by Dr Peter Wootton‐Beard, Farming Connect Knowledge Exchange Hub, IBERS, Aberystwyth University
CONTROLLED environment agriculture is a collective term for techniques for growing produce without necessarily relying on natural environments to provide the resources for plant growth (e.g. light, water, nutrients etc.). These resources are provided by technological solutions such as hydroponic nutrient delivery systems and artificial lights, depending on the system in use, and the crop.
Although separating food production from natural systems may seem counterintuitive at first glance, there are some advantages to considering these methods for Welsh farm businesses.
The most celebrated of these advantages is the ability to take control of environmental variables. Artificial lighting for example means that the day length and growing season can be increased, either providing an opportunity to shorten the time between sowing and harvesting, increase the number of harvests per season, or to extend the range of crops which can be grown.
For a horticultural producer, this means the option to diversify the range of produce they can supply and investigate new products such as mixed salad bags, herbs, or exotic vegetables.
Lighting systems are becoming cheap to buy and install, and can be fitted to existing structures such as polytunnels, greenhouses and even underused farm buildings. Hydroponic nutrient delivery systems are between 80‐90 per cent more water efficient, eliminating the need for irrigation during dry weather, and making best use of fertiliser though precise dosing.
Through modern sensor technologies, it is also possible to gather real time data on the condition of the crop, nutrient requirements, energy use and environmental conditions to
help growers to fine tune their operation and improve product quality, consistency and yield.
Due to the level of control that can be achieved, these technologies also create the opportunity to integrate food production into on‐farm circular economies, particularly for larger farming operations. As an energy user, controlled environments with artificial lighting can make use of surplus on‐farm renewable energy generation through solar, wind, hydro or geothermal sources.
If they are co‐located with waste recycling facilities such as anaerobic digesters (AD), they can make use of waste heat and carbon dioxide to improve the growing conditions. In addition AD results in nutrient‐rich digestate, which can be recirculated to provide nutrients for horticultural crops. Even the roots of the crops grown in the system could be recycled in this way.
Controlled environment technologies therefore, unlock the potential to grow novel, high value crops, throughout the year, without additional land use. For larger enterprises, they may also represent an opportunity to diversify production using surplus/waste resources.