6 experts weigh in on what makes their CEA operations successful

Business Exclusives from Urban Ag News Industry News

By Kasha Dubaniewicz

We have 6 industry experts who will share their insights on what it takes to be successful in CEA (controlled environment agriculture) and what the future looks like.

Chris Higgins - President and GM of Hort Americas headshot

Know your crop data back to front 

Chris Higgins, GM of Hort Americas and founder of Urban Ag News, has been involved with the CEA and commercial horticulture industry for 25 years. Automation and CEA in the industry have historically always been around through the use of artificial lighting and glasshouses. However, recently the level of technology investment and the range of automation tools available has vastly increased. 

One of the biggest industry challenges that Chris is seeing today, whilst there are a number of state-of-the-art automation products available, they are not all suitable to work with existing greenhouse infrastructures and the various brands are not necessarily compatible with each other. 

Automation definitely can be beneficial in managing labour costs, resources and improving crop yield. However, greenhouse’s automation technology is only as good as its operator.

Chris’s advice to start-up CEA growers is to not invest too much too soon but instead focus on improving the site’s systems to handle fluctuations and extremes.

When the right time comes to invest in automation, the grower needs to know the purpose behind their investment. Understanding your purpose will lead to investing in the right equipment.

For a successful CEA grower, Chris believes the grower needs to be knowledgeable in their site data. In understanding the data, problems can be instantly addressed and better investment decisions can be made on selecting solutions to meet their unique business or growing needs.

Andrew Clark - Lead Designer at WaterFarms Urban Ag headshot

Increase net revenue with automation

Andrew Clark is the Lead Designer at WaterFarmers Urban Agriculture, an environmental design-build firm located in Southern Ontario. The company specialises in CEA, urban agriculture and ecological landscaping. 

For Andrew, the three main benefits that automation can provide are reducing manual labour, continuous running of the automated technology and remote access to the monitored parameter data. 

Automation increases the efficiency of a CEA site which may lead to an increase in yields and profits. However, Andrew cautions on investing in over-complicated equipment that requires a lot of time to get it properly commissioned, optimised and getting staff trained. This diverts the attention from the core business focus of selling food.

Automation in itself does not guarantee an increase in efficiency or profits, the technology needs to be scaled to suit your farm and business model. The immediate benefit is the automation of simple repetitive tasks such as dosing and thermostat adjustments. 

For existing farms, Andrew recommends that they make their first investment in simple automation that will allow growers to spend more of their valuable time on growing food.  Andrew names two stand-out factors that make for a successful CEA grower: well-developed standard operating procedures and record keeping.

Nick Cochran headshot

Consistency is key and reducing water waste

Nick Cochran had an early start to the growing business with childhood memories of growing fruit and vegetables to sell at his local farmers’ market. In 1999, Nick started to grow cannabis hydroponically and now works alongside partners and teams across numerous sites to grow medicinal cannabis.

Nick’s first piece of automation introduced to his grow site was an automated watering drip system to give him time to focus on overall crop performance. Nick then installed a Bluelab pH Controller for research and development. He achieved impressive crop results which helped him decide on future automation investments. 

From Nick’s experience, the three biggest benefits from the use of automation are savings on time, labour, and the ability to maintain stable pH and EC. This ability has led to greater crop consistency, less fertiliser waste, and better water management. 

For growers managing multiple grow sites at multiple locations, automation allows these sites to operate consistently which could not be achieved if automated activities were done manually. For Nick, achieving consistency, greater crop yield and quality make the upfront investment worthwhile.

Nick names two factors that contribute towards the making of a successful CEA grower: consistency and training. Proper training ensures operating procedures are followed and regular meetings ensure any issues are always addressed.

Matthew Mickens CSO Elevate Farms headshot

Hire the right talent and lean on your network

Matthew Mickens, Chief Science Officer at Elevate Farms is not your traditional grower. He approaches CEA as a plant scientist and researcher. Matthew takes his NASA experience and research and applies it to his role at Elevate Farms. 

Elevate farms deliver optimal produce using closed-loop, state-of-the-art vertical farming facilities. A business that relies on technology and systems to produce consistently high quality leafy green growth across all sites.

For Matthew, regardless if one is trying to grow leafy greens in space or running a large CEA site on Earth, automation can provide savings to both labour and time. There are many benefits that automation can provide, however, Matthew recommends fertigation should be one of the first systems to automate. 

Matthew points out that the talent you hire is just as important as the automation you invest in. The technology needs the right operator who will understand the system and has the ability to spot issues early. Automation is a significant investment and only when the right technology is paired with the right talent – are the costs justified.

Elevate Farms differentiate themselves by basing their facilities at high-density urban centres and providing high-quality produce at affordable costs to their local community. Removing the need for transportation but keeping the vertical farming benefits of using 90% less water and space allows the business to be both sustainable and socially responsible.

What makes a successful CEA grower? For Matthew, it is networking. The CEA community is tight-knit. Staying connected ensures access to knowledge, skills and talent for your CEA grow the site to succeed. 

Jeff Johnston of Grow + Gather talking with a colleague

Continuous improvement and experimentation will help your bottom line

Jeff Johnston, Co-owner and Manager of Grow + Gather. A unique business located in Englewood, Colorado bringing products directly to the table creating a successful self-sustaining system within a high-density urban centre. They converted an old auto station into a food market, cafe, restaurant and an urban farm all under one roof. Everything grown on-site is used to service the various outlets bringing food production closer to the people and direct to the serving table.

For Jeff, choosing to automate early has contributed to part of their business success. Being located in a busy urban centre, automation has allowed them to offset the expensive real estate costs by reducing labour. 

Jeff dedicated himself to understanding the automated systems to reduce labour. In the worst period of COVID-19, he was able to run the hydroponic farm operations himself. Automation has also helped them achieve consistent crops with predictable yields. From the first installation, the results were impressive. 

Grow + Gather has a 1,200 square foot hydroponic room that is installed with an advanced two-channel hydronic system with the ability to produce the same yield as a 2.5-acre traditional open-field agriculture plot. Automation has allowed Jeff and his team to focus on optimisation and experimentation to further improve yield and quality.

Jeff has taken the all-or-nothing approach with automation. Controlling just one variable would not address his biggest priority which is to reduce labour. Jeff and his team approached CEA and automation with limited growing experience and had fully committed themselves to this methodology, which they believe contributed to their success as CEA growers. Automation has allowed them to streamline their operations, grow produce every single day of the year, and have the freedom to continuously improve their crop yield and quality. 

Doug Smith from Natura headshot

Remove the guesswork and be proactive

Doug Smith, Director of Cultivation Systems at Natura began his plant propagation career after serving 17 years in the Air Force and then moving onto designing automated water systems before teaming up with Nutura. At Natura, he is able to apply his automation knowledge and align his passions with Natura.

Natura is a California-based company that provides a complete supply chain solution for the global cannabis industry from cultivation, manufacturing, distribution to delivery. They have a 200,000 square foot state-of-the-art grow facility complete with automated systems to produce high-quality predictable crop yields.

For Doug, the three main benefits from growing with automation are: standardisation of irrigation and nutrient requirements, ability to capture and analyze data, and daily schedule control. Doug thinks CEA growers should attempt to optimize the plant’s ideal environment by recreating the pinnacle of what can be found in nature. 

Doug believes the best results from automation are achieved by selecting the right equipment and being skilled and knowledgeable in operating the equipment. To be a successful CEA grower, Doug believes one should never stop evolving and to constantly customize your automation application. To automate early in the growing process, it allows growers to be proactive in achieving consistent crop yields. Something that cannot be achieved without the application of automation. 

To gain more in-depth on what it really takes, read the full article on how to be successful in controlled environment agriculture (CEA) on the Bluelab blog.

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