April 25, 2024

Can you grow tomatoes with vertical farming? A crop scientist’s insight.

Read IGS’ Head of Science Tanveer Khan’s insight on growing tomato starter plants with vertical farming, covering everything from nutritional value to specific nuances between varieties.

Written by
Tanveer Khan
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Find out how we approach growing tomato starter plants vertically with IGS’ Head of Science, Tanveer Khan.

This article was guest written by IGS’ own Head of Science, Tanveer Khan (PhD). Tanveer and her team of savvy crop scientists work at our Crop Research Centre near Dundee, Scotland, conducting crop trials on a wide variety of plants. Across the month of April, Tanveer has been putting out a series of articles on how we use crop science when growing nursery plants.

At IGS, we combine crop science, agronomy, data, software and engineering to make life easier for growers. Our vertical farming technology helps reduce labour costs through automation and increased efficiencies, eliminate disease and pests (of which can decimate crop production and result in lower yields), and grow consistent, high-quality produce.

We specialise in technology which helps nursery growers give crops the best possible start in life, including tomato starter plants (or plugs). This enables a hybrid approach to growing, allowing growers to get the best of other methods (such as glasshouse production) and get a higher yield (and ultimately, a better quality crop).

Using vertical farming technology to grow different varieties of tomato

We wanted to create growth recipes for more common tomatoes (such as plum and cherry), but also others such as purple tomatoes. These are very rich in anthocyanins (which possess a wide variety of health benefits: antidiabetic, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-obesity effects, as well the ability to help prevent cardiovascular diseases), as well as antioxidants.

As a team, we started out growing tomatoes using a basic recipe. This was then replicated and tweaked to apply to different varieties. We’ve since grown four different types of tomato – common ones such as plum and cherry, and other varieties such as dwarf and purple tomatoes.  

Our process has centred around two different methods of cultivation to grow seedlings, the first being from seed, and the second by grafting. This is the act of growing a plant from two different sources (in this case the root and the stem). This can be useful when growing tomato starter plants as, generally, they can be prone to breaking apart as the tomatoes start to grow bigger. Therefore, it’s important to have a strong stem to hold everything together.

When grafting, you need to identify the correct stock for the plant. It’s also very hands-on, which requires a trained workforce. We’ve found that – because of these factors – growers tend to prefer to go from seed.  

Fruiting dwarf tomatoes in an IGS Growth Tower

Benefits of a hybrid approach

You wouldn’t think it, but one of the biggest challenges we’ve had to overcome when growing tomatoes vertically is the height of the vines. If you want to grow vine tomatoes, you’ve got to do this as part of a hybrid growing model (in combination with more traditional methods, such as greenhouse production). Growers can adopt this approach, resulting in a more consistent crop by allowing the plant to start life vertically in a biosecure environment. This helps eliminate disease in seedlings and ensures that the vine tomatoes are well positioned for a high yield.  

We’re also able to maximise space using vertical farming – with a 12-metre Growth Tower, you get a 520m2 growing area from a 41m2 physical footprint. This significantly increases how many tomato plants can be grown, allowing growers to scale easily. Download our guide on "How an IGS Vertical Farm can help you create a hybrid growing solution" to find out more.

Utilising crop science to maximise energy usage

One potential issue when growing tomato starter plants in a vertical farm is energy usage. Tomatoes, like chillies, are a self-pollinating crop. You’ve got to grow it, then let it pollinate itself and – eventually – fruit.  

This can mean that the overall energy requirement is higher over the plant’s life cycle, but this can easily be resolved by picking the right growth recipes. Different light ratios require different levels of energy, but if we’re clever about which ones we pick (and at what time of day), we can optimise energy usage and work to bring down operating costs.

On the flipside, you can have multiple harvests when using a vertical farm. You’ve then got the added advantage of being able to scale easily, particularly when it comes to varieties such as dwarf tomatoes.

Learning from traditional means of crop production

We always take a baseline from traditional greenhouse recipes – the learnings we get from these are extremely important. It takes up more space in a greenhouse to support starter plants throughout each stage of their growing journey (space that could be being used more productively), but this isn’t the case when adopting a hybrid approach with vertical farming. We’re able to take elements of what works from a recipe perspective, before replicating it and putting them into a growing model which allows for scalability and efficient use of land.  

This approach allows growers to produce more than one variety of tomato (for instance, both vine and dwarf tomatoes). The vine tomatoes are eventually grown in a greenhouse (this is important due to the height of the crop) and dwarf tomatoes can be grown throughout using a vertical farm. For me, that constitutes an ideal (hybrid) version of tomato production.

Vine tomatoes ready to be transplanted into a greenhouse

What we’ve found in trials

Growing tomato plugs in a vertical farm worked out at roughly twice as fast as growing them in a greenhouse, giving growers the added advantage of speed of growth (as well as disease and pest-free crops, amongst other factors).

Why work with IGS

As an award-winning vertical farming technology provider, IGS focuses on providing growers with patented technology to completely control the growing environment. We do this by blending crop science, agronomy, software, engineering, and other disciplines to create what is known as Total Controlled Environment Agriculture.  

IGS works with customers across multiple continents, providing sustainable technology to help achieve global food security and feed a growing population.

Interested in learning more? Get in touch.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Artificial intelligence and agriculture: how can AI impact vertical farming? What we know so far

Read IGS’ Chief Technology Officer, Dave Scott, and Head of Data, Emily Seward’s thoughts on artificial intelligence and agriculture, and how vertical farming can benefit.

Read IGS’ Chief Technology Officer, Dave Scott, and Head of Data, Emily Seward’s thoughts on artificial intelligence and agriculture, and how vertical farming can benefit.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Can you grow tomatoes with vertical farming? A crop scientist’s insight.

Read IGS’ Head of Science Tanveer Khan’s insight on growing tomato starter plants with vertical farming, covering everything from nutritional value to specific nuances between varieties.

Read IGS’ Head of Science Tanveer Khan’s insight on growing tomato starter plants with vertical farming, covering everything from nutritional value to specific nuances between varieties.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Growing strawberry runners with vertical farming – what the science tells us

Here's how we utilise the latest research to grow strawberry runners using vertical farming.

Here's how we utilise the latest research to grow strawberry runners using vertical farming.