We have become accustomed to seeing rows of lettuce neatly lined up when it comes to controlled environment agriculture. There is no doubt this gives farmers control in their production where they can calculate growth versus yield and ultimately known profit margins. Lettuce and leafy green production is also an easy way for new growers to master CEA technologies. However the caveat is ‘everyone seems to be doing leafy greens’. While leafy greens are popular with new and established growers we suspect there are many that would love to grow a wider range of health promoting plants.
We aim to help growers overcome issues associated with more complex and potentially higher value health crops. Diversifying crops could accelerate farms to the next level, enabling them to grow tropical fruits alongside new health crops like ginger and turmeric. Just take a look at the State Fair of Texas greenhouse for some inspiration on what’s possible in a controlled environment.
What you need to consider to choose the right plants?
Farmers must make many choices when deciding which crop to grow, not least in identifying target markets and logistics. Critical to a good business plan is a well designed hydroponic system and investment in energy/labor saving technologies.
Controlling greenhouse environments in an extreme climate or where fluctuations occur can be a challenge. Geography sets the foundation for crop choice since the cost of production will continually rise if a farm has to use “electricity” or energy to manipulate the climate.
Of course some climates in the US are more conducive to healthy foods, particularly strawberries that can withstand high temperatures in places like California. Although real estate in these locations is expensive, many growers have found good returns by specialising in the soft fruit industry along the Pacific coast.
While geographical climate may influence the decision of which crop to grow, the farmer also needs appropriate knowledge and training in CEA technology to overcome fluctuations in environmental conditions. We gave advice on the most popular health promoting crops in our EAT THIS blogs describing how to grow them in CEA. Here we reiterate the 9 environmental factors farmers need to consider for optimal crop growth :
Knowing your target market
Knowing your route to market is essential, probably even before deciding on the crop. For instance, is your market food service, wholesale grocery, food production or extraction, processing or perhaps a community cooperative? Your market choice will impact how you grow and what you grow. If you target the health market it’s not just about selling a punnet of strawberries, it’s about marketing the health benefits with the bonus the crop is grown pesticide free. If you target food service, reliability and product perfection may be more prominent as restaurants demand the best quality. But if your crop is ugly or cannot demand a good price, production ingredients may be more suitable.
The health and wellness market is increasing exponentially
We know people are more susceptible to serious disease if they have underlying health conditions. Teaching the next generation of farmers to grow health promoting crops is crucial to prevent the burden of both sedentary lifestyles and future pandemics which impact our health infrastructure.
According to Financial Buzz the health and wellness market is growing at an exponential rate and is now thought to be worth $762billion globally. The pandemic has accelerated this growth as more people want to understand the benefits of healthy foods and improve their chances of staying immune to emergent diseases. The US is estimated to have 30% market share of this global trend with consumers focused on clean eating and plant based diets. By 2027 this market is expected to reach $1trillion in the US providing an opportunity for controlled agriculture farmers to be at the forefront of healthy eating while making a decent living.
We can strengthen health food farming in the US by ensuring CEA farmers are more resilient in growing diverse crops and by promoting plant based health benefits to a wider audience in our ‘EAT THIS’ health food series.
Next Generation Farmers in the city
Everyone is learning to live with uncertainty but in reality ‘change is constant’ so it’s important to create a business that is resilient and capable of adapting to meet the next big challenge. To do this the fundamental question of who our future farmers will be needs to be answered.
We must excite the next generation of farmers from our inner cities. They will be farmers that don’t get dirt under their nails, nor dig drills or necessarily drive tractors. The next generation of farmers will undoubtedly engage artificial intelligence to maximise crop biomass or increase metabolite production that benefit human health.
Robots may already collect fruits and vegetables in large commercial farms but as they become more sophisticated it will be interesting to see if they also become our friends. This may be all ‘futurama’ but integrating AI in our farms can only serve to increase future farmer efficiency and allow farms to transition to post harvest extraction and processing, keeping manufacturing within one facility and creating more local jobs.
Love to learn more
We face massive challenges in feeding the world’s growing population. The pandemic may provide the best opportunity for humanity to build food supply infrastructure closer to our cities where we can train a new breed of farmer more aware of the health benefits of what they grow.
Read more “EatThis”
Some inspirational people are passing on knowledge to the farmers of the future, click the links below to find out more:
Youth – Green Bronx Machine
Community – App Harvest community
Professional – Hort Americas Mastery courses
Janet Colston PhD is pharmacologist with an interest in growing ‘functional’ foods that have additional phytonutrients and display medicinal qualities that are beneficial to human health. She grows these using a range of techniques including plant tissue micropropagation and controlled environmental agriculture to ensure the highest quality control.