Sold on in-store vertical farming

Francois van der Merwe, CEO: CAN-Agri, at the ‘vertical farm’ display. PHOTO: Nettalie Viljoen

Francois van der Merwe, CEO: CAN-Agri, at the ‘vertical farm’ display. PHOTO: Nettalie Viljoen

“Where do vegetables come from, Mom? The store?”

Through the decades, this innocent question has brought a smile to many a parent’s face. But, moving forward, the answer to this query might very well be, “Yes”.

On Tuesday 22 March, Pick n Pay became the first South African retailer to launch in-store “vertical farms” in two of their branches – the one at the Constantia Village shopping centre and the other at On Nicol shopping centre in Sandton. The vertical farms will grow various lettuce leaves and herbs from seeds, right in the retailer’s fruit and vegetable section.

The plan is to place more of these in-store vertical farms – each with eight vertical “growing stacks”, containing 10 plants, respectively – at different stores throughout the country in due course.

While customers won’t be able to buy produce directly from the in-store vertical farms, Liz van Niekerk, Head of Produce and Horticulture at Pick n Pay, says the displays will enable customers, especially the youth, to see first-hand how produce grows and help connect them more to farming.

“For us it is about a education of where your food comes from and the evolution of that within the industry. Kids now open up a pillow pack of leaf and put it in a bowl. Where was that grown and what went in to that product? We are keen to educate, especially where we see new ways of farming,” says Van Niekerk.

The initiative is in partnership with CAN-Agri – a vertical, hydroponic, greenhouse farm in Pretoria – which has been a supplier to the retailer for over three years. While grow lights are used in-store as the produce does not have exposure to natural light, the greenhouse facility maximises sunlight.

When seeing the beautiful glass structure shown on an educational video that is played alongside the in-store display, it should probably not come as a surprise that the man at the head of this project is an architect.

Francois van der Merwe, CEO: CAN-Agri, says he got tired of building shopping centres and office buildings.

“We then started looking at sustainable buildings. We got into mining projects, water purification projects and that led to us meeting people who were doing sustainable farming and we developed some water technologies. We combined these ideas and started developing this,” he explains.

Van der Merwe says they didn’t want to develop another vertical farming solution.

“We wanted to develop one that was sustainable.”

He explains that the cost per gram to grow produce using vertical farming can be very expensive because of the amount of energy needed – LED lights, airconditioners and other equipment.

“So we said, how do we fix that? How do we find a different way to farm vertically without using all this energy and we came to the conclusion that we need to make use of whatever sunlight is available. Even if it is not enough, then you could supplement with LEDs rather than rely completely on them. One hour of sunlight equals 36 hours of LED lights. How do you compete with that?”

Using CAN-Agri’s globally patented technology, the Pretoria facility has the capacity to grow over 384 000 plants at its 3 200 m² growing area. This farming method uses 95% less water, 85% less fertiliser and no pesticides.

Seedlings are grown in seed trays using bio-degradable baskets for three weeks in the nursery greenhouse before they are transplanted into grow tubes in the main greenhouse which has 24 rows spanning 6 meters high. Each row has 200 “growing stacks” which grows 80 plants each.

“The growing stacks are strategically spaced in rows to allow for maximum sunlight. Purified, oxygenated, nutrient-rich water is fed through the top of the grow tubes, it then gravitates down through the tubes flowing over the roots of the plants and is recycled in a continuous closed-loop system,” says Van der Merwe.

The growing stacks are also used to control the climate in the greenhouse. The nutrient-rich water is either cooled or heated, and the grow stacks perform the function of a giant radiator by maintaining an optimum climate.

Because the produce is grown in a controlled environment, the viability to avoid food waste is maximised.

“Everything is monitored, from seed to packet.”

The hope is to open a similar greenhouse facility in Constantia in years to come.