There are automotive factories and plants for most goods, but a plant factory? Spread, a Japanese lettuce production company is expanding to create the Vegetable Factory™, the world’s first fully automated robotic farm. The new Vegetable Factory™ will be able to produce 30,000 heads of lettuce per day. That’s a lot of green!

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Tasty-looking lettuce for humans grown by robots

Since 2007, Spread has had a farm located in Kameoka City, Kyoto Prefecture, using robots instead of humans (migrant workers) to harvest crops. Robots are more productive, being able to harvest 20,000 heads of lettuce every day. Labor costs are cut over 50% since only a human staff of sixty is needed.

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One of the few human workers on the robotic farm

The robots at the new automated Vegetable Factory™ aren't out of Star Wars. They are not humanoid in appearance but more like conveyor belts with arms. The robots will plant seeds, water the plants and trim the lettuce heads. The workers are as unconventional as the farm - they're dressed in "bunny suits" because the indoor environment is a sanitary “clean room.”  The farm is a nondescript four-story building containing 21,400 square meters of space. Crops are grown hydroponically with LED lights on racks that are stacked vertically, with four layers of stacks per floor. None of this sounds like the traditional 'family farm' but J.J. Price, a spokesperson for Spread, says farming has always been innovative.

The use of machines and technology has been improving agriculture in this way throughout human history

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Crops are grown vertically to optimize space

Unlike conventional farming, this method of growing lettuce is far less harmful to the environment since there isn’t any runoff from pesticides or herbicides. In fact, no pesticides are used. There is less waste, energy use is cut by 30% and 98% of water is recycled. The rooms’ temperature, humidity, light, water and nutrients provided for the crops are controlled by computer and, unlike ground farming, this method has a much smaller footprint. The savings lead to a lower cost to consumers, who can already buy it at select supermarkets where over 2,000 heads of robot-grown lettuce are being shipped daily.

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The recycling filtration system dramatically reduces water usage

The Vegetable Factory™ will be opening its new indoor farm in 2017. The robotic technology there may use less human labor but human resources (like former farmers) will instead be employed in research and development to create more sustainable farming methods and stronger plants. The firm’s goal is to open additional Vegetable Factory’s™ around the world in the belief that vegetables should be grown locally (even if it's robotically) and delivered fresh.

With the increasing world population, unpredictable weather changes and political instability, technology and factory farming like the Vegetable Factory™ can help lessen or prevent global food shortages. It also puts farming where farming normally isn't, like at the frigid Showa Base at the South Pole where researchers now grow fresh produce, and in space exploration.

Farmers aren't going away yet but the future of robotic farming is already here and Spread is spreading the news.

Nancy Loyan Schuemann

Nancy Loyan Schuemann is a writer specializing in architecture, safes, profiles, histories and a multi-published fiction and non-fiction author and is Nailah, Middle Eastern dancer.

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