“Vertical farming technology has really focused on the utilization of the vertical space," says David Kessler, Chief Science Officer at Agrify. "To that end, the environmental management is left to the operator who needs to choose a system and integrate it cohesively; this is a major undertaking. Agrify has a systems-engineered solution to enable vertical growing without needing to figure out all the other obstacles."
The Massachusetts-based company manufactures the Agrify Vertical Farming Unit (VFU), a stackable, multi-tiered cultivation chamber designed to increase yields while improving harvest consistency and quality. Also delivering on improved biosecurity and environmental control over the crop, a single unit has two tiers, and three units can be stacked for six total levels of canopy.
According to David, the transition towards taller vertical farms has made environmental control difficult as the high planting density increases total transpiration and the height of the building results in air temperature stratification. The Agrify VFU is an enclosed cultivation chamber and is monitored and controlled remotely using Agrify’s software. This enclosed climate-controlled design affords operators enhanced environmental management, and is one of the key features distinguishing the Agrify VFU from other vertical racking systems, according to David.
While the VFU was specifically designed for cannabis and hemp production, Agrify first began by producing leafy greens, which David says allowed the company to accrue significant experience in optimizing the environment to increase production.
“When you’re growing leafy greens as opposed to high-value medicinal herbs, the profit margins are quite slim. This form of economics sharpened our swords and forced us to become experts at controlling cultivation environments, with a keen eye towards production costs,” says David.
Smart design for grower safety
Occupational safety is an increasingly important subject in vertical farming, specifically in tall installations relying on manual labor. Scissor lifts are common in the horticultural industry but can be precarious when used in tight spaces at full extension. With vertical farming pushing the boundaries on height, it is important that employees’ safety be prioritized. According to David, Agrify has designed its farming units with employees in mind by incorporating an integrated catwalk into the system’s design and ensuring that its units can be solidly connected.
“When you start growing upwards, moving all of that biomass is cumbersome and can reduce workflow efficiency while increasing risk to employees. Our cultivation chambers are roughly 4’ by 8’ by 9.5’ tall and can be stacked side-by-side with a catwalk in between. This gives employees more safety and flexibility to work standing or sitting,” says David.
Automation in the Agrify VFU
According to David, the Agrify VFU is automated to control irrigation, fertigation, sanitation processes, lighting, humidity control, etc. The VFU control system also allows growers to collect roughly 100 data points per chamber per hour and a minimum of 850,000 data points per year. Features in the software then allow the grower to run daily analyses both within and between chambers. David explains that having enclosed chambers also facilitate this data collection and use as growers can implement different growing conditions in different chambers then compare the resulting outcomes to determine the best production conditions.
Moving forward, Agrify is looking to integrate cameras, artificial intelligence and machine learning into its systems to enable the consistent recreation of precise environmental conditions and proactive crop management.
“We believe that the future will not necessarily be in autonomous production but in computer-aided production. Machine vision will allow 24/7 crop monitoring rather than the typical weekly pest scouting, as an example. With our software, we’re capturing the data as well as providing the tools to analyze it and act on it.