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German vertical mega farm starts construction

SINGAPORE'S ambitious plans to be able to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030 to buffer against supply disruptions, has got a shot in the arm with the arrival here of another innovative German company, &ever. It has developed successful indoor vertical farm technology to produce healthy green vegetables locally and in a highly environmentally friendly way.

&ever, which has its HQ in Munich, Germany, is constructing its first mega farm in Singapore at the Changi Logistics Centre in Loyang Way, to produce leafy vegetables there. Going a step further, it is already planning to expand its venture in the Republic with another mega farm to produce strawberries here next year.

The company was awarded funding under the Singapore Food Agency's 30x30 Express grant in October last year to ramp up local food production over the next six to 24 months. The grant is given to companies that make use of highly productive farming systems that can be constructed and implemented quickly to achieve high production levels.

Besides productions sites in its home country, Germany, &ever has a successful mega farm in Kuwait in the Middle East. Spurred by the success of the mega farm, production there is already being ramped up.

"We are currently working to open one of our mega farms in Singapore. We can produce up to 500,000 kilograms of leafy vegetables there per year - fresh and locally produced directly on site. You can imagine the indoor farm as a huge warehouse, except that lettuce and herbs grow on the shelves," says &ever's CEO, Dr Henner Schwarz, in an interview with The Business Times.

"&ever's highly automated technology provides perfect conditions in terms of water, light and nutrients. This produces nutritious, tasty, pesticide-free leafy greens for local consumers and eliminates CO2 intensive air transportation. We are planning a similar plant with strawberries for 2022," he says.

Dr Schwarz says that Singapore is an excellent location for the company to show the potential of vertical farming for local food safety and production. Apart from the special climatic conditions, space is a limiting factor here - which is why the company thinks vertically. On a footprint of 100 hectares, for example, it is possible to achieve many times the yield of conventional agriculture on the same area, he stresses.

Asked why &ever is considered to be an innovative company in the field of vertical farming technologies, he says: "We have invested many years in the development of our technology and combined a wide range of different factors. For example, our closed-loop system allows us to save up to 95 per cent water in production.

"Our dryponics technology also deserves special mention. This is a special membrane on which the plants can grow healthy and protected from pests or diseases. That's why we don't use pesticides as we simply don't need them."

The company's specialty is that it combines technologies from the fields of agriculture, mechanical engineering and software.

At its core, each green leaf remains a product of nature - and nature follows its own rules. So, the company has not tried to change the lettuces and herbs, but instead creates optimal conditions for them to develop their natural flavour and nutrient content. Software and automation are ideal tools here to permanently create and control this very condition, Dr Schwarz tells BT.

&ever is a fairly young company founded by Mark Korzilius from Germany.

The idea behind &ever came to him when he, as a consumer in the United States, bought a packaged salad in the supermarket and found the taste and quality were not meeting his expectations. "This has to be better," he thought, and went into research. He then founded his vertical farming venture in 2015.

Aiming to grow select baby leaf produce and herbs including spinach, kale, endive, arugula, watercress, cilantro and bok choy, &ever has developed a proprietary approach for seeding, germination, propagation, harvesting, and delivery of fresh baby leaf products that optimise the entire production cycle through unique growing methods and technologies.

&ever has operations in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and has designed production facilities of various sizes, ranging from small scale installations to mega farms.

Large scale installations or mega farms allow for mass scale production of baby leaf greens in facilities that can be built in less than 10 months and that can produce up to 1,500 metric tonnes of produce every year.

&ever's large-scale farm in Kuwait is currently in ramp-up phase. Its second mega farm under construction in Singapore with support from a major competitive government grant is expected to start operations during the first quarter of 2022.

Small scale production facilities include an on-site grow box for small retail stores and an on-site grow tower for larger retail stores allowing the company to grow on site in a local grocery store.

The company says that in addition, it has unique growth solutions that include dryponics and bestponics, which are exclusive to &ever and expand the existing alternatives for growing leafy greens.

Additional capabilities include advanced climate cells for perfect climate conditions for each product and an automated intra-farm bench movement system that significantly reduces operating expenses for high volume short cycle growing methods.

As for the company's mega farm located in Kuwait, Dr Schwarz says the climate there is probably the furthest away from being able to grow fresh green salads and herbs locally. At the same time, solar energy lends itself immensely to generating a part of the energy needs for the plant there.

"We also work locally with large hotels and distributors, for example, who buy our products directly. Here we also see great potential for the future. Communities, canteens of large companies and also of schools, or even hotels and gastro chains, can buy directly local high-quality goods from us and thus indirectly improve the nutrition and health of their guests."

&ever has ambitions to be a global company. It is already present in four countries and has five offices. The company currently has 66 employees in Munich, Germany, and Kuwait, and works with 42 passionate hobby chefs.

"We think of everything globally. Each region has its own challenges, and in some regions the benefits of vertical farming are more obvious than in others, but our basic vision of fresher, tastier and better leafy greens drives us in every location.

"What changes slightly - or rather requires adaptations - is just the way we try to implement it. We always bring in local experts as well as universities, of course. It would simply be wasted potential not to benefit from local knowledge. Change only works together," Dr Schwarz tells BT.

"Our consumers are health-conscious gourmets with a pragmatic interest in sustainability. They like to try new things, appreciate the value of good products and are willing to pay a reasonable price for them."

While the company's R&D is currently done in the HQ in Germany, it is building a global R&D Centre in Singapore in conjunction with the opening of its mega farm in the Republic.

&ever says that in its research centre it gives local research entities the possibility to test hypotheses in a larger farm environment. Its researchers currently come from the US, India and Germany. The company plans to hire local talent for its R&D lab in Singapore.

In August, it was announced that US-based Kalera is to acquire &ever GmbH to form a global leader in the vertical farming industry and that it would in due course be renamed as Kalera GmbH.

Combining plant and data science, Kalera says that its vertical hydroponic farms use IoT, AI, big data analytics, and cleanroom technology to create the perfect growing conditions for impeccable lettuce year-round.

"We will keep our HQ in Munich and not much else will change. Since Kalera is primarily active in America, we see ourselves more as a geographical complement," says Dr Schwarz.

"Our technologies also complement each other. For example, while we create the perfect foundation with our dryponics, the plants now also benefit from Kalera's excellent nutrient management system. And of course, we continue to offer the top German engineering."

Story written by NARENDRA AGGARWAL, published on:

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