Grab a rosemary or basil plant from a vending machine

Masters students from Wageningen University in the Netherlands are in contention to win an innovation contest between the country’s four technical universities with their FarmVent – a vertical farming vending machine.

While vertical farming is not new, biosystems engineering students Nikolaos Alfieris and Orestis Spirou say vertical farming in the supermarket is new.

Their concept: breeding and harvesting live in store in a smart greenhouse is regarded as a sustainable solution. The two-metre-high machine offers the customer a selection of 500 dew-fresh herbs, displayed over four shelves of one square metre each. A customer only needs to push a button to select and harvest their own favourite herb on the spot.

The obvious advantage is that herbs such as basil, mint, thyme and sage no longer need to be transported from the nursery to a distribution centre and then on to the consumer. Moreover, the breeding process is exceptionally efficient. It requires 90 per cent less water, and the protected environment reduces the use of pesticides and fertilisers by 75 per cent.

‘There is also less waste: the customer only harvests if the product is sold. Where herbs quickly perish in the normal vegetable section, in the FarmVent they continue to grow, and therefore remain fresh for much longer’, says Nikolaos.

The FarmVent students say they realise that fresh herbs will not feed millions of people, however Nikolas says: “It is a step in that direction. We must start somewhere and herbs are the easiest to start with: they are sold as a plant and are nice to look at. This is important, the customer must be willing to buy.”

More products will grow in the FarmVent in the future, he expects, such as leafy greens and strawberries, for example.”

Nikolas adds: “The vending machine is an extra sales outlet for existing breeders. We only provide the technology – cameras and sensors that continuously monitor the greenhouse environment. This data is used to optimise the growth process automatically.”

The team is already discussing with growers and supermarkets. The first customers are expected to buy their herbs from a vending machine in 2021. A pilot project will start in The Netherlands.

The 4TU Impact Challenge is an innovation contest of the four technical universities in the Netherlands and will be held on 19 November.

Should FarmVent win the 4TU Impact Challenge, they will join the Dutch trade mission at the Dubai World Expo (currently postponed due to the corona pandemic).