WELSH STRAWBERRY PROJECT
Digital Farming are collaborating with Agri SGJ with the help of the SMART Cymru Scheme to use vertical farming for growing strawberries all year round.
Hydroponic methods entail the soilless cultivation of plants in a water based, nutrient rich solution. Strawberries have been grown hydroponically in the past for both research and commercial purposes. However, indoor systems have not yet been fully explored for commercial use. Historically, the major challenges of hydroponic systems have been its high investment cost and the requirement for specialised expertise in order to create optimal conditions for plant growth. This study is aiming to assess the feasibility of an indoor vertical strawberry farm in a totally controlled environment.
The primary obstacle to growing strawberries under standard agricultural methods is the limited growing period. Winter is not a favourable time for strawberries to grow.
Growers have managed to extend the growing season using fleece for crop protection and growing in polytunnels and glasshouses.
However, the UK yield is still unable to cover the constantly increasing demands for strawberries all year round. Imports from Southern Europe and the Middle East are used to boost the domestic production during summer times, while during winter only imported strawberries are available.
The development of a growing solution which could provide guaranteed high quality strawberries would contribute toward a self-sufficient UK, especially post Brexit.
Digital Farming have a vision of implementing functioning indoor vertical farms that are compatible with any building even ex-industrial ones. Re-purposing buildings for vertical farms would help result in a better utilisation of land for crops by growing in areas that otherwise could not be grown in.
Employment opportunities can be developed, as the indoor farms would not only be located at particularly isolated areas of the country, but potentially close to a city where the areas usually suffer from high unemployment. People can be trained in such organisations and research can be undertaken. Vertical farms have the potential to offer innovative community projects involving both youth and elderly people.
Lastly, hydroponically grown systems are one of the most sustainable ways to produce crops. Systems use less water (up to 90%) than standard agricultural methods. They also use limited to no pesticides, insecticides and herbicides.
Furthermore, since growing can take place closer to the cities, less transportation is required which reduces the carbon emission of travel as well as through the use of renewable energy.
AgriSGJ are aiming to transition into the world of indoor production of high value strawberries. To do this, funding is being channelled into the development of an indoor hydroponic growing system. This system will use LED lighting so that different lighting strengths can be achieved depending on the best light for the various strawberry varieties to grow under. The crops can be cultivated faster under controlled environment agriculture systems (CEA). CEA systems also help to enhance berry quality in terms of its taste, size and nutritional value. Energy and water consumption can also be minimised.
As well as this, CEA systems allow for the growing process to be meticulously monitored through sensors and controlled through digital algorithms which are connected to an Internet of Things Infrastructure (IoT). The use of pesticides will be limited and may not even be used. The result of this project aims to establish an effective, efficient and continual cultivation of high-quality crops and reduce imports of berries from overseas.
During this Industrial Research project, the technical aspects and commercial profitability of such a business model will be evaluated, with vision to explode our IP, soon after the completion of the project.
The Perfect Partnership
Agri SGJ Ltd is a family business which was founded in 1998. Combined they have over a 100 years of experience in the fruit trade. Originally the company focused on grapes and citrus but has since developed to include a 12-month berry supply with the main focus being on strawberries. Agri SGJ sources fresh produce globally and supply supermarkets, food services, caterers, discount retailers and the wholesale market. Year-round quality and sustainable pricing continue to be the company’s priorities as well as their maintenance of high technical standards and accreditations.
Agris SGJ has historically cultivated strawberry plants in soil, whereas more recently the company has grown in a table top system to produce the crop. They are keen to diversify into vertical systems and indoor cultivation, with the ambition to provide to the market local strawberries produced by sustainable cultivation systems.
Agris SGJ’s employees and partners possess a high level of specialists’ knowledge and market know-how that has helped to establish a superior practice that is evident from the yield achieved in the last few years (50 tonnes per hectare); which were significantly higher than the average yields achieved by the average home-grown strawberry producers (22.3 tonnes per hectare).