How Many Working Hours Does It Take to Run a Vertical Farm?

For entrepreneurs and farmers who are considering expanding into vertical farming, an important consideration before you get started is to understand how many employees will be required to run your business, and at what salary ranges. That’s what we’ll explain in this article, with an example based on a vertical farm run using iFarm’s management technologies (including software for farm decision making and documentation) and farming inputs (from shelving to seeds and other materials).

To talk details about employment needs for your own vertical farm, you can always get in touch with us here.
Employees vs. Automation
The main factor determining how many employees a vertical farm will require is the degree of automation of the farm.

The sky really is the limit when it comes to automating a vertical farm. Nearly every activity can be automated.

Since vertical farms offer unprecedented levels of control over all of the elements (including temperature, humidity, light, pests and more) operators can choose to design their farms with a much higher level of automation than what would be possible in the semi-controlled environment of a greenhouse, for example.
But of course, the higher the degree of automation (and control), the higher the initial price tag (CapEx) to build the farm. Installing trays that move automatically and robots that take care of seeding and harvesting roughly doubles the initial price tag of building a vertical farm.

Meanwhile, operating costs (OpEx) will be lower on farms with higher degrees of automation. That’s why it’s always necessary to consider local salary levels when calculating the long-term cost efficiency of automation.
iFarm Employees and Their Tasks
So of course, the number of employees on an iFarm can vary greatly based on automation, as well as the size (measured in square meters of growing space) and specific goals of the farm.

Smaller farms — about 300 square meters or less — require minimal staffing. And just one person can often handle all tasks for an iFarm with around 100 square meters of growing space.

But in this article, we’re using an example of a mostly manual iFarm with 1,000 square meters of growing space. (We’ll cover the topic of automation in more detail in upcoming posts.)

On that kind of farm, employees are responsible for a range of farming tasks, including preparing the planting containers, sowing the seeds, cleaning the farm facility, and harvesting and packaging the final product. (Employees aren’t limited to just one role or function; one person can perform multiple tasks.)

A total of 1,220 employee work hours are required per month. Let’s break down the tasks that those hours are dedicated to:

Sowing Seeds

The first step in the growing process is planting seeds directly in a “cassette”, or planting tray with small sections for each plant. This is the beginning of the crops’ lifecycle.

Germination

After the seeds have been planted, the cassettes are moved to a germination chamber, which has higher heat and humidity than the other areas.

The chamber is a recent innovation at iFarm that has increased our germination rate from about 85 to 90% up to nearly 100% — a boon for our farms’ efficiency and profitability. It also increases the speed of germination, with most plants germinating in just one to three days.

Planting Area

When the seeds have germinated, the cassettes are grouped into “cells”, which are then stacked on shelves, and they remain in the planting area for about 10 days.

Moving Seedlings to the Main Growing Area

Once the seedlings have outgrown the cassettes, farm employees transplant them to larger trays or palettes and move them to the main growing area.

There, they are stacked on shelves under LED lights for about 15 days before being harvested.
Salads (for example, frize) are planted in trays of 60 cells per shelf, while herbs (such as mini-arugula and sorrel) are planted with 80 or more cells per shelf.

Farm Cleaning & Maintenance

Basic cleaning and maintenance tasks vary by the set-up of each farm. They generally include employees washing hands, cleaning the work stations, filling the irrigation systems, sweeping floors and transporting clippings to compost. 

Specific requirements also depend on local regulations.

Harvesting the Crops

When the crops are fully grown, they are harvested by hand. The pots are then cleaned and reused for the next cycle of plants, except for those crops (such as herbs) that are sold in their original growing cup.

Packaging Food for Distribution

Packaging is very flexible. Each farm designs its own system based on its needs, the crop type, and the demands of its clients (including whether their clients are primarily restaurants, who make bulk orders, or grocery stores who sell smaller quantities). There are endless options for the material to use and the weight of product to be included in each package.

For example, herbs are often sold to the final consumer packaged in their original growing pots, with a cone-shaped, plastic film for protection. 

Monocultures or salad mixes (containing up to four different crops) are often packaged in hard plastic shells, or in plastic bags containing 1 kg of produce. Larger salads require less time to harvest, as workers need to cut fewer plants to reach the required weight for each pack.
What Kind of Employees Can Fill These New Farming Jobs?
Finding employees with the proper combination of training and experience for these roles can be a challenge, as we’ll explain in more detail in a future post. But luckily, most roles in a vertical farm don’t require extensive training or a highly specialised educational background, and there is a lot of flexibility in how farm operators choose to fill the roles.

For example, a vertical farm operator could hire one highly-paid farm manager with more expertise along with several employees with less experience, or they could choose to hire fewer total employees, at a slightly higher salary, who are capable of managing the farm, as well as executing the manual tasks.
In the first scenario, salaries usually start at minimum wage for employees with less experience, who will be trained on-the-job. Most minimum-wage farm employees can be trained for all manual tasks in about one week.  

A Farm Manager or Senior Grower, on the other hand, would earn a professional salary. 

More than any official training or education, all of these roles require both dexterity and strength. (For example: Dexterity for precisely sowing and harvesting small plants, and strength to lift 30-kg bags of peat, or move trash containers after trimming and harvesting plants.)

Why the Size of the Farm Makes a Difference

Larger farms will usually opt for a more specialised Senior Grower to oversee all the tasks, as well as documentation and shipping. (However, it’s not always necessary for the Senior Grower to be a full-time role — it depends on the size and organization of the particular farm, and many professionals in this role work on multiple farms.)

On smaller farms, meanwhile, the more technical work is often completed by the same employees who do the manual farm labor.
Frequency of production is also especially important for smaller farms, as well as monoculture facilities, to consider. If all tasks are performed on a daily basis, the farm probably needs fewer employees, but they likely must be full-time. But if planting and harvesting only take place twice per week, then it makes sense to hire more people for part-time work. 

This is also something to keep in mind when planning who your farm’s customers will be – will they buy daily? Or one to two times per week? Staffing must be planned accordingly.

Less Seasonality = More Stability for iFarm Employees

Stability is a unique benefit of vertical farming versus traditional farming – both for the farms’ accounting departments and for employees. Unlike traditional farms, the output (and thus the availability of work) on a vertical farm is mostly stable throughout the year. 

(There will likely be some flux, usually based on increased demand from restaurant clients around holidays and weekends, but this is nominal. In general, one of the main purposes and benefits of vertical farming is its ability to provide a steady supply of food, due to the controlled nature of the farm. So employees do not need to depend on the seasons for work.)
Conclusion
While there are many factors that impact the employment needs and salary levels of a vertical farm, there’s also significant flexibility in how those employment needs can be met. And once the farm is up and running, working hours and payroll expenses remain mostly stable and predictable.

iFarm makes it easy for farm operators to customize exactly how they want their farm to run – whether with more automation and fewer employees, or vice-versa (any many other factors). We’re always happy to get into the details of what a project would look like, so feel free to get in touch with an iFarm expert here to talk about your own idea!

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21.09.2021
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