Tue | Jul 23, 2024

John Mark Clayton: Cultivating the future of farming

Published:Saturday | June 15, 2024 | 12:09 AMSashana Small/Staff Reporter
John-Mark Clayton, owner of this vertical farm,, shows off his crops on the farm grounds in Havendale, St Andrew, on Wednesday.
Photos showing John Mark Clayton’s vertical farm utilising the aeroponics method. The farm is located in Havendale, St Andrew.
A plant growing in one of the vertical farm sprouts.
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Located in a residential community in the Corporate Area is a farm that is breaking the conventional standards of farming by eliminating soil from the growing process. The process is called aeroponics, and farm owner 35-year-old John Mark Clayton believes this is the future of the agriculture sector.

This method of farming uses a soil-less technique to grow crops in a controlled environment. It involves suspending the plant roots in a nutrient-rich mist, which helps to optimise crop growth and reduce water usage.

“I am able to farm commercially without having to go out and seek a full acre of land ... we are currently in the drought season now and there is no issue of me finding water because we save up 90 per cent water when using the vertical farms. It’s on an intermittent system, we hold about five litres of water in the resovoir that comes up, comes on and it recycles ... farming of the future I’d say,” Clayton said.

He told The Gleaner that he has always had an interest in farming, and reared chicken and ducks as a child.

Two years ago, he along with his business partner, Kerrie-Anne Gray, established Tower Farms, a vertical aeroponics farm that Clayton said aligns with global standards for more sustainable efficient agriculture production.

There are 100 aeroponic towers that can hold up 44 plants on a 600-metre square farm. He plants mainly scotch bonnet peppers, but there is also basil, escallion and pak choi.

Clayton explained that the amount of vegetables that he will reap from them equates to what would be harvested on a three-acre conventional farm, in a shorter time period too.

The towers run on a timer and spray recycled, nutrient-filled water on plants every 12 minutes. However, it uses 90 per cent less water than a conventional farm.

Impressed by the advantages of this method of farming, Clayton, who is an engineer by profession, enthusiastically shared that no experience is needed to start this venture, just the initial installation cost to set up the system can be expensive.

He engaged with United States-based corporation, Agronomy, to develop his farm, and shared that the cost will depend on the scope of the farm.

Cheaper to operate

But while not divulging his start-up cost, Clayton is confident he will get a return on his investment, as the farm can be cheaper to operate. He even has plans to expand.

“Because it’s farmed in a controlled environment, you get a higher density in terms of the turn-out; you use less pesticides, and in terms of the flavours and stuff like that compared to traditional methods, there is no noticeable difference,” he said.

Additionally, he said the threat of praedial larceny is minimised, and he does not have to hire as many farm labourers as he would need to on a traditional farm with this many crops.

“It’s fully automated, so of course, maintenance is less, you still need to pay attention to it,” he said. “I am representing here for the peppers an acre of farming, an acre of farming would normally need three to five people, but we just have one person here on a daily basis ensuring that the system is working in accordance to the set-up and the automation,”

In the next four weeks when he reaps his produce, Clayton hopes to sell them to agro-processors or even in the local market.

While sharing his appreciation of the conventional method of farming, Clayton is also excited that more people in the sector are adopting this new process which is highly profitable.

“There are persons in the agricultural sector who are actually doing this already, using hydroponics, aquaponics and even vertical farming, as well as using their own methods,” he said.

Global aeroponics market size was valued at more than US$10 billion in 2023 and according to Staller market research, its growth is expected to reach more than $27 billion by 2030.

While acknowledging the resistance that often comes with change, Clayton believes more public awareness is needed to alleviate any concerns.

“I am thinking it is just the publicity and the public knowledge that needs to be increased and the public awareness because of course there is a lot of negative feedback to the unknown of course, growing outside of the soil,” he said.

sashana.small@gleanerjm.com