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An Aussie 'vertical farm' company has gained international interest amid concerns about food supply during the coronavirus pandemic

Sharon Masige
  • Stacked Farm, an Australian automated vertical indoor farm, has received international interest during the coronavirus pandemic amid concerns about the continuity of food supplies.
  • The farm produces salad greens and has the capacity for tomatoes and strawberries.
  • CEO Conrad Smith told Business Insider Australia Stack Farm received significant interest from the Middle East.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Aussie company Stacked Farm, a fully automated vertical indoor farm, has been gaining international interest amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Stacked Farm, founded in 2017, produces salad greens and herbs like lettuce and rocket, and has the capacity tp produce tomatoes and strawberries. It's even looking at testing out a type of blueberry next year.

The company has been receiving a lot of interest during the coronavirus pandemic amid concerns about virus clusters breaking out in the food supply chain. Back in May, a coronavirus cluster broke out at Melbourne's Cedar Meats abattoir, which was linked to 62 cases, according to the ABC.

"People are more concerned than ever about who is handling their food, where it’s coming from and how many stops it made before arriving on supermarket shelves," Stacked Farm CEO Conrad Smith said in a statement.

The company is headquartered in Burleigh Heads, Queensland and has plans to open up farms across Australia as well. "A scaled-up farm in Victoria will be our first major commercial farm," Smith told Business Insider Australia. Its farm is fully automated, with the produce packed and sealed once its harvested by robotic farming.

"It doesn’t pass through the usual supply chains either – greens and herbs can go directly to wholesalers, retails, hotels and restaurants, unlike traditional produce which passes through a number of hands before reaching our shelves," Smith said in a statement.

Stacked Farm has a partnership with fresh produce supplier Morco Fresh and counts Dnata as one of its clients as well, which provides aircraft services like flight catering.

"We are not too dissimilar to a normal farm where we go through markets and we go through wholesalers and food service distributors," Smith said.

And while it mainly supplies to the food service industry, Stacked Farm is looking at a move into retail so people can grab its produce from supermarket shelves as well. "We haven't got the capacity to do that at the moment," Smith said. "But when we scale up to our Victorian farm, we will certainly have the capacity to do that and we'll be looking for retail partners to jump on the journey that we're on."

The farms are temperature controlled and automated

Stacked Farm grows its produce 12 months a year, without relying on different seasons. Its products are grown in a temperature-controlled environment that is fully automated from seeding to harvesting. The company is looking at post-harvest automation as part of its next business phase.

Stacked Farm also makes barley-based livestock feed. "In a drought-vulnerable country like Australia, there's a lot of opportunity there because while we all think about human consumption, animals are a massive part of the food chain that needs to be considered," Smith said.

The company's employees are mainly in the science and tech field rather than traditional farm labourers.

"We're not like traditional farms where we require pickers, packers and harvesters," Smith said. "We employ more labour leaning towards engineering, software engineering, mechanical engineering, CAD designers [and] horticultural scientists."

The company has been receiving interest from the Middle East

Stacked Farm has received international interest in its farm during the coronavirus pandemic, mainly thanks to concerns over food safety, quality and security.

"There's a lot of food chains that have been broken throughout this COVID-19 pandemic, and we've had interest from the Middle East to set up farms there," Smith said.

"We have been very enthused by the interest from particularly a couple of states in the Middle East that have governments that really support local industry and local farming." Smith gave the example of Dubai which relies predominantly on imports. According to Bloomberg, the United Arab Emirates imports up to 90% of its food.

Smith explained that in Dubai, "a lot of produce can't travel by sea".

"They've immediately recognised that there's a problem in their food chain and they need to bring tech businesses to their country to support feeding their people." And, in the case of Stacked Farm, can help feed livestock too.

Smith added that Stacked Farm can support the future of food production, particularly in extremely hot and dry or extremely cold climates. He explained that one in nine people go hungry around the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, by 2050 world food demand is expected to rise by 70%.

"Having urban indoor vertical farms is definitely [an] exciting prospect for the future," Smith said. "We can literally shave days off out of the logistics process, we can extend the shelf life of products so there's less wastage and that in turn will benefit the community."