In honour of months of producing deliciously nutritious microgreens, we decided to sit down with our co-owners Ty Dickson – the technologist and facility designer – and Darren Nichol – visionary of Australia’s cleanest and highest nutritional food supply – to chat a bit about the facility and how it factors into our sustainability mission.
Let’s kick this interview off with some background. Tell us a bit about yourselves and what led you to the conception of April Sun.
TD: I’ve worked in the Heating Ventilation and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) industry designing systems for over 10 years. I enjoy the symbiotic relationship of components that collectively create a symphony when working within design parameters and consequently in harmony – this is what I consider a form of art. The better the design and component selection relationship, the greater the efficiency yielded.
I was introduced to vertical farming through my now business partner Darren. He was exploring this new agritech (agriculture technology) and it piqued my interest. From there, we together worked on a business vision, design targets, a sustainability and profitability model and forged ahead!
Vertical farming is just adding an extra step into what I have been doing for many years. I used to design and manage the build of systems to control temperature, humidity and air quality for process systems or human comfort – now I’m designing and building systems to control temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, nutrient parameters, light spectrum and intensity for the necessity of plants. This is a unique challenge that I believe is one of the next steps in agriculture.
To design and build systems that increase the efficacy of fresh produce growth times and biomass availability per m2 of growing space is an enjoyable mission. This is no doubt a future industry for the sake of sustainability to support an already amazing Australian sector.
DN: I’ve worked my whole life in fresh produce and grew up in the markets with my family. That’s where I developed a real passion for premium quality fruit and veg. While working for Flavorite, which is one of Australia’s largest tomatoes growers, I got my first exposure to high-tech farming and agritech.
This led to my next appointment at a Japanese multinational company heading up their sales and marketing. This company had developed indoor growing chamber technologies for application in glasshouses.
I’ve seen both the best offered by Australian farming and the worst. It ultimately can be at times a rather backwards industry with an unwillingness to adopt new technology and methodologies. However, this is not always the case as Australia is truly home to some of the best farmers/growers in the world and particularly for their ability to grow such high-quality crops in some extremely challenging conditions.
Part of this is why I wanted to move [away] from the status quo and try something different. I wanted to demonstrate that sustainable practices are also financially sustainable – it’s possible to undertake these changes and make a difference.
Can you expand a bit more about what vertical farming is?
TD: Vertical farming is best described as a multi-tiered farm where you either have plants growing on levels horizontally (one on top of the other), or have vertical walls where plants grow vertically on partitions. The idea is to increase the plant numbers per m2 without compromising the plant’s actual growing space to ensure they are full and healthy.
So, with these factors in mind, could vertical farming soon replace traditional farming methodologies?
DN: In my view, vertical farming is not here to replace traditional farming, but simply to complement traditional farming. As I mentioned earlier, Australia is home to some of the best farmers in the world. Our move into this industry is to grow what can’t be grown when it can’t be grown. We target niche high quality products and grow them in shoulder seasons.
The modern consumer wants to eat fresh produce year-round – the days of eating in-season are over. To do this, however, wholesalers and suppliers have been forced to import or grow produce in less than desirable conditions which often results in poorer quality yet higher costing fruit/vegetables. By utilising indoor growing, we are able to produce a high-quality product year-round. Plus, we’re just around the corner from your door, reducing food miles, transport cost and ensuring superior freshness.
The removal of pesticides and plastics is also a big driver of why we are doing what we do. I believe that the true damage of pesticides on our bodies is not yet fully known and will become a huge issue going forward. Plastics are not the future and we want to be the first fully single-use plastic-free commercial farm.
We have done this to our own detriment: our punnet costs us 40 cents (made from PLA and fully compostable) when we could buy the same punnet in plastic for 2 cents. But the company has been built on some strong values that we are not willing to compromise on.
Even though you believe vertical and traditional farming complement each other, what are some of the differences?
TD: Vertical farming is most often done indoors in a controlled environment – this is the most sensible use and it is vertical farming’s strength. Providing the system being used is capable, all the parameters the plant requires to grow can be controlled and optimised.
DN: Agreed. By controlling every factor in the plants’ environment, you end up with a high-quality product on a number of levels. We also have longer shelf life due to the absence of pesticides and nasty sprays – our products stay fresher longer and they are also much cleaner.
TD: The same can’t be said of traditional farming. However, at the professional end of ‘traditional’ farming, they do use incredible technology and processes to produce mass quantities of fresh produce. Although consideration needs to be taken in that they cannot control their environment effectively enough and so the seasons play a significant role in traditional farming practices.
Vertical farming when done sustainably has less impact on the environment; there are significant reductions in water usage, land usage, gas usage and many other resources.
For reference, our vertical farming technology and methodology can yield in excess of 30 times the fresh produce per m2 than traditional methods in our geographical position in Melbourne, Australia.
Because our facility can control the environment, our floor space 50sqm (50sqm x 6 levels) facility can be compared to a 1500-1600sqm glasshouse in winter with relation to produce quantities delivered to market.
DN: This ability to influence the environment and lighting also allows us to alter the nutritional values of our produce. Through stressing the plants, you can make them higher in nutrients. You can even change the colour and the flavour profile of the greens. This is something we will focus on once we have developed the test benches that are scheduled to be built Q4 2020.
We can grow to a timeline and the removal of variables such as the weather allows us to more accurately forecast and grow to our customers’ demands. This can reduce the amount of waste and also increase consistency of supply to customers. This is a huge problem for traditional farming and is the cause for the large price jumps and shortages of produce on the market.
That’s all pretty amazing, especially when you consider the environmental impact it could have! How does the facility design factor in the environmental issues?
TD: We have taken the most care in selection of materials that we used to build the facility and also what we use for daily operations. As Darren mentioned, we are a non-single use plastics company; we opt for PLA compostable packaging.
Our facility uses the highest efficiency components and equipment available. We do run on electricity, although we are engaging in using 100% renewables, and are in preliminary talks with Darebin Council to implement 100kW of solar panels on our warehouse roof. We are considering in future setting up a microgrid of solar panels in the estate our warehouse is situated, and this could also serve the nearby houses with any excess power harnessed from the sun.
Even with all these amazing considerations, how does the year-round production affect water-use? Are we correct in quoting that your facility uses 95% less water than in traditional farming?
DN: It’s a closed-loop system, meaning there’s no need to use more water than necessary due to the ideal growing conditions.
TD: Right. We use a hydroponic based watering system. This ensures the plants do not receive too little or too much water. The water spends very little time out in the field minimising mass evaporation thanks to our multi-tiered facility. The watering targets each individual plant or root system and is drained back to the holding tanks. Traditional farming methods would see water being lost to the ground, and you would use more water to achieve the same level of fertigation without the ability to recapture the excess.
If neither of you had experience designing micro-farming facilities in the past, how did you go about April Sun’s warehouse?
TD: Testing and R&D went across nine months. The steps were from a hobbyist tent, to a 3m2 ebb-and-flood bench, to a fully-fledged facility all within 18 months. R&D was not much more than $4k. There were only a small number of elements I had to digest before being able to design a capable facility, and I owe my knowledge to my past professions and left-of-field interests.
With Darren having worked at a Japanese multinational with a grow chamber available to speed up the process of seedling propagation, the concept was there, although every aspect of our vertical farm is unique.
We have designed ours to grow microgreens with every step in the process done to the highest efficiency, from germination through to the propagation of the crop.
The design of the facility was also done in mind that we would grow additional crops such as basil. To achieve this the system had to be engineered to be able to deal with excessive transpiration rates and with the ability to increase lighting intensity and maintain higher room temperatures. We have the ability to run 100% outside air with room air change rates of three per minute, or a closed loop system with controlled CO2, with all air passing through HEPA filtration. We have 85kW of heating available with lighting at 100% and AC units in full heating, or 25kW of cooling for more delicate processes. This allows us to grow crops such as basil at a high metabolic rate, or delicate herbs and delicate vegetables such as microgreens in a completely controlled environment.
In short, the system is incredibly nimble and allows us to grow many crops. If we choose to, we can grow edible flowers, microgreens, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs to name a few, although financial viability and economic reasoning needs to be considered for each potential crop.
That’s incredible! It says on the website you use custom-spectrum lights, which we assume were part of your R&D process. How do they affect the development of the microgreens?
TD: The light spectrum was developed in-house: it has a magenta hue to the human eye, but to plants in a vegetative state it’s more desirable than the sun. Plants are receptive to all visible light and some wavelengths outside of this for signalling. We use a combination of specific wavelengths of blue, red, far red and full spectrum light to stimulate the chlorophyll A and B of the plants, while giving the right signals to ensure proper colour, increased nutrients through stress, and, above all, a very healthy plant.