In a 20,000-square-foot industrial warehouse in Hong Kong’s Tai Po district, Farm66 grows plants on stacked shelves under LED lights. Protected from pests and pollution, this indoor farm uses no soil and minimal water says Gordon Tam, co-founder and CEO of Farm66. What’s more, the controlled environment allows the company to direct the shape and size of the plants.
Now, Tam is looking to scale up production of his smart farming technology, as well as exploring ways to grow crops in extreme environments — including outer space.
A homegrown startup
Founded in 2013, Farm66 was an early pioneer in vertical farming.
In its patented aquaponics system, fish tanks are placed below shelves filled with leafy green herbs and vegetables. The plants filter water for the carp that live in the tanks, and the fish are fed leftovers — imperfect vegetables that can’t be sold. Fish waste provides natural fertilizer for the plants, differentiating Farm 66’s system from hydroponic systems, which typically use chemical fertilizers, says Tam.
Smart sensors monitor environmental conditions, including temperature and humidity, and the LEDs that illuminate the shelves use different light wavelengths to control plant growth.
“A blue light can increase the size of the leaf,” says Tam. “The red (light) makes the leaf smaller, but the stem will be taller.”
For some plants, like lettuce, a large leaf is desirable, whereas for tomatoes or strawberries, smaller leaves help direct more energy and nutrients into the fruit, says Tam. The company has experimented with different growing conditions to produce a variety of plant sizes — including a batch of basil with leaves so large they could cover a person’s face.
A growing opportunity
Hong Kong’s agriculture sector wasn’t always so small, says Lam Hon-ming, a professor of life sciences at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In the 1960s, over 25% of Hong Kong’s land was farmed for rice, fruit and vegetables, and until the 1970s, the territory produced around 50% of its own food, says Lam. But as the city grew, urban development displaced farmland, and low, seasonal income from farming further disincentivized local food production, he adds.
Indoor, vertical farms could solve these problems. By controlling the environment, farmers could grow plants more quickly and increase the number of harvests, says Lam.
From city limits to outer space
Farm66 is currently operating at less than 30% of its capacity, producing around two tons of vegetables a month, which it supplies to a handful of supermarkets and hotels, says Tam.
The high setup costs for indoor, vertical farms is still a barrier, he says, which makes turning a profit difficult. Tam declined to share the company’s revenue but said that less than a third comes from vegetable sales. Instead, the company is shifting its focus to research and innovation, and is developing ways to make indoor farming more affordable.
The company has developed prototype robots to help automate tasks like harvesting and planting, which Tam says will enter mass production later this year. By establishing partnerships with factories in Mainland China to manufacture the robots at scale, Tam believes he can cut costs for future urban farmers.
Other Farm66 innovations include mini farms for homes, schools and businesses, which have sensors to monitor and automate plant care.
Whether on Earth or in space, Tam hopes that indoor farming will flourish — and produce “high quality, safe vegetables for our next generation.”