Defra and Innovate UK-funded initiative hopes to reduce imports of strawberry plants

Vertical farming tech business Vertical Future (VF) has announced it is working as lead organisation on a Defra-funded research project through Innovate UK aimed at optimising the propagation environment of strawberry plants in indoor vertical farms while maximising yield potential to reduce the UK’s reliance on imported produce.

The project will grow strawberry plants in vertical farms before being transplanted into glasshouses or polytunnels. These high-health plants can produce 40 per cent higher yield, according to VF, allowing farmers to grow more strawberries in the same growing area.

The increased fruit productivity will be driven by controlled environmental conditions such as temperature, relative humidity, and light to optimise flower induction and plant development, which can enhance production in polytunnels.

Some 85 per cent of UK-produced strawberries are grown on imported plants, and VF says vertical farming has the potential to displace these imports by enabling plants to be available to farmers all year round. Each year, the UK imports £186 million worth of strawberries, accounting for 32 per cent of the market.

The three-year project will research new methods to produce high-quality, high-yield and disease-free strawberry plants within a vertical farm environment for onward cropping in polytunnels, glasshouses and vertical farms. 

VF is working in partnership with various agri-tech and berry industry leaders, including NIAB, the University of Reading, Berry Gardens Growers, Hugh Lowe Farms, Clock House Farm, Linton Growers, Blaise Plants, Delta-T Devices, and Cocogreen.

Jennifer Bromley, chief scientific officer of Vertical Future, said: “Strawberries have gone from being a highlight of British summers to a year-round staple, but this has meant a boom in imports of the crop. By adding vertically farmed strawberries to the supply mix, UK consumers will be able to have tasty, locally grown fruits, with a lower environmental footprint.

”Innovation is also required to produce high-quality, disease-free, pre-programmed strawberry propagules with guaranteed high cropping potential for all UK growers, whether in polytunnels or vertical farms. Our R&D farm and berry research site will be a vital part of the project, along with our UK-designed and built vertical farming software and hardware.”