Greens for Good: Farm Urban Shows How Vertical Farming Can Achieve Greater Impact From the Ground-Up

Indoor growing, and in particular, vertical farming, is often viewed through the lens of commercial viability; will the farm make enough money to sustain itself and make a profit? It’s also increasingly viewed as part of the solution to local and national concerns about food security, sovereignty and sustainability. Therefore, the stories that grab the headlines tend to focus on the larger operations that demonstrate that mass production for supermarkets and other national retailers is both viable and commercially attractive. However, this is just one side of the equation. Farm Urban, a pioneering social enterprise based in Liverpool, UK, is taking a more holistic view, approaching the challenge of making healthy, nutritious food available to everyone from a grassroots perspective.

Founded by Dr. Paul Myers and Dr. Jens Thomas, and maintaining close links with the University of Liverpool, Farm Urban combines rigorous scientific research, community engagement, education programs and indoor food production to drive long-term social, environmental and economic impact.

Dr. Paul Myers, Managing Director and co-founder of Farm Urban explains, “I came from a PhD background in epigenetics, which is the study of how environmental and social factors can influence human health and wellbeing. It seems obvious, but access to healthy, locally-produced food is one element that can dramatically improve quality of life. Yet for many groups in the UK and beyond, fresh food can often be seen as a luxury or at the very least, as unrelated to the wider problems of society. We created Farm Urban to be a vehicle for global change rather than an individual commercial enterprise. We aim to show communities how to grow their own fresh food easily, educate and inspire the next generation and improve the indoor growing model itself to increase yields sustainably.”

The ultimate goal of Farm Urban is to create a scalable, community-based urban farming model that can be easily replicated anywhere around the world, and one part of the team’s work is already going global: its educational outreach program.

Inspiring the next generation of (vertical) community farmers

Although vertical farming is innovative and technologically advanced, leveraging the latest plant science to encourage rapid, high-yielding harvests, the key to its impact and widespread adoption lies in our ability to normalize it as just another means of natural food production. Farm Urban is approaching this challenge on two fronts: normalizing the idea of indoor growing through the installation of edible walls and small-scale vertical farming systems in community locations such as shops, schools, cafes, etc. and offering engaging educational programs for both primary and secondary school students. Both programs allow people of all ages and backgrounds to learn real-world skills, prepare for green jobs in the future and gain a greater understanding of the complex relationships between food, society and the planet.

The schools’ educational outreach program has already extended beyond Liverpool, to reach students abroad. So far in 2021/2022, 29 schools have signed up to one of Farm Urban’s challenges. For primary school students, the six-week Future Food Heroes program weaves subjects from across the curriculum, helping them to learn more about the challenges of growing their own food as well as putting the theory into practice with the class’s very own Produce Pod aquaponic system.

Secondary school students can sign up to a 16-week extra-curricular Future Food Challenge that gives students a very real taste of life as a technology start-up. Teams of 15 students from each school come together to build their own indoor growing business, designing every aspect from the technology and system itself, through to the business planning, creative marketing and sales strategies. The program provides a range of master classes with experts in every aspect of the business and a budget to spend on equipment and materials. At the end of the Challenge, the teams will pitch their hydroponic or aquaponic systems, along with their business plans, to a panel of experts in a Dragon’s Den-style event. For those in the school not directly involved in the challenge, Farm Urban’s team also presents a version of its TED Talk to the students, helping them learn more about the company’s vision, the technology and realities of indoor growing for social and environmental impact.

“It’s a conservative estimate but in the last four years, we believe we’ve reached around 20,000 students either directly or indirectly – either through one of the challenges or our TED Talk and the Covid-19 pandemic actually accelerated the spread of our schools program,” notes Myers. “By developing more online content that underpinned the hands-on experience of the Produce Pod, we were able to extend the curriculum more easily to overseas markets. So far we have schools in LA and the UAE who are signing up to Future Food Heroes and the Future Food Challenge but by the end of 2022, we aim to have extended this education program even further.”

Outside the classroom, the company is also aiming to normalize indoor growing in community settings, installing edible grow walls that use vertically mounted LEDs to produce leafy greens, salads and herbs in community businesses such as cafes and private offices. With edible walls installed at eight community sites so far across Wales and Liverpool, Farm Urban offers a six-week, hands-on training program for community members to maintain and manage the walls to ensure rolling production. The walls provide a focal point for more members of the community to get involved in healthy eating, growing and sustainability projects and help dispel the ingrained notion that fresh, natural food can only be grown in soil, in a field.

Greens for Good

In addition to planting the seeds for future food activism, Farm Urban is also demonstrating its model in action on a wider scale, with its subterranean farm and Greens for Good campaign. This initiative saw nearly 7000Kgs of fresh produce grown and distributed in boxes of living greens to local businesses, schools and community groups in 2021. Occupying the equivalent growing area of 2.2 acres (nearly 9,000m2), the farm is located in the basement of the Liverpool Life Sciences UTC building a restored Victorian-era warehouse in the center of Liverpool. Despite not having any additional room for expansion, in the coming year, the farm’s production is expected to increase by 63% based on optimizations and advancements made by the Farm Urban research and growing teams in 2021, showing how further advances in technology and scientific insight can effectively allow growers to do more with less.

Paul Myers notes, “Advanced horticultural LEDs such as Current’s Arize® Life have allowed us to shorten the growth cycle of our most common greens by approximately 30% to just four weeks. By reducing the time to harvest for every crop, we can increase output of the farm without requiring more space, or more equipment.”

James Fleet, General Manager Europe at Current adds, “With LED grow lights improving every year, with powerful, tailored light spectra and more efficient energy consumption, the model created by Farm Urban becomes more and more achievable and affordable for communities over the long term. At Current, we’ve long been a pioneer of horticultural lighting that both maximizes productivity and lowers the cost of controlled environment agriculture and are delighted to support organizations like Farm Urban who are showing how easily we can use indoor farming to support the social wellbeing and sustainability of communities around the world.”

Educating and inspiring a growing, global movement

Farm Urban’s work to date, and its ambitions for the future, were recently highlighted in Greens For Good, a short film by Wild Elements Studios which won the “Our Human Planet – Short Form” category in the prestigious 2021 Jackson Wild Media Awards. Celebrating excellence and innovation in science and nature storytelling, this award category recognized the program (17 minutes or less) that “most effectively illuminates the human forces affecting both our planet and society in relation to nature, including social and environmental issues, equity and justice, public policy, community conservation and sustainability in the face of climate change.”

“It was incredibly humbling to win such an important award and take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come since having the initial idea for Farm Urban,” notes Myers. “Seeing the passion and commitment of our team and partners makes me even more excited and optimistic about what we will achieve together in the future.”

Commercial realities dictate that more often than not, we focus on a more linear view of indoor growing; one that’s based on inputs, outputs, profit and loss. However, by seeking to address higher-level challenges such as human health, environmental sustainability and social inclusion, through a lens of nature, technology and community, Farm Urban is showing us all how vertical farming can be a vehicle, not only to feed, but also transform communities for the better.