16 JAN 2016

Future Farms

Growing enough food sustainably for a growing population is one of the big challenges ahead of us. Re-thinker UK Salads is showing the way.

When Giovanni Abella started his vegetable growing business in four rented glasshouses in 1968, production techniques were basic. He grew his crop in straw bales and watered them with a hose pipe by hand.

Decades of investment later and the process is almost entirely automated, transforming productivity out of all recognition. The rows of modern greenhouses at UK Salads contain peat-style, sustainable coconut fibre growing beds, in which plants are fed nutrients hydroponically (in solution rather than through soil) individually depending on their needs.

Temperature, light, moisture content and humidity are all minutely controlled with the help of a weather detection system on the roof that controls a system of vents and blinds. “A hundred per cent of our crop is grown using sophisticated hydroponics,” says Abella’s daughter Leonora Milazzo, who runs the business today with her sisters.

“Our system allows the plants to talk to a computer, which automatically reacts to what the plants need. More, or less, nutrients, water, temperature adjustments. We are always growing them at optimism conditions.”

This enables UK Salads to grow multiple crops almost year-round. It supplies cucumbers from January to October and peppers from March to November.

We all have a responsibility to think about the major challenges we face on this earth

- Milazo

Every aspect of the business is run to be as efficient and as sustainable as possible. The water the business gathers from a borehole is mostly recycled and the ultimate aim is to be carbon neutral. UK Salads takes its responsibility to the environment seriously, says Milazzo. “We have always been deeply committed to the environment and have invested heavily in green energy. “

Exhaust fumes from the firm’s natural gas generator are purified to capture CO2 which is piped to the nursery, further boost growing conditions, the waste heat is used to warm the borehole water and the excess electricity generated is sold back to the National Grid.

Two new biomass boilers burn wood chips used to heat the nursery in the colder months have significantly cut UK Salad’s consumption of gas and in time may replace it altogether, says Milazzo.

UK Salads is not working developing all these innovations alone. It is part of a cluster of local growers along the fertile Lee Valley, on the eastern outskirts of London, who share ideas to improve yields and reduce the energy and other inputs used to grow their produce.

The improvements have been dramatic. In the 1960's it took 6,000 workers in 1,100 acres of greenhouses along the fertile valley to grow as much as 2,500 workers manage to produce in 350 acres today. The group now grows 75% of the cucumbers and 60% of the sweet peppers grown in the UK.

Its members are mostly family owned, just like UK Salads. “We all have a responsibility to think about the major challenges we face on this earth. I am proud that we are building on my father’s legacy. Our family’s heritage is part of the planet’s future,” says Milazzo.

Boosting productivity in this way helps these businesses stay competitive against continental European growers and is also playing its part in securing more sustainable food sources for all. “It’s said that in the next 50 years the planet will have to produce as much food as the last 10,000 years combined to feed our growing population,” says Milazzo. “Really, it’s down to the farmers to figure out a way to do this, for the farmers to feed the world.”

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