Horticultural research remains at epicenter of growing field
Jeff Bednar, owner/operator of Profound Foods in Fairview, is relatively new to controlled environment horticulture.
It might surprise any visitor to his 10-acre farm — featuring 10,000 square feet, soon to be 50,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor growing systems — that he doesn’t have a green thumb.
The truth is Bednar took a three-year “crash course” in controlled environment growing systems and the vegetables that grow best in them. His immersion into all things-controlled environment horticulture included attending permaculture school and dozens of conferences dedicated to controlled environment horticulture, including aquaculture and hydroponics.
But his journey began in the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Texas Master Gardener Program in 2016 and continues via collaboration with experts at the epicenter of controlled environment horticulture in Texas – the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas.
He said the learning never stops. Controlled environment horticulture is a rapidly changing field and is emerging as a secure and sustainable food production method.
“We believe in sharing information and people working together,” Bednar said. “We aren’t employing scientists, and we are not performing research beyond trial and error, so reaching out to experts at the AgriLife center helped us solve problems a smaller farm like us can’t solve on our own. Their institutional knowledge and ability to find solutions is important for growers like me.”
Controlled environment horticulture collaboration grows
The work being done at the Texas A&M AgriLife center in Dallas is a core component to the controlled environment horticulture evolution within Texas, said Daniel Leskovar, Ph.D., director of the AgriLife centers in both Dallas and Uvalde, and professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences.
Faculty across Texas A&M AgriLife are collaborating around the state, but Texas A&M AgriLife’s state-of-the-art facilities at Dallas and its proximity to industry and entrepreneurs make it an important space for innovation and advancement.
“We are looking at controlled environment horticulture in ways that can be scaled up and scaled down to serve producers at all levels,” Leskovar said. “So much of it revolves around technology, but we are also developing the applied science around it and how technology translates into efficiencies that cut production costs.”
Collaborating across the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Dallas-based team of scientists includes Joe Masabni, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension small-acreage horticulturist; Genhua Niu, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research professor of urban agriculture, both in the Department of Horticultural Sciences; and Azlan Zahid, Ph.D., controlled environment agriculture engineer from the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. Joining them recently are new AgriLife Research faculty Arash Kheirodin, Ph.D., a controlled environment entomologist from the Department of Entomology, and Krishna Bhattarai, Ph.D., a plant breeder from the Department of Horticulture.
This team is expanding research and controlled environment programs around the state as well as curriculum on campus in Bryan-College Station. The controlled environment horticulture program also extends to Texas A&M University at Qatar and collaborates with entities like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation among other U.S. scientific and academic institutions.
These researchers are experimenting with a range of technologies that include long-standing methods like high tunnels and greenhouses and aquaponic and hydroponic systems. They are also engaged in concepts like precision agriculture that rely on innovative technologies such as remote sensors to collect a range of data related to environmental and plant conditions. Sensing technology allows growers to incorporate other cutting-edge advancements like automation, robotics and artificial intelligence to manage plants.
Controlled environment horticulture boasts many advantages over traditional agriculture, Leskovar said. Crops can be grown year-round and in environments that can be modified precisely to each crop’s preference and in ways that reduce natural stressors like drought, heat, insect pests and disease.
They also use less water and require fewer inputs of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The technology will most likely supplement crops produced in fields, but hurdles remain. Energy costs to run controlled environment systems continue to pose the top challenge.
“We believe controlled environment horticulture will be able to complement open-field systems, but also provide capacity for addressing urban-suburban needs for nutritious foods in efficient and sustainable ways,” he said. “Efficiencies are very high, but right now costs are also very high. However, there is a lot of interest and investment focused on balancing cost benefits for producers.”
Controlled environment growers eager for information
Leskovar said the controlled environment horticulture program at Dallas has caused a ripple effect across the growing industry. Many of the technologies and methodologies are still in their infancy, but AgriLife Research experiments and collaborations between scientists and stakeholders is feeding rapid growth.
Among other focuses, projects include organic tomato production, variety selection, grafting, insect and pest control, and environment optimization with relation to light spectrum and duration and inputs like water and fertilizer. Scientists are also implementing technologies like precision agriculture, robotics, biostimulants and genetics-based plant breeding.
Controlled environment research at Dallas involves tomatoes and greens, tubers like potatoes and ginger, and turfgrass, among others, Leskovar said.
Leskovar is also working at Uvalde on a project with Kevin Crosby, Ph.D., professor and plant geneticist in the Department of Horticultural Sciences, Bryan-College Station, focused on growing resilient and high-quality peppers. The idea is to improve plant variety selection based on genetics and the ways growers tailor management practices for those varieties.
Through international collaborations, his research team at Uvalde is also investigating novel rootstock germplasm for tomato grafting applications in controlled environment systems.
“We’re looking for production gains through management practices specific to varieties we are breeding,” Leskovar said. “In this case, we are looking at specialty peppers, which can bring higher value. Producers are eager to have that type of information.”
Building capacity, expanding outreach and education
Beyond ongoing research projects, Texas A&M AgriLife is expanding its capacity to perform research for outreach efforts and to educate future professionals in the field.
Amit Dhingra, Ph.D., head of the Department of Horticultural Sciences, Bryan-College Station, views controlled environment horticulture production as an important cog in the future of food security in the U.S. and globally.
“These systems will be an important part of the overall food supply chain because they can provide fresh, nutritious produce in close proximity to urban centers,” he said. “Farmers can produce more in less space, and precision agriculture can bridge a variety of challenges by providing nutritionally dense produce in environmentally sustainable ways.”
The department is strategically expanding its controlled environment horticulture programs to keep pace with industry advancements and to prepare students for the burgeoning field. The College is investing to support those efforts and to create a pipeline that provides cutting-edge career opportunities for graduates and professionals seeking specialized skills for the industry.
Shuyang Zhen, Ph.D., assistant professor of controlled environment horticulture, Bryan-College Station, was hired last year and teaches two undergraduate courses about various aspects of controlled environment production and engages them in hands-on research and training.
Meanwhile, the department and the centers at Dallas and Uvalde are also seeking partnerships and grants to add cutting-edge technologies that translate into the program’s ability to advance technological application in the field.
“We are investing in different systems and methods from small tunnels to various soil bases to test the various practices that are very typical for smaller operations but that can also be scaled up and relate to other systems and methods,” Dhingra said. “We are looking at every opportunity to find a return on investment with foundational applied science and new discoveries. As a program, we are at a very exciting juncture where past successes are propelling us toward a bright future where engagement and collaboration will be key.”
Texas A&M AgriLife poised to support and lead
Bednar said he is happy to hear that a land-grant institution like Texas A&M is expanding efforts in the field. Publicly accessible unbiased scientific data and expertise for controlled environment growers is needed as more entrepreneurs like Bednar enter the field and/or expand at various scales.
Having the controlled environment horticulture program working toward industry-wide solutions and poised to assist growers like him creates a fertile environment for collaboration and seeding innovation.
“Reality is important,” Bednar said. “It’s easy to get caught up in chasing the dream of a cucumber that is easier to grow year-round, but the reality is there are challenges on the plant and system side. But I also think the benefits that controlled environment systems could deliver to challenges like feeding urban populations in more efficient and secure ways far outweighs the challenges we’re working through today as growers. The researchers within Texas A&M AgriLife are here today, and I know they will be there tomorrow to support where we all hope to take this thing.”