From a small unit in London, GrowUp Farms has taken its vertical farming business to a larger site in Kent, where it supplies the likes of Tesco with British-grown salad all year round
It’s winter, it’s wet, and it’s cold – yet in Kent, salad is growing. No, this isn’t a particularly hardy breed of leaf. This is GrowUp’s vertical farm in Pepperness. Comprising the equivalent of 1,000 acres of Grade 1 farmland, it can produce bags of salad in just over three weeks – whatever the weather.
When fully operational, the site will produce 1.4 million bags per week, which equates to between 2.5% and 3% of the UK’s salad supply.
It’s an ambitious target for an ambitious brand. GrowUp already supplies Tesco and Iceland under its Unbeleafable and Fresh Leaf Co brands, and reports increasing interest from other major retailers. It’s now looking to grow new varieties, and could even play a part in boosting national food security.
It may sound an outlandish claim, but much of the UK’s salad comes from abroad, points out Kate Hofman, who founded GrowUp with Tom Webster over 10 years ago. As shortages become more common, especially in the winter months, consumers will gravitate towards UK-grown produce “because they’ll associate that with stability and availability”, she believes.
The growth trajectory of GrowUp certainly suggests there is a market for its proposition. Hofman and Webster started out in a small unit in London supplying a few foodservice clients. Today, they are heads of a thriving business with more than 80 employees.
The aim is not to wipe out conventional growing methods, rather to “top up” supply and reduce reliance on imports, says Hofman. “There’s no reason why we should be importing salad if we can grow it here,” she argues.
Vertical farming offers additional benefits, too. Its short turnaround time means GrowUp can be responsive to events that create a peak in demand, such as an upcoming bank holiday or good weather.
What’s more, no pesticides are needed, so the product doesn’t have to be washed and dried. This means better quality, less damaged leaves, says the brand. It also means the leaves stay fresher for longer – allowing for longer use-by dates.
That longer shelf life is something that particularly attracts consumers, Hofman says. As such, this is one of the core selling points highlighted on pack, alongside the lack of pesticides and British origin.
Notably, there is no mention of vertical farming on packs. Hofman says this is because people don’t want all the technical information. Instead, the brand focuses on being “primarily a product that solves the problem consumers have, which is freshness”.
Behind the scenes, though, that technical information is key for growing. Seeds are planted in trays with a plant-based composite matter used as a replacement for soil, and left to germinate for between 24 and 48 hours. The plants are then moved into the growing chamber, where they stay for between 17 and 21 days, depending on the variety and specification.
The details are also crucial when it comes to GrowUp’s sustainability goals. A key priority has been to address the vast amount of energy required for vertical farms.
While many rivals still use a combination of energy sources, GrowUp’s Pepperness site is “ahead of the curve”, says Hofman. It sources low-grade heat and electricity from an on-site renewable energy plant that produces the same amount of power as 350 acres of solar panels.
GrowUp also works with Kent Wildlife Trust to invest in rewilding projects and continues to explore how to reduce plastic – a key part of its next phase.
Looking further ahead, Hofman points to “really exciting” vertical farming crop developments on the horizon, from okra and berries to seed potatoes. The sheer scale of Pepperness means it is on the frontline in making these crops a commercial reality.
It’s all part of ensuring GrowUp prioritises “real innovation” as it expands. It will look at heritage and heirloom varieties, for example, rather than just “tinkering around the edges with pack size”, Hofman says.
But for now, the main goal for Hofman is simple: to keep salad on UK shelves all year round. Even in a wet and miserable winter.