Pick n Pay has become the first retailer in South Africa to launch in-store ‘vertical farms’.
The vertical farms will grow various lettuce leaves and herbs from seeds and will be located in Pick n Pay’s fruit and vegetable section, the retailer said in a statement on Tuesday (22 March).
Vertical farming is a sustainable and low carbon farming method using 95% less water, 85% less fertiliser, and no pesticides. The system has already been trialled in a number of international supermarkets in Europe and the US, including Marks & Spencer and Whole Foods.
The initiative is being developed in partnership with CAN-Agri – a vertical, hydroponic, greenhouse farm in Pretoria – which has been a supplier to Pick n Pay for over three years.
The Pick n Pay vertical farm has eight growing stacks, each containing 10 plants, and will be a method demonstration of CAN-Agri’s commercial facility which has 24 rows with 200 ‘growing stacks’ spanning six meters high.
While customers won’t be able to buy produce directly from the in-store vertical farms, CAN-Agri will supply a new range of products, pre-packed in punnets made from recycled plastic, from its farm.
“Understanding the provenance of our food is really important, and having the opportunity to share this environmentally friendly way of delivering delicious, safe and sustainable produce with our customers, while they shop, is a huge opportunity,” said Liz van Niekerk, head of produce and horticulture at Pick n Pay.
How the farms work
Francois van der Merwe, chief executive of CAN-Agri, said the seedlings are grown in seed trays using bio-degradable baskets for three weeks in the nursery greenhouse before they are transplanted into grow tubes in the main greenhouse which has 24 rows spanning six meters high. Each row has 200 ‘growing stacks’ which grows 80 plants each.
“The growing stacks are strategically spaced in rows to allow for maximum sunlight. Purified, oxygenated, nutrient-rich water is fed through the top of the grow tubes, it then gravitates down through the tubes flowing over the roots of the plants and is recycled in a continuous closed-loop system,” he said.
The growing stacks are also used to control the climate in the greenhouse. The nutrient-rich water is either cooled or heated, and the grow stacks perform the function of a giant radiator by maintaining an optimum climate.
He said their farming method also trebles the product’s shelf life. “Our produce is free of soil or insects so we don’t wash the produce. The normal washing process bruises and damages the produce, shortening its shelf-life.”
“The controlled growing environment delivers a consistent product and means we only harvest what is ordered. Our technology also helps us do many short growing cycles (three weeks) without any negative effect on our production output. Harvesting a younger plant also helps us deliver flawless leaves that just taste better.”
A QR code will be added to the packaging later this year to let customers track their produce from seed to table.
“Customers will be able to see where their food was grown, when was it planted, what were the environmental conditions it grows in, what nutrients it received, when was it harvested, packed, and supplied to the store,” said van der Merwe.
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