In a 20,000-square-foot industrial warehouse in Hong Kong’s Tai Po, Farm66 grows plants on stacked shelves under LED lighting. “This indoor farm is pest and pollution free, uses no soil and uses minimal water,” says Gordon Tam, co-founder and CEO of Farm66. What’s more, the controlled environment allows the company to control the shape and size of the plants.
Now Tam wants to scale up production of his smart farming technology and is also exploring ways to grow crops in extreme environments, including outer space.
Farm66, founded in 2013, has become a pioneer in vertical farming.
In his patented aquaponics system, aquariums are placed under shelves filled with green leafy herbs and vegetables. Plants filter the water for the carp that live in aquariums, and the fish are fed leftovers – low-quality vegetables that cannot be sold. According to Tam, the fish waste serves as a natural fertilizer for the plants, which makes the Farm 66 system different from hydroponic systems that typically use chemical fertilizers.
Smart sensors monitor environmental conditions, including temperature and humidity, while the LEDs illuminating the shelves use different wavelengths of light to control plant growth.
“Blue light can increase the size of the sheet,” Tam says. “Red (light) makes the leaf smaller, but the stem will be taller.”
For some plants, like lettuce, large leaves are desirable, Tam says, while for tomatoes or strawberries, smaller leaves help channel more energy and nutrients into the fruit. The company experimented with different growing conditions to produce plants of various sizes, including a batch of basil with leaves so large they could cover a person’s face.
Hong Kong’s agricultural sector hasn’t always been this small, says Lam Hong-min, professor of life sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
According to Lam, in the 1960s, more than 25% of Hong Kong’s land was occupied by the cultivation of rice, fruits and vegetables, and until the 1970s, the territory produced about 50% of its own food. But as the city grew, urban development displaced farmland, and low seasonal income from farming further reduced incentives for local food production, he adds.
Indoor vertical farms can solve these problems. By controlling the environment, farmers can grow plants faster and increase their yields, Lam says.
From city limits to open space
Farm66 is currently operating at less than 30% of its capacity, producing about two tons of vegetables per month, which it supplies to several supermarkets and hotels, Tam says.
The high costs of installing indoor vertical farms are still a barrier that makes it difficult to turn a profit, he said. Tam declined to share the company’s revenue, but said less than a third came from vegetable sales. Instead, the company is shifting its focus to research and innovation and developing ways to make the home more accessible.
The company has developed prototype robots to help automate tasks such as harvesting and planting, which Tam says will go into mass production later this year. By partnering with factories in mainland China to produce robots on a large scale, Tam believes he can cut costs for future urban farmers.
Other Farm66 innovations include mini-farms for homes, schools and businesses that are equipped with sensors to monitor and automate crop care.
Whether on Earth or in space, Tam hopes the household will thrive and produce “high quality, safe vegetables for our next generation.”