Lucas McCartney 2015-10-29 01:41:55
Growing Fresh Produce in an Urban Setting Indoor farming was once only available to research laboratories and NASA. Cubic FarmingTM, generally referred to as vertical farming, is now becoming a commercial reality in Canada. For over a year, Urban Barns Foods has been producing high-quality lettuce, herbs, and microgreens in a fully controlled space in Mirabel, Quebec. Reclaimed warehouse space is ideal for the installation of the proprietary modular Cubic FarmingTM technology that allows production of leafy greens using state-of-the-art LED grow lights. The company has an ongoing collaboration with ASABE member Mark Lefsrud, associate professor and William Dawson Scholar at McGill University. His team of researchers and students develop and optimize the technology and methods used by the company. In the past century, in order to meet the demands of an increasing global population, agriculture has undergone intensification, concentration, and specialization. Modern agriculture has evolved into a resource-intensive process. The standard methods for commercial field production of fruits and vegetables involve rigorous use of herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, and heavy machinery, which results in rapid exhaustion of soil fertility, widespread damage to ecological habitats and water supplies, and negative effects on human health. In combination with improvements in transportation logistics, intensive agriculture has flourished and is now part of a worldwide market in which consumers have constant access to imported fresh produce, regardless of the season or availability of local produce. What is Cubic FarmingTM? Although fruits and vegetables can be easily shipped around the world, intensive agriculture and the global transportation of these agricultural goods contribute to high CO2 emissions. In addition, there is a growing awareness of agricultural sustainability, as well as food safety, security, and traceability. Reduced dependence on foreign food and increased availability of local food will also continue to grow. To address these concerns, Cubic FarmingTM is a form of controlled environment agriculture that allows growth of fresh produce year round in locations that are challenging for conventional forms of agriculture, including arid urban areas and harsh northern climates. A fully indoor controlled environment for crop production requires control of all the environmental factors involved in plant growth, from the temperature and relative humidity of the ambient air, to the lighting and nutrients delivered to the plants. The result is an efficient and fully traceable operation that is less resource intensive (using roughly 6% of the water that would be required to irrigate an equivalent field); that does not require fungicides, pesticides, or herbicides; and that has unparalleled consistency. The environment in which the plants grow is optimized for growth, reducing the time to harvest to as little as two or three weeks for some lettuce varieties, roughly half the time required in most commercial greenhouse operations. The latest Cubic FarmingTM growth unit developed by Urban Barns Foods and the McGill team has a capacity of 300 heads of lettuce per square foot. By comparison, a conventional lettuce operation typically produces two heads per square foot. The process begins with certified organic and non-GMO seeds placed in a standard hydroponic substrate such as rockwool. After germination and a short maturation period, the seedlings are relocated into stacked stainless steel trays that rotate through the growth unit on a system of cables to provide the crop with uniform light and a regular supply of recycled water. The water, which contains essential plant nutrients, is carefully injected into the trays and is recovered, rebalanced, and reused. The McGill team is currently testing several promising biological and fully biodegradable alternatives to rockwool, a non-renewable material that currently has limited organic alternatives. Lighting for living color One of the cutting-edge technologies used in the growth units is the intercanopy lighting method. Because current plant lighting technologies are intended for overhead use, the obstruction of light at the lower levels creates a limitation to stacking layers of plants. Intercanopy lighting brings the light source in close proximity to the plants and allows intense and uniform distribution of the light. The McGill team has developed high-intensity LED strips that are designed for use as intercanopy grow lights. Two essential conditions must be met to obtain effective intercanopy lighting. First, the surface of the LED strip must remain relatively cool to avoid scorching the plant leaves, which is an issue with high-intensity LEDs. Thermal management is important when designing grow lights in general, but it’s imperative when designing intercanopy lights. Second, the McGill team has optimized the colors of the LEDs. In a natural environment, plants use most of the spectrum of sunlight as an energy source to make the sugars and carbohydrates needed for growth. Published research has shown that plants can grow efficiently and can even be stimulated to increase in nutritional value when subjected to a precise blend of different wavelengths of light. LEDs are wavelength-specific, which means they emit only the exact wavelength they were designed for. The McGill team has developed a specific mix of red, blue, and amber LEDs for use in the growth units. Leafy greens now, fruit-bearing plants next Cubic FarmingTM is not limited to leafy greens. To broaden the company’s product line, the McGill team is selecting new varieties of plants that can thrive in the Urban Barns Foods growth unit. Dwarf varieties of bell pepper and tomato are examples of fruit-bearing crops that the team is currently testing. Edible flowers are also being tested. Locally sourced strawberries during Montreal’s cold winter months may become a reality in the near future thanks to Urban Barns Foods and the team of researchers at McGill University. This technology might seem far out for some consumers, but it’s an insight into the future of fresh food production. Sustainable, traceable, and local fresh food is a growing movement, and the Cubic FarmingTM method, developed by Urban Barns Foods and McGill University, is providing just what consumers want at a never-before-seen quality and production rate. ASABE member Lucas McCartney, Doctoral Student, Department of Bioresource Engineering, McGill University, Macdonald Campus, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec, Canada, firstname.lastname@example.org. Cubic FarmingTM is a trademark of Urban Barns Foods, Mirabel, Quebec, Canada; www.urbanbarns.com.
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