Spread, a Japanese company in the agricultural industry, is expanding into the 21st century. Spread’s automated vertical farm has gained it a lot of fame and now it looks to open new locations and grow new kinds of produce. Vertical farming is quickly emerging across the world and some are even moving into supermarket’s produce section.

What sets Spread apart from almost all other companies in the space is its level of automation. Its concept has been hailed as one of the world’s first true robot farms.

The company is busy creating a new, large-scale vertical farm that will deliver cleaner, more efficient production of vegetables. It is set to open in 2017. Next on the menu is opening further farms across Japan, each capable of producing up to 30.000 thousand heads of lettuce a day – making for a grand total of up to 219 million heads of lettuce a year.

Construction machines are being drafted in and Spread plan to begin building the new vertical farm, which has taken almost two and a half years to plan and design, later this year. Once completed, it will also house an integrated research and development centre.

The total cost will be between 1.6 and 2.0 billion yen ($14 million to $18 million). Spread expects to produce between 20 thousand and 30 thousand heads of lettuce a day. With projected prices, the plant will reach ROI in 7-9 years.

The plant’s profitability is based around economy of scale and the use of technology. The plant will grow lettuce in a soil-less and sunless environment. Robots take care of much of the handling, LEDs deliver the necessary lighting and hydroponic technology delivers water.

“A farming plant like this requires about half the amount of human workers our existing facility for lettuce production without automation does. We grow in a highly controlled environment, and the plants themselves are mostly handled by machines and robots. This is in part done to increase efficiency. Apart from automation, we also use water saving technology and pesticide-free cultivation,” J.J. Price, Global Marketing Manager at Spread, explains.

Spread says that their factory concept is easily scalable and applicable in other settings. However, large scale production is a requisite for reaching profitability. The exact size needed would vary from country to country and depend on factors like access to – and price of – electricity and clean water.

While Spread has focused on producing leafy lettuce because of its high productivity, their method can also be used with other kinds of vegetables.

“Generally speaking, leafy greens are often cultivated in vertical farms since it is relatively easy to grow,” Price explains.

“We are now looking at cultivating other kinds of produce, especially Mizuna and spinach. There is an increased demand for tomatoes and peppers, and it could also be possible to produce those kinds of vegetables in vertical, automated farms like the one we are building.”

“We plan to build and run about 20 facilities with productivity of 20-30 thousand heads of lettuce per day across Japan in five years.”

Spread is not the only company in Japan that is pursuing highly automated farming. As reported by Nikkei Asian Review, cheap imports and a shrinking population are part of the pressures affecting the Japanese farming industry.

Spread sees the move towards greater automation as a way to help Japanese farming survive. If current trends continue, the industry needs all the help it can get. As it was recently reported, the average age of a Japanese farmer has climbed to a staggering 67 years.

“Our hope is that plant factories like this one represent a new type of sustainable agriculture which allows anyone to cultivate fresh vegetables anywhere in the world. This also allows younger generations with no agricultural skills or experience to enter the agricultural field, which will overcome the issue of the increasing age of the farmer population,” Price says.

The future of farming does not belong solely to robots, though. Spread has analysed different parts of the farming process and has found that humans are still the most efficient solution for many tasks.

“Based on what would be the most efficient way of getting tasks completed, there will be fully automated processes and there will also be processes done by hand such as trimming lettuce leafs and quality inspection. We believe our highly automated plant factory will create new job opportunities and a new agricultural industry, rather than eliminate people’s jobs,” Price says.

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