Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vertical Growing & Aquaponics - A Marriage Made in Heaven?

A Short Lesson in Commercial Growing History

The take away from this piece is that we can incorporate these principals into our urban farming aquaponics model to dramatically increase commercial yield and the production of each distributive micro farm.

We used to sow tomato seed into a seed tray then prick the seed out into a planting tray grow these on and then plant by tearing the plants roots and hand planting into soil.
We used to grow a winter crop of lettuce then either planted up with Cucumbers or Tomatoes.
At the end of the crop we used to “flood” the soil to remove excess salts from the land so we could plant Lettuce, which We used to thinly sow into seed trays then put a line or string down to keep straight lines and have a piece of cane 8ins long for the distance between the plants. Most growers used to get one / two crops of lettuce and one crop of Tomatoes.
Or they planted two crops of Lettuce and then two crops of Cucumbers.
Tomato yield used to be 30 tons per acre
Ventilation used to be done by hand and done by lifting each vent on its own.
Then along came a pulley system on a winch where we could wind the vents up and down from one end of the glasshouse. All this was open the vents when it got warm and close them when it got cold.

Take the common Glasshouse we had the English House with a three foot brick wall and a sloping roof to the centre, then came the Dutch Light Glasshouse built of wood with wooden gutters and each pane of glass enclosed inside a wooden frame and every third “pane” used to be a vent. Then along came the Venlo with its problems, How many remember the amount of Lettuce crops that where lost through Mildew, and why? Because the Venlo was very well sealed for heating and crop control and did not have the air flow (natural air gaps) of the Dutch light glasshouse. Growers had to learn how to grow again.  Then came along automatic vents, heating, irrigation, and the use of co2 and the birth of mono crop nurseries, and computer control which allowed us to control every aspect of the growing.  We then started to take the Co2 of the boiler and use this during the day for the plants, we could only run this when heat was needed or waste heat by venting the excess heat but this also lost Co2.

Now We Can Control The Variables in Growing

Along with this came computer control which brought the advancement of the modern Glasshouse Nursery, We found we could now control everything the plant needed to grow a better plant and be more efficient.  Then we progressed to Heat storage so any heat used during the day to produce Co2 was stored and used on a night therefore saving energy.
So we have progressed from planting by hand and letting nature grow the plants and using the glasshouse as a cover against the elements right through to sophisticated computer controlled glasshouse complexes with automation that most people do not know exist.
Today’s Glasshouses are computer controlled growing facilities completely sustainable using renewable energy, recirculating all water and nutrients and even using the rainwater not a drop is wasted the plants are watered by sunlight measurement and moisture measurement only receiving water when they need it.

Yet if someone were to propose to a grower in the 60’s that he could achieve at least seven times more production per square metre without any compromise on quality or yield, he would probably assume you were a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Imagine if you had said as a grower you will not spray chemicals but use beneficial parasites to control whitefly, leaf minor and Red Spider mites.

So let’s get back to Vertical growing most people think Sky Scrapers costing $1.5 billion with plants growing inside on every level and some even think chickens , pigs etc. on several floors . Well they may be right but this is in the future. You hear all the claims “Our system makes use of recirculation of nutrients” and use sustainable energy. WOW aren’t they years behind us professional growers we have been using these for decades. Let’s take it one step at a time and learn and improve on what we know. We are not saying you can grow every crop in a vertical situation but most crops can be, yes we need a light source but look how that has improved in the last four years. Indeed our own company is doing lighting trials that will cut down the number of lights you need.  If you said to me I want to grow Tomatoes, Cucumbers inside a warehouse in a vertical growing system I would ask WHY? For now we have the most efficient system there is, a long season crop grown with heating, oil, gas, bio, CHP and the list goes on. Co2, lighting, anaerobic digestion, so why would you grow this type of crop inside a warehouse.

In large commercial growing operations we now see sophisticated moving bench systems, hydroponics, irrigation systems, environmental control, artificial lighting systems, and state of the art greenhouses to maximize the potential of the natural environment and reach levels of production unheard of in past decades.  While efficiency in production increases so does the viability of the whole business model. You only have to visit Thanet Earth in Kent to appreciate just how big and important this expansion is, and how far it has come already.
Yet to believe that productivity has been maximized and every optimum reached is to ignore the progress already achieved. Commercial growing never stops improving and sometimes those improvements are far beyond what we thought possible
With land pressures set to increase in the coming decades the question that needs a solution is not how to expand our existing growing space but instead it should be about how we produce more from the growing area we currently use.
Present productivity per square metre in intensive commercial crop production is already remarkable compared to previous decades, but you can only force the growth of a plant so far to reach its maximum yield or production level.  Just the same sort of reaction his father before him might have had to Hydroponic Growing and to what is being achieved today in intensive commercial horticulture.  Well there is no madness to the claim of such an increase in production. Taking the very best of the hydroponics and mechanized advances of recent decades and combining that with 21st Century lateral thinking we have a viable working solution that ushers in a new way of growing.

Our system does not look at plant production simply as in what yield you can generate per square metre, instead we look at what production is per cubic metre. If plants could grow one on top of another at the same time we would all think in terms of plant growth per cubic metre. Now stack one cubic metre upon another and you start see where we are going with this?
A lot of advanced technology and investment has gone into creating moving growing benches and robotic control to allow commercial production to maximize its use of space. Using automation and advanced technology to move plants around a growing area without human effort is now a standard, and sizeable growing operations can be run with staffing levels lower than most other production industries.
So we have progressed from stationary plant growing too commercial set ups where plants are almost in constant motion to maximize the use of space and control. So why stop at moving benches?

The principle of using automation to move plant stock is a commercial success in every sense, but there is a basic principle in this idea that is still to come and will transform such growing operations into truly incredible production spaces.  Our system doesn’t just move the plant stock to make production easier from a human perspective. We have considered the demands of plant growth itself and the uniformity and growth control required to achieve a level of quality production and yield that makes the return on capital investment viable from every commercial aspect.  Our system even allows for staged integration to allow existing operations to transfer through a modular staged build program. This allows capital investment and commercial return to be optimized both in short and long term planning without effecting the basic infrastructure already in place in most commercial growing operations.
In effect the grower can start at almost any level of transfer without the worry that a partial implementation will result in duplicate infrastructure costing for later expansion. Investment at any level does not deter from future expansion because this is a modular system designed for complete or staged integration. The production on this system is also at such a significantly high level that projected return on investment supports both a fully or partially committed investment approach.

So Vertical Growing inside a building is a reality and it is a commercial viability.

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