AMI’s Farm Lab and the First Vertical Farming Festival

At Aquafarm 2018, Zjef Van Acker had been talking about his latest brainchild, the Virtual Vertical Farming Lab (ViVe Farm Lab), an online platform for sharing data and knowledge. On the way back at the airport, he showed me some of his ideas, sketched on the back of a copy of De Wereld Redden (‘Saving the World’) by Michel Bauwens.

Soon after, ViVe Farm Lab changed its name to AMI’s Farm Lab. AMI’s Farm Lab is a more descriptive name, since it is about more than vertical farms.

AMI (pronounced like ‘Jamie’) stands for ‘aquaponics, mushrooms, and insects’ – the three main production systems in most AMI systems. By combining different organisms into a high-tech ecosystem, AMI systems can turn waste into high-quality food, using the principle of upcycling. AMI systems don’t have to be vertical farms, and most vertical farms do not use the principles of AMI anyway.

Despite being quite different to vertical farming, AMI systems are envisioned to be the backbone of vertical farms in the future. The principles of AMI are mentioned by Toyoki Kozai in the first chapter of Plant Factory. Plant factories are but a single part of circular urban farming. The Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) is also into AMI systems. Just look at the Vertical Farming Academy, which teaches people about plant, fish, mushroom, and insect production. Or the AVF’s latest white paper on controlled-environment agriculture and ecosystem economies.

The white paper I am working on with the AVF is a feasibility study for an AMI system in Brussels, called Brusselaer Circulair. Brusselaer Circulair is meant to convert waste into food using the magic of AMI. Part of our white paper involved calculating production figures for this system.

This proved tricky. Although we got some roundabout numbers, these were based on assumptions. How so? A lack of data.

Our calculations used conversion ratios – for example, how much tilapia can be produced with a kilo of black soldier fly larvae? This in itself was doable, even though finding data for other types of fish was difficult as well. However, this data is unlikely to be realistic in an AMI system. Let’s take the question ‘how much tilapia can be produced with a kilo of black soldier fly larvae’. The answer depends on what the black soldier larvae were fed, which is always unpredictable in AMI systems. The same applies to figuring out how much nutrients the fish release into the water, and thereby plant growth.

This is just for one species, and for data which isn’t too tricky to measure. Now expand this problem to coming up with the best way to run an AMI system (which also depends on which organisms live in the AMI system), and this lack of data becomes even clearer.

This is what AMI’s Farm Lab aims to solve. AMI’s Farm Lab – the biggest vertical farming lab you’ve never seen – is to be an online platform for sharing data and knowledge, to gain insights on designing and running AMI systems. AMI farms across the globe can share data on a common platform. Using this data, they can get better advice than would have been possible using only their own data. On top of this, AMI’s Farm Lab will be a platform where growers can ask for advice.

Fast forward to April, and the first Vertical Farming Festival took place in Wageningen, at the former R&D centre of SmartCrops. SmartCrops – generic as its name is – is run by Seppe and Jason (whom I met at Aquafarm), as well as Gerson Foks and Jesse Turkstra. Radu-Mircea Giurgiu was also there. He is working on multiple awesome projects, one of them being PlantGeek, an experimental AMI system. Radu and I had spoken a few times over Skype about the Brusselaer Circulair white paper, so it was great to finally meet in person. Last but not least, Zjef himself and Bart Van Tuykom were there. Zjef is of course the great connector, but he and Bart are working on growing mushrooms too, at Pad en Stoel.

AMI’s Farm Lab isn’t a real thing yet, but its need is already being addressed in a makeshift way. SmartCrops and PlantGeek have been exchanging information such as the pH of their systems, comparing notes and informing each other to make better decisions. The challenge lies in scaling this so that it remains useful and incorruptible. This is something we still need to figure out.

We met at SmartCrops’ former R&D centre on a Friday evening over pizza, to get to know each other and plan the weekend. The next morning, we started brainstorming our values, vision for working together, and the purpose of AMI’s Farm Lab. It was an enjoyably intense day, and amazing to engage in some mental sparring with AMI pioneers. Then, on Sunday morning, we shot footage for our pitch for the Thought For Food challenge. This was an amazing opportunity. Last week we found out that our pitch hadn’t made it to the next round. Anyhow, formulating our thoughts in a video had been a worthwhile experience.

Since the first Vertical Farming Festival, we have been meeting regularly on Skype to discuss the next steps for AMI’s Farm Lab. We also recently had our second Vertical Farming Festival at GroeiNEST in Ghent, organised by Zjef (more on that in a future article). Right now, those with AMI systems are discussing what kind of data they would want to share on a large platform. Gerson has also been working on a rudimentary version of the model in Python, which he and I will go through together sometime. Before AMI’s Farm Lab gets scaled up, it has to be of value to a small number of farms first. This is where AMI’s Farm Lab is at the moment.

To finish off, a few questions for any AMI farmers reading this:

    • Which data is important to you, yet hard to get due to lack of scale?
    • What is the most important aspect you are trying to optimise in your AMI system?
    • What would you want to get out of a platform like AMI’s Farm Lab?

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