Future Greens: In Conversation with David Dixon
9th September 2022
So what is Future Greens and how did it begin?
Future greens is an indoor vertical farm which means that we grow leafy greens indoors using artificial light and very efficient watering systems, so we essentially reuse and recirculate all the water which nets us a water saving of 95% compared to conventional farming where the water just drips into the soil. We really focus on salad greens right now, lettuce, rocket but the potential is there to use technology to grow all kinds of crops like strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and the like
So the focus on vertical growing, is that mainly to save space?
Yes, so the two big advantages we have is saving space because we are stacking the growth space on the same plot of land, we can pretty much quadruple or more the production because obviously if you have a field farm growing one level versus big indoor farms, they make maybe fifteen levels, so that’s one major advantage, another is that you can produce year-round because you can control the environment because its heated, and cooled year-round so we have a consistent production
What have you been working on so far?
Right now what we have done in the past six months or so is have a pilot farm up in the outskirts of Sheffield which is thirty-five square metres. We had a lot of our processes based on manual control just because we were focussing on creating the product and trying out what our consumers are, are they willing to pay more for an indoor-farmed product? Obviously, we can offer benefits that other farms can’t, we grow fully without pesticides for example because it’s a controlled environment – we control what comes in and out, we can also offer a local product year-round. We started farming back in January when there was no local produce available, and we were able to offer super-fresh farmed salad and we used less water. So those benefits we were testing the assumption out in the market, would people care about it, are they willing to pay more, so while on the tech side we were quite basic our focus was more on establishing the product on the market
What are your objectives at the moment?
So right now we are a team of five. My background is finance, the rest of my team have more of an engineering background, computing, our co-founder has a computer-science background, so we are really trying to create systems that are scalable, trying to take out a lot of the manual labour that we were doing throughout the past months
So is harvesting just manual labour right now?
Yes, so that is one of the things we are looking at, how to make it more efficient. Another big thing is just the growing because what we did is manually controlled all the nutrients and made sure that plants got what they needed, and now we are looking towards systems that automatically disperse the nutrients and water
And then you could do it on a much larger scale?
Exactly. We are raising funding right now to scale it up, just as with normal farming you need to do it with scale for it to make sense, the same goes for us.
What are your prices currently?
During the past months that we have been trading, we have sold our product for about twice the price of a supermarket. We retailed at say £2 for 80g or £25 per kilo, whereas in Tesco’s if you bought a bag of leaf salad you’d pay about £12 per kilo. So we were asking almost double for it
What are your plans to lower the price?
Obviously it becomes cheaper with scale because our dream eventually for the business and our vision is to get the cost of production so that it’s as cheap to grow indoor farmed lettuce in the UK as it is to fly something over from Spain or Italy for example. That is our long-term vision, to equate those production costs, but that’s going to take years, a very large scale of farming to get to that point, and until we can get then our model is basically offering pesticide-free, local, and sustainably grown product but currently we just have to charge more for it to make the business work
Does your use of light and heat consumption not also produce pollution just like flying things from abroad?
That’s true, so we are using LED lights, we are using a lot of electricity, that’s one of the drawbacks I’d say of the way that we farm, but we are looking towards the future. Right now, especially with the rising electricity costs, we are really feeling these pains too. However, in the UN has some serious concerns about water scarcity, this while technology like LED is getting more and more efficient as time progresses, and we are getting better at making renewable energy sources more efficient, so we are constantly getting asked about electricity and costs like that but we really think that moving forward, water is going to be much more important than electricity, and that’s going to be the limiting resource and something that right now we don’t really care about, but in twenty or thirty years it’s going to be a major issue, so we are really anticipating that and optimising towards saving as much water as we can and what we use compared to what a conventional farm would use, the difference is huge – 95% less just from circulating.
Do you think this is the future, that this will catch on as a new method of farming?
I don’t thin indoor farming needs to be 100% of all farms, right now we don’t even have the technology for that because while leafy greens for example, indoor farms around the world are quite good at growing those, there’s farms experimenting with tomatoes and strawberries, so its getting figured out, but obviously there’s a lot more crops that are consumed on a daily basis – potatoes, onions, things like that, there’s a lot of crops which right now haven’t been figured out in indoor farming, and who knows if it will ever make sense to grow potatoes indoors. So I think it’s cooperation, you need both. There are some crops which are very suitable for indoor farming, but then there’s going to be crops like rice or wheat or potatoes that probably will just be fine growing in a conventional manner
Is there promise for this method in the future at avoiding things like drought or pests such as locusts from destroying large crops?
Yes exactly. Currently the only limiting factor is technology, for example can we figure out a way to do it more efficiently than a farm could do it outdoors? But the indoor, controlled environment allows us to avoid things like that.
How did you start out, how did you get going?
My co-founder and I started with conventional farming, I was doing finance, she was doing her degree in computer-science, but we both had a bit of a passion for agriculture, we wanted to see whether we could make a living being farmers. So, we started with conventional agriculture, as organic farmers, and then while trying that we were faced with unpredictable weather, pests, poor soil, and so we started thinking what’s a twenty-first century way of doing this? And slowly but surely, we started thinking about indoor farming and controlling more and more variables.
When did you get the idea?
The idea came about a year-and-a-half ago, and then we spent about a year alongside our studies doing it and thinking about it, and then we launched the business about six months ago in January
Were you not concerned it would disrupt your studies?
Yes, there was definitely tough to try and develop a business while studying, for me luckily when the business idea came about, I only had a few months left so it wasn’t too difficult in the end. For my co-founder it was a harder time because he still had more than a year to go so she had some delays to her studies just trying to juggle those two things, so it hasn’t been easy to do something as ambitious as what we are doing and to study alongside it, and she still has now only just finished her degree.
Did your finance skills help you in starting out?
Finance taught me a lot about business models and how to make a viable business, and look at financially, are we going to get returns to make this a sustainable business, can it pay the bills in the long term? Another thing is that for most ambitious start-ups you’ll need outside funding and my degree has really helped me in presenting the business to investors and compiling those documents, being able to talk about financial forecasts and the like. So, I found my degree to be really useful, and for my co-founder as well, while we were doing a lot of manual things, at large scale it all needs to be software, when you plant, harvest, what the temperatures and conditions are etcetera. I found that we had very relevant backgrounds but at the same time you’ve got plant science and how you grow crops and what makes a plant grow well, most of that has been from my passion and hobbies really, plants have been a hobby of mine for a very long time and that’s in part where the business idea came from too just from growing plants since I was a kid
So how was the process of scaling up, going from outdoor to indoor, did you hire people in the process or reach out to people?
Originally my parents owned a plot of land and we just had a go at growing crops the old school way, whereas when we went into indoor farming we actually had a business and dealt with clients, but most of it, the whole setup, it was just us, we didn’t really reach out to anybody to make these really basic systems that we had, but that’s part of the reason there was so much manual labour because we didn’t bring on any engineers or anything like that, it was just us figuring things out and giving it the best we could, so we are kind of making up for it now with our team and designing better engineered systems
What do you grow now?
We grow leaf salad – lettuce, rocket, there’s a bunch of greens, think of any salad bag that you buy in the shops. We also grow some microgreens but moving forward we are focussed on leaf salad because that is the biggest market. Also, an interesting distinction is that we aren’t doing lettuce heads either, you see in the UK, there’s a lot of indoor farms that grow heads of lettuce because it’s easier to grow and process from a business point of view because all you do is harvest and pack it. But we very specifically focus on actual salad; read-to-eat little leaves that you just grab and put on your plate. We do grow some microgreens and put them into our salad mixes because we have seen that they’re kind of a novelty product, super-nutritious and they look fun.
What makes you different from other indoor farms, do you have many competitors?
Well we’re looking at competitors UK wide, so there’s some bigger farms in London that could be called competitors. But we have a few edges. Firstly, the produce we focus on, there’s a farm in London called Growing Underground, they grow in bunkers, so they mainly focus on microgreens and a lot of their customer base is high-class restaurants, that’s because microgreens are fun and exciting but quite a niche crop right now.
Can you explain what microgreens are?
Microgreens are like sprouts, they’re ten-to-fourteen-day-old plants, they have their first two leaves. You have to think of crops like broccoli for example, and red cabbage, when broccoli is only ten to fourteen days old, it tastes nice, sweeter than the adult plant, and has a really concentrated nutritional value so they’re very healthy, like a super-food. But a lot of people don’t know what they are, and the people that do are willing to pay more, and a lot of those consumers are restaurants that use them in unique dishes which is not something with wide appeal and we found it to be quite a tough marketing job to just even make people understand that it is edible and nice to eat and nutritious. They’re easy to grow, fast, and high-market, people are willing to pay more, but it’s not a mass-consumed product yet so the market for it is very small so you’ve got a lot of farms, these small-growers who grow that, and we didn’t think it was a good idea to focus on that if you’re trying to build a really big company because in the end you’ve got to produce what people actually eat on a daily basis and it isn’t microgreens or lettuce heads as many indoor farms grow and our focus on that in the UK, this leaf salad, is quite unique, there’s no indoor farm that we know of which produces specifically leaf salad. Another thing that we do is we have our own substrate which is the medium plants grow on, in conventional farming that is soil, in hydroponics it is just having plants in water and they get their nutrients from that instead of soil, and currently in hydroponics all those substrates are single-use, but what we have, and what is our own, is a reusable growing substrate so that we can grow in it, clean it, and then use it again, and we are now estimating the economic lifetime of that substrate to be around five years, we can just constantly grow-reuse-grow-reuse. In the long term that saves about 20% of direct costs in the production of crop, as we see in existing hydroponic operations, they spend about 20% of their costs on new substrate every growth cycle
Do you have a better growth cycle than traditional farms?
Traditional farms definitely. If you’re comparing in the spring and summer where the weather is optimal and the sun is out, the growth cycle is roughly the same, the difference is that we can guarantee optimal growing conditions throughout the year whereas traditional farms can only do it in the summer months
What are the current issues and how can traditional farming cope with them?
There are more regenerative farming practises; giving the land a break for a few months a year, crop rotation, growing different crops and avoiding monoculture, more efficient use of water. I think the issues that we are facing and are becoming more apparent is climate change – the more extreme weather, more droughts and floods. You can make the best use of water ever but if it doesn’t rain for a month then it doesn’t matter. It’ll be hard to sustain a farm, even if you use drip-irrigation which is a super-efficient method of delivering water to crops in field because you’re not just spraying it everywhere, even there you have the physics of it: it mostly just drains away into the soil. But also there is just the fact that population growth is going to mean by 2050 we will need 60% more food, and this at the same time as the amount of arable land is decreasing rapidly. And a lot these regenerative practises that require giving the land a rest or using less chemicals for example, while they’re super good for the environment, they end up making the farm less productive, the reason why intensive agriculture is as intensive as it is right now is because it boosts productivity and you need that to feed a growing population, so I think going forward, if you were to stick to conventional agriculture it will only have to get more intensive, more industrialised as the amount of people grows, you’ll have to be more efficient than ever and sadly the main way to do that in a field farm is to do things which are really bad for the environment, and that’s why I think that indoor farming, it’s not perfect, but I think it’s a required solution, we just need a way to optimise space, to start growing crops without soil because soil is degrading fast. That as well as the fact fresh water is shaping up to be one of the biggest challenges of our century.
In the wake of climate change, especially in the global south where things are becoming unsustainable with drought, pests, fires, do you see this becoming a useful tool in these places?
Yes, that’s definitely what makes it an exciting opportunity to work with this, that it’s really scalable, because you are creating these plants factories which are essentially independent of the climate, you can take the same farm you built here and put it anywhere, in any region which has crop issues, and that’s our ambition too, to get to those areas which struggle with food production, the climate and farm there, but it’s a few years out still. In order for that to really be a viable option you’d need a cheaper model to deliver, it doesn’t make sense to go there with a premium product twice the price as normal salad, so we need to look at minimising the costs first.
Is your product currently available anywhere? Have you done any crowdfunding?
Up until recently you could go out in Sheffield and buy our produce, unfortunately that is no longer the case. We are raising funding, not crowdfunding currently, it has its own challenges where you need a committed capital before you can raise money that way, but spreading the word is currently the best way right now. We’re working on it, hopefully you’ll be able soon to go to a supermarket and buy some of our produce
You seem to have made a lot of progress in these six months
Thanks, we’re trying to keep the pace up
Is there a plan in your business to educate people about this type of growing?
Yes, we definitely plan to spread awareness and to have a social media presence and really explain our value-proposition and what we are doing differently and why what we are doing is good, why we call ourselves sustainable. That’s a big part of what we want to build as a brand and a business. We also plan to spend quite a bit of money on spreading the story and telling the message, making people more aware
Thank you very much for speaking with us.
No problem, thank you.