Inside Europe’s largest vertical farm, rising a tenth of Lithuania’s salad

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4 minute learn

A few years in the past Valentinas Civinskas was simply one other funding banker. Right this moment he’s rising child kale, rocket and coriander in what’s set to develop into Europe’s largest vertical farm. 

Civinskas’s startup, Leafood, grows 12 sorts of inexperienced salad and herbs all yr spherical in a large warehouse on the commercial outskirts of Vilnius. The farm will develop into operational this week and when it reaches its full capability later this yr, it’s set to reap a tonne of edible leaves per day — round a tenth of the full demand in Lithuania. 

New vertical farms have been mushrooming round Europe in recent times — however with final yr’s power worth spikes, excessive inflation hitting shoppers’ pockets and the financial recession, many such startups are struggling.

Final yr Berlin-based Infarm, which has raised $471m from a few of Europe’s largest VCs, was pressured to put off round 500 folks — greater than half of its workforce. Earlier in 2022 France’s Agricool, which had raised €30m, went bankrupt. 

However Civinskas says the dimensions of his farm and the expertise of one in every of its traders, a Taiwanese vertical farms maker YesHealth, places Leafood in a unique league — and he expects the corporate to be worthwhile by the top of the yr. The startup has raised €6m in fairness so far.

“You’ll see numerous dangerous information round vertical farming corporations — as a result of how can they be worthwhile when they’re elevating a whole bunch of thousands and thousands to construct that [small] measurement farm? The payback is unattainable for traders. They’re promoting a imaginative and prescient, which may be very troublesome to understand; there isn’t any economics behind it,” he says. 

Expertise

Leafood makes use of a variation of the hydroponics expertise — which makes use of water as an alternative of soil to develop crops — well-liked with many vertical farming corporations. Its crops are seeded in floating cubes of gel, made from water and vitamins.

Like different vertical farms, Leafood tries to mimic the optimum pure situations for an all-year-round harvest: suppose 30k LED panels for photosynthesis and the suitable greenhouse-like temperature. Generally there’s even a classical music enjoying within the background.  

“We’re making the best situations for the plant to develop,” says Civinskas. 

The {hardware} — spectacular 14-storey towers with water circulating via the plant beds — in addition to the operational software program was developed by YesHealth. It’s provided comparable farms around the globe, together with in China, Saudi Arabia and Denmark.

Leafood now employs 35 folks — a few of whom are Taiwanese engineers who’ve relocated to Lithuania to coach native workers. 

An image of Leafood's vertical farm, bathed in purple UV light
Leafood vertical farm. Image by Mauro Battellini for Sifted

Predictability 

The farm has 12.600 sq. metre of efficient rising space which can produce 15 harvests a yr — though, as a result of it’s seeded every day, plant mattress by plant mattress, it’s really harvested greater than 300 occasions a yr, which ensures clients an everyday provide of leaves. 

When it reaches full capability within the autumn, Leafood hopes to reap a tonne of leaves each day — sufficient to feed round 10k folks. 

The predictability of harvests is “the principle promoting level” to native retailers, Civinskas says. As of Could, the corporate will begin supplying one in every of Lithuania’s important supermarkets, in addition to promoting to accommodations and eating places. 

“We are able to provide them each single day with cool, contemporary meals. Proper now, a few of what they get has been in transport for 4 or 5 days — and its shelf life may be very brief,” he says. Leafood’s salads and herbs keep contemporary within the fridge for 5 to seven days (compared to imported merchandise that are usually one to 5 days). It additionally doesn’t need to be washed earlier than being eaten. 

The longer shelf life comes at a value, nonetheless; Leafood salads will price round 20-30% greater than greenhouse-grown produce. “Barely costlier, however inexpensive for everybody,” Civinskas says.

The primary problem for the enterprise in the mean time is unpredictable energy costs, as electrical energy payments account for an enormous chunk of prices. Studying from the worth hikes final yr, Leafood has all its energy contracts on a set worth, and a few unexpected bills are already priced into its operations. The farm is run absolutely on renewable power. “What might go mistaken? Some horrible world power disaster,” he says. “However that might have an effect on the entire sector.”  

Leafood vertical farm. Picture by Mauro Battellini for Sifted
The 14-tier blocks of hydroponic plant beds are harvested 15 occasions a yr. Image by Mauro Battellini for Sifted

Growth

Civinskas says he doesn’t need to cease at inexperienced leaves: within the coming years, he’ll look into rising different fruit and greens, comparable to berries — so long as it makes financial sense. 

He additionally needs to scale the enterprise throughout the area — central and japanese Europe has historically been heavy on typical agriculture, however the vertical farming development hasn’t actually picked up but there.

He’s eyeing neighbouring nations, comparable to different Baltic states and particularly Poland, for additional enlargement. This may imply constructing new vertical farms, even larger than the one in Vilnius, he says. 

“The primary concept is to be near the top client. After all we are able to export however then we’re going towards our concept. It must be shut, no lengthy shipments: so it means constructing native vertical farms in different nations,” he says. “In a yr, we hope to have a plan for the following nation. You’ll see such a farm, or perhaps two, thrice bigger out of the country.”

Supply: Sifted

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