The UK’s largest training and research centre for vertical farming has been completed at Reaseheath College and University Centre in Cheshire.

Vertical farming is the practice of growing plants indoors under fully controlled and sterile conditions in stacked layers. It offers a means of growing safe, healthy and nutritious food locally and has been welcomed by environmentalists due to its low food miles and smaller land requirement. It also reduces reliance on food imports.

The Vertical Farming Centre is part of the new Institute of Sustainability and Food Innovation, a joint venture between Reaseheath and its academic partner, the University of Chester. It aims to showcase the technological innovations within this fast growing and specialised sector and offers undergraduates and businesses the opportunity for applied research and technical training. Covering 200 square metres, the main facility consists of three floor to ceiling growing chambers while a separate research growing room allows for micro scale testing and trials such as the effects of different light levels, temperature and nutrient recipes on plant growth and development.

Initially, high value and fast turn round crops such as microleaves and pea shoots are being grown soil-free using a hydroponic system. Plant growth is optimised through the use of an ultra low energy DC 48 volt LED lighting system which can be fine tuned depending on crop stage while a state-of-the art climate control system makes it possible to change temperature, humidity and air flow.

An exciting aspect of such sensitive systems is that they can delay or speed up maturation of crops to order and research indicates that crop yield could be ten times higher than that grown under traditional farming methods. There is also potential to grow crops for specific nutritional and pharmaceutical benefits, and to use solar power as an energy source.

The installation, by iGrowing Ltd., East Yorkshire, has been supported by Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, which has contributed £340,000 through its Local Growth Fund. This government funding is available for projects which benefit the local area and its economy.

Simon Burgess, Reaseheath’s Head of Projects, Research and Innovation, said: “This is an exceptionally exciting project which offers tremendous benefits to both our students and our academic and industry partners. University Centre Reaseheath is extremely good at applying practical science to commercial research and this will open up a lot of opportunities, for instance through our ability to set up trials and develop the optimum conditions for growing particular crops.

“We are also looking to engage schools and colleges and excite students about digital and STEM subjects, particularly programming and statistics. Hopefully this will open their minds to potential careers within the food production, horticultural and agricultural industries.”

Clare Hayward, Chair of the Cheshire and Warrington LEP added: “It’s wonderful to see the Vertical Farming Centre progress – one of six projects at Reaseheath that we have supported through the Local Growth Fund.

“Innovation in agriculture is important for all our futures and central to the agenda we are progressing through our Sustainable and Inclusive Growth Commission. Vertical Farming comes with the promise of increased crop yields from a smaller area of land, along with many other benefits, and Cheshire students and businesses need to be able to access this 21st century technology.”

Martin Ellis, Director of iGrowing Ltd, commented: “We are delighted to be working with Reaseheath on this innovative project. It will provide excellent hands-on access for students and businesses and enable them to fully understand the benefits, both commercial and environmental, of these growing systems. There is no doubt that vertical farming will play a greater part in sustainable crop production in the future.”

Crop Production Supervisor Jake Jackson, a University Centre Reaseheath graduate, is in charge of the day to day management of the new facility.

He said: “This is an excellent opportunity to work at the forefront of modern technology. This leading edge system is particularly relevant to food production, as the sector is constantly striving for quicker turn arounds with minimal carbon footprint.

“I’m extremely excited as to where this might lead. Who knows, in the future we may see vertical farms on supermarket roofs!”