Long read: Robotics, food supply and urban farming – an interview with Jonathan Lodge, City Farm Systems

As part of our interest in all things AgriTech, we are starting a series of interviews with some of the movers & shakers in the AgriTech world. We kick off with an interview with Jonathan Lodge, founder of City Farms Systems , an urban farm company, and Robotic Farm Systems, one of ConnectTVT Top 50 Gamechangers and the only UK winner of the EcoPreneurs for the Planet award.

Image of Jonathan Lodge wearing suit and red bow tie

We asked Jonathan about AgriTech, sustainability and food security. Jonathan highlights some of the ways that his company is working to provide grow to order crops, ready at the point of sale, using modular rooftop greenhouses and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. He points out that rather than looking to replace sections of the existing supply chain with technology, we need to look to disrupt the entire process, and that urban farming can’t exist in isolation.

How did you get into AgriTech?

I have a strong resource efficiency background. I was born in rural Devon where our milk came from the dairy herd the other side of the hedge – raw milk is SO much nicer! When the family moved to the Thames Valley I was the only one who could be bothered to do anything in the garden and the neighbours soon envied my tomatoes.

Pursuing a career in Design Technology, I ended up working with construction companies before putting my small business skills to good effect showing how big organisations that teamwork and communication could make significant savings. 

Intending to do my shopping on the way home one night I found myself stuck behind a supermarket lorry only yards from the store. When I finally got inside the fresh produce shelves were bare – and I soon realised there had to be a way to improve supply chains by cutting out unnecessary costs.

It is pretty much agreed that farming is a rural activity – can you tell us a bit more about City Farm Systems and why you are promoting more urban farming?

The industrial revolution and urbanisation was only possible because there was an agricultural revolution with the introduction of timesaving mechanisation. It also started the disconnection of people from their food supply.

The concept of ‘food miles’ makes a lot of sense for the lay person. The reality however is very different. Suppliers found it cheaper to grow in Spain and transport produce huge distances than to heat a UK greenhouse. This is where we differ from almost all others in urban farming. There are a number of community growers who concentrate on the welfare and social aspects while growing in allotment style growing. These have their place and serve a purpose but do little to feed a large urban population. Then there are those that have lifted the rural greenhouse business model and placed it in expensive city buildings where they pay to shut out sunlight and pay again in a vain attempt to try to recreate it.  

Intensive growing of fresh produce is often called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) and many can show they can grow 100-150 times as much as field-based agriculture. Dr Nate Storey of Plenty in America gave a recent presentation using a photo of a football pitch. He said their ‘factory farms’ could grow as much in the area enclosed by the goal posts and net as traditional agriculture can in the whole pitch. He then showed a photo realistic graphic of a Plenty factory farm. It was half the size of a distribution depot and had many trucks lined up outside waiting to take fresh produce to the distribution depot down the road. What he didn’t say was that to be sustainable and use renewable energy to power their LED lights would require the whole pitch to be covered in Solar PV. Neither did he mention that the space they use now costs at least 30,000 times as much as agricultural land or that a supermarket using that space would expect to sell more per square metre each week than they could grow in a year.

At the same event Brooklyn Borough President Eric L Adams gave a brilliant presentation saying they had 18 acres of very usable rooftops and no spare land in Brooklyn. He also said that those who most needed to improve their diets were those who could least afford to. Conventionally grown lettuce has a higher cost and carbon footprint per calorie than that of bacon. So the last thing we should do is increase costs – especially when there is a far better alternative.

All distribution businesses and almost all students know that the final delivery mile costs more than any other – so to make a difference that has to be the one to avoid.

Back to my lightbulb moment and I could see that one of the most expensive vehicles on the road was achieving nothing, the fresh produce in the back was losing shelf life and the store losing sales. At the same time the rural greenhouse had spent more on transport costs than to grow the produce. Any intensive growing facility has to pay to add CO2 and often to add heat – both of which the retail store is paying to dump at roof level.

Fresh produce requires a disproportionately high amount of single use transit only packaging …that the store now has to find a responsible way to dispose of.

Automating a modular rooftop greenhouse offers a new business model with drastically lower costs. Using RFID to track individual crop trays means we can collect images and data at every point of growth meaning we can offer full traceability from Seed to Sale™ in seconds. Machine Learning and AI techniques are used to take current sales and ordering data and build grow to order crop plans with just in time harvesting.  Our demo unit has run much of the year on a few solar PV panels – a whole supply chain with no added energy.

There are other issues for these factory farms.  Using blue/red LEDs to grow in a factory unit restricts them to growing little more than leafy greens. The majority also require far too much manual handling in poor working conditions. Artificial lighting does not just restrict what  can be grown but gives workers headaches – both plants and humans need to experience full spectrum sunlight to be healthy. This means far more than simply what can be seen by the human eye which is almost unique in having specialised green receptors. Working in raised levels of CO2 is not good for us either.

 

 

When people talk about sustainability they often think about renewable energy and recycling.  On our blog we’ve written before about how AgriTech is helping to move forward the UK sustainability strategy. What do you think is the most important thing to change in order to make UK agriculture more sustainable?

At City Farm Systems we have always taken the view that it is better to avoid the need for energy than to prevent others using it. Using far too much energy and claiming that is fine as it comes from a renewable source is disingenuous. Each square metre of roof covered with Solar PV in the UK produces the equivalent of 9 litres of diesel in a year. The same area of a greenhouse can be expected to grow several hundred pounds worth of fresh produce at retail prices.

To feed a smart city sustainably, agriculture needs to shift the focus from maximising farm productivity to the quantity and quality that reaches the consumer. There are two very distinct disciplines for this. Arable harvests are, by definition, stored for an average of almost six months. Horticultural produce covers a wide spectrum. Apples can now be stored effectively for most of a year. At the other extreme salad crops lose quality within hours of harvest. 

For far too long agricultural subsidies have been paid out with little regard for what is achieved. Long term subsidy reinforces bad practice and slows the introduction of new technologies and practices. This has resulted in poor soil health and maximising subsidy income rather than making the most of local soil conditions. We have all heard the tales about supermarkets rejecting ‘wonky veg’ but why are we growing root crops on soils with a high stone content that is better suited to other uses?

When it comes to livestock the industry has come under intense scrutiny, with many suggesting we should move to meat free diets. The reality is that going meat free creates at least as many problems. We need to rebalance diets and consume meat more responsibly. Latest thinking points to a need to focus subsidies on ‘disadvantaged farms’ and improved soil health. Soil health is markedly better for having animals on the land in rotation. Much of UK land is best suited for grassland. So, we need to farm more responsibly and urban farming can only be a key contributor if growing at the point of need.

What is the single most important thing we need to do to improve global food security?

Food security means reliability of supply in terms of both quantity and quality. Transparency of supply chains is essential whether this is achieved by blockchain or, preferably, by simplifying the process. Many supply chains have complex and expensive links that are unnecessary. This is a key point of our CloudGro® systems where we can deliver full data from Seed to Sale™ simply by scanning the barcode. Without whole supply chain intelligence there is no way to achieve this so we must all be more open with our data and use it to inform better decision making. To reduce food waste data must flow between supply and demand far more than currently permitted.

Is it enough for the industry to make small changes in the way we do things?

The current funding of R&D encourages many to seek incremental improvement.  Unfortunately, this discourages disruptive innovation that offers much more. In our case we can avoid several expensive links. Enabling a new business model and growing to order at the point of need means we have no costs of distribution for produce that traditionally costs growers more to deliver than to grow. For urban farming the last thing we should do is keep to the old business model and add costs – there are so many better ways to achieve the desired outcome and data will always be key to achieving this. 

What is the role of robotics in the future of agriculture and food production?

We recently formed a JV named Robotic Farm Systems. We persuaded our partner that there was too much focus on replacing individual tasks with a robot when we should be looking to complete a process. This applies particularly to ‘vertical farms’ where the majority use historic warehouse racking and rely heavily on manual handling. Our approach permits us to install systems in places we would not be permitted to have an everyday workforce – such as a modern retail warehouse roof. This offers substantially lower overheads and uses robotics for our transfer systems. Robotic Farm Systems is now taking the concept of our CloudGro® systems out of the city to traditional growers where we can achieve more by moving crops to the robot.

For traditional agriculture we need robotics to be more flexible and have a longer working season. Like many traditional farm implements, a massively expensive combine harvester is only used for 18 days a year.  A good agricultural robot needs to be in use for longer periods – perhaps starting as an autonomous load carrier that can be active every day.  This would offer an immediate benefit, avoid the scrapping of current investments and start a process of change.

So the real need for robotics is to reduce the amount of manual handling and enable farm workers to concentrate on achieving results rather than individual tasks.

Anything else you really want to add?

Urban farming needs to stop thinking in isolation. There is the opportunity to achieve much more by learning from others. There are many examples of automation used in the ornamentals sector that could be put to good use in food crops. Similarly we need to look more closely at the economics of food production and acknowledge that quantity delivered is a far more effective measure of efficiency than concentrating on farm yield.

There is also much to be gained by moving away from monoculture and other poor farming practice.  Three years ago I was laughed at when I questioned why field based solar PV was not mounted high enough to graze sheep underneath. Now it is hailed as best practice and a secondary income now replaces the unnecessary overhead of people with petrol-engine strimmers cutting back weeds that reduced PV efficiency.

 

If you or your company is doing something interesting in AgriTech – we’d love to hear about it.  Do get in touch with the SmithsonHill team or tweet us @SmithsonHill to tell us more!