paul Prior.
Nutrients, hours of light, humidity and temperature are controlled in vertical farming, Prior says.
But Farmony is also a data company, Prior says. “So we capture data at all stages of the growing cycle. And we feed that back to the grower.”
This helps the grower to establish the optimum conditions, he says. “That’s not just in terms of plant growth, that’s in terms of workflow management.”
The size of an operation can be the small coldroom in Malahide that uses one Farmony module, and produces microgreens and wheatgrass for sale.
Or it can be like a farm in Tipperary with 60 modules, he says.
A module is 1 metre wide, 1.3 metres long and 2.5 metres tall, Prior says.
Hussey says it is labour-intensive looking after a vertical farm module.
After work last Thursday, he and his dad replanted his microgreen crops into 30 different trays. “It took about two hours,” he says.
What Is the Benefit?
“So as long as you can control your temperature, your humidity, and your nutrient levels in the water, you can basically grow all year round,” says Prior.
Vertical farming also means better conditions for workers, Prior says.
“If you’re working in a controlled environment, like a vertical farm, you’re working in a clean environment,” Prior says.
“You work between 18 to 22 degrees. There’s no harsh frost. There’s no extreme cold winters, equally there’s no burning-hot summers.,” says Prior.
The crop is consistent too, says Prior, thanks to the controlled environment.
“Let’s say I’m someone who loves basil and who makes a lot of pesto at home,” he says.
Getting basil of consistent quality from the supermarket can be difficult when it comes from different countries, or may have been sitting on a shelf for days after travelling thousands of miles, he says.
Why Is this Important?
Soil quality is dropping, Hussey says. “What does that mean for outdoor growing?”
The answer, Hussey says, is vertical farming. It uses mineral-rich water so it doesn’t rely on nutrients from the ground, Hussey says.
Says Prior: “Vertical farming uses about 10 percent of the water of traditional farming.”
Prior says it takes less energy to get food from a nearby vertical farm than to ship it from afar.
It was not always the case until a breakthrough in another industry, he says.
“Billions of dollars have been invested in the cannabis industry globally. It’s meant that the investment in grow-lighting technology has been huge,” he says.
“As a result, the price, the efficiency and most importantly, the energy efficiency of the lighting is really amazing” he says.
Says Hussey: “It’s not easy work but it is nice work. It’s good work.”