Could tackling the climate and biodiversity crises make our food system healthier? That’s the hope of Ciara Heuston, who swapped out a career with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to become a vertical farmer.
Bowfield Farm is near Borris-in-Ossory in Co Laois, and is owned by her brother-in-law Clive Allen. The farm transitioned to organic Hereford cattle more than a decade ago. Their latest diversification project has been to build a mushroom tunnel. Unlike polytunnels made with clear plastic, mushroom tunnels are insulated dark plastic to keep the light out and the temperature inside warm. On the Bowfield Farm, tunnel LED lights provide light day and night to grow microgreens on vertical shelves stacked six layers high.
The tunnel has the capacity to produce up to 800kg of microgreens a week, and Heuston launched the pea shoots, micro basil and radish shoots at the Savour Kilkenny festival last month. She is hoping to sell to the wholesale trade so the vertically farmed veg will end up on plates in restaurants and cafes. In the future, they will grow herbs and other veg, but for the moment the microgreens are the main output from the hydroponic system. The seeds are sown on cotton matting and then grown using water which has nutrients added to it. It is a soil-free system. The controlled atmosphere allows them to grow without sprays. They grow quickly, between 8 to 21 days from seed to crop. Pests like whitefly which could decimate tender crops aren’t a problem, and they use up to 90 per cent less water, she says, as the water is recycled through the growing trays.
It’s saving air miles, she explains, as they can grow 365 days of the year. “Our next plan is to go solar by building a frame on the side of the mushroom tunnel.” Renewable energy will make the electricity input into the system cleaner. It is ideal for urban farming, she believes, producing freshly grown produce where it’s needed.
There are just 100 commercial fruit and vegetable growers left in Ireland, down from 400 a couple of decades ago. At the heart of the problem is below-cost selling by supermarkets. The 49-cent deals have become 39-cent deals, despite rising costs for growers. Vertical farming offers one way of reversing the slide into food insecurity, where the healthiest foods we can eat are no longer grown on the island.
“We can’t stand still and farm as we’ve always farmed,” Heuston says. “These eco-friendly methods are here and we have to move quickly to diversify.” With three children under 10, she is hopeful the new project will make “a longer-term future for the farm … we’d like to create awareness that there are opportunities to change.”