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CONNECTICUT FEDERALLY FUNDED STARTUP AIMS TO BRING OUT-OF-SEASON FARMING TO FINANCIALLY STRESSED NEW ENGLAND GROWERS; Connecticut Tech Business To Introduce Year-Round Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) To Area Strawberry Farmers; Recent CBS’ 60 MINUTES Segment Highlights California Drought Impact on Local Food Availability
December 15, 2014 — As the outdoor farming season in New England is shut down for the winter, Connecticut-based technology company, Agrivolution LLC, is about to open up a research project on how farmers can extend the growing season into the winter months using special indoor farming techniques popular in Europe and Asia.
If successful, the research could create a new revenue source for farmers in harsh weather states who go mostly dormant in the winter months. It would also mean more farm jobs, greater levels of locally grown produce for consumers, and protection against the impacts of drought conditions in California where most of the produce available in the northeast is grown.
“Experience outside the U.S. shows it is possible with controlled environment agriculture (CEA) to grow pesticide-free fruits and vegetables year-round,” said Richard Fu, Agrivolution president who recently returned from Japan where he toured indoor CEA facilities and met with operators. “If we can prove that controlled environment agriculture is economically viable for farmers here in the northeast it could have significant implications for the farming industry. We want to help northeast farmers and others claim a larger market share during colder weather months when upwards of 90-percent of fruits and vegetables are trucked in from warm weather states or flown in from outside the U.S.”
CEA refers to the production of plants in protected indoor structures such as a greenhouse or a warehouse that maximizes the productivity while being benign to the environment. Agrivolution uses an irrigation technique called hydroponics which involves growing vegetable plants indoors with their roots suspended directly in nutrient-rich water rather than soil.
A USDA funded Specialty Crop Block Grant offered through the Connecticut Department of Agriculture was awarded to Agrivolution to investigate farming methods that could be used to help farmers produce out-of-season strawberries, the fifth most consumed fresh fruit in the United States. It’s the first time the state has funded indoor, or, CEA farming research.
State data shows that the number of strawberry growers in Connecticut is on the decline. Several berry growers still operating though have already expressed interest in partnering with controlled environment agriculture system provider Agrivolution.
Sandra J. Rose, manager of Rose’s Berry Farm in South Glastonbury — one of the largest berry farms in southern New England — is one of the farmers interested in the Agrivolution pilot.
“Strawberries are in high demand all year long,” Rose said. “Our normal growing year produces great fruit here in Connecticut. The season is however, very short and we are picked out in about 3 weeks. Year-round growing will help farmers expand their operations, create jobs, and help compete for shelf-space in grocery stores who would otherwise support us but import berries during the colder months instead because our harvest is depleted.”
The majority of the estimated 437 million pounds of strawberries consumed annually in the northeast region alone are transported across the U.S. in a 5-7 day period before reaching the hands of local consumers. When the domestic products from local growers are seasonally unavailable, strawberries are flown in from Mexico and South America in order to ensure constant availability. Because of its fragile nature (i.e., bruising) and short shelf life, strawberry is an ideal crop for local hydroponic production.
Drought conditions in California, now in its 4th year, have forced farmers to cut back on the acreage dedicated to farming according to news reports. These production shortages have triggered price hikes in regions of North America that have become dependent on California-grown crops. CBS’ 60 MINUTES broadcasted a segment (aired on November 16, 2014) “Depleting the water” that focused on drought conditions in California and groundwater depletion in the aquifers there that supply irrigation water to grow 25-percent of America’s food.
“Relying on California growers to produce and deliver a significant amount of the food we consume in the northeast has consequences,” says Agrivolution’s Fu. “If the California drought continues to be a problem we can expect product shortages and price volatility. But growing more locally produced food ensures that there is volume, quality and price protection we can count on.”
Indoor farming is common in other parts of the world where the percentages of locally grown foods are much higher than they are in Connecticut and other regions of the U.S. While many parts of the world’s strawberry production have transitioned to CEA for years, its adoption in the U.S. has been slow. Approximately 90 percent of strawberries in Japan are grown in greenhouses whereas nearly 100 percent of U.S. strawberries are grown in open fields.
With uncertainty looming with the ongoing extreme drought in California, it is an opportunity for the growers in the northeast to recapture the local market share using the CEA technique Fu said. He considers CEA technology to be a necessary component in the nation’s agricultural base to build a more resilient food supply network.
“We’re under tremendous pressure to keep our workers on the job and our businesses in the black,” said Joe Geremia of Geremia Greenhouse in Wallingford who has investigated the Agrivolution technology. “Indoor farming is something that can change the region’s agriculture landscape. It will help the whole economy.”
Agrivolution, which began as a company in the Technology Incubated Program at the University of Connecticut, will begin examining the quality of the strawberries grown indoors by local farms participating in the research project in early 2015. The company will then determine how the CEA production is viable for larger facilities in the other regions in the U.S.
Agrivolution partnered with Mary Concklin from the University of Connecticut (UConn) Extension on this project to help increase awareness with local growers about the business opportunities presented by indoor farming. UConn Extension supports the Connecticut greenhouse industry with information and educational programming on sustainable production methods.
Agrivolution was named to the CT Innovation Summit’s “Tech Companies to Watch” list in 2012 and 2013.
Funding has been provided by the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program of the Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, awarded and administered by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.
UConn Extension has taken delivery of a new manure spreader. This spreader is not your typical manure spreader. This spreader has gone hi tech with integrated scales, computer and GPS. Unlike a typical spreader which requires the farmer to guess how much manure is being loaded, and keep handwritten records of how many loads went to which fields, this spreader will do all of the recordkeeping for the farmer, on its own. The integral load cells provide the weight. The computer records the amount. When the PTO shaft starts to turn the computer records the GPS position to begin documenting where on the face of the globe the manure is being applied. As successive GPS positions get are recorded and the weight starts decreasing the computer calculates the application rate in tons/acre on the fly. Using this technology a farm will be able to print a map of the data showing exactly how much manure went on every field.
Extension Educator Richard Meinert purchased the spreader using a Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA NRCS. The grant supported the purchase of the spreader to allow farmers to use the spreader on their own farms. The purpose of the grant research is to document the effectiveness of the spreader and the electronics. Once the effect of the spreader is determined an economic analysis will be conducted using data from the farm applications to calculate the payback period of the technology. Eventually all farms with more than a few livestock will need to purchase a manure spreader. The question to be answered is will the increase efficiency save enough in fertilizer, or increased crop yield, or decreased recordkeeping time to pay for the extra $6,000 needed to add the scales, computer and GPS to a standard spreader?
Anyone interested in using the spreader to try it out as part of the grant project is asked to contact Richard Meinert by phone at 860-626-6240 or by email at email@example.com.
I heard the peepers last night for the first time this year. There have already been a couple of sunny, almost warm, spring-like weeks in my neighborhood. Recently the overwintered rye has switched its dull reddish-green color scheme to bright green.
I remember reading a couple of years ago that stands of overwintered rye, if killed early, will provide the most nitrogen value. Incorporating the young plants when they are just beginning to grow, will give as much as a 30-50 lb N credit. Providing soils are dry enough to drive onto, the best time to kill winter rye is when plants are no more than 6-8 inches tall and shortly after they have greened up.
Usually a light harrowing can kill winter rye when root crowns are small and the young stalks are not yet fibrous. Allowing rye to continue to grow will put on biomass, however, the early spring nitrogen credit will be lost. Nitrogen scavenged the previous fall and held in its roots throughout the winter will be utilized to put on rapid spring growth. Additional nitrogen will be required to mineralize it, when incorporated into the soil later in the spring.
If significant biomass is one’s goal, as well as field grown nitrogen, it’s better to seed a legume into one’s fall planted winter rye. Let the green manure cover crops grow to full maturity late into May or early June. Then turn them under and allow them to slowly break down to feed later summer cash crops.
Meanwhile, utilize the extensive root growth of an overwintered cover crop and benefit from the value of its winter carry over of “free” nitrogen. Many overwintering cover crops give the most value if you turn them under quite early.
— Eero Ruuttila,
Sustainable Agriculture Specialist – Scaling Up Program
UConn Extension – Tolland County
Information on early killing of spring cover crops came from the March 2011 Cornell VegEdge newsletter, authored by Thomas Bjorkman
Empty calories. Depleted soil. Overproduction. By now, most Americans have heard reports that even as we’re eating more, we’re taking in fewer nutrients. Today’s ubiquitous fast foods and processed meals play a large part in the changing quality of our diets. But research also suggests that the mineral content of plant-based foods—fruits, vegetables, and grains—has been steadily diminishing since the 1950s.
What’s behind the decline? Some say commercial farming methods that target higher yields are stripping the soil of minerals, leaving less for new plants to absorb. Other theories point to modern hybrid species that have been developed for higher yields, easier handling, better appearance, and marketability at the expense of nutritional content.
With deficiencies in essential minerals linked to osteoporosis, anemia, higher infection rates, and a host of other ills, figuring out how to increase the nutrient density of crops is on the minds of farmers, consumers, scientists, and public health departments alike. That’s where Stockbridge School of Agriculture Professor Allen Barker comes in.
Barker and his team set out to study the nutrient content of a selection of fruits and vegetables to see how new cultivars compare to old-fashioned strains and how both are affected by various fertilizers. In the first two years of the project, they’ve grown and harvested 24 varieties of tomato, 35 types of cabbage, and 18 different lettuces in soil enriched with either chemical fertilizer, organic fertilizer, or compost. The results offer more than a few surprises.
“For lettuce, cabbage, and tomato, essentially no differences occur in nutrient accumulation between modern hybrids and heritage varieties,” reports Barker. “On average, they have essentially the same composition.” Nor did the team note a large disparagement in average nutrient content between phenotypes – that is, between red cabbages and green cabbages, or between romaine lettuce and iceberg lettuce.
However, there proved to be an enormous difference among specific varieties within those phenotypes. According to Barker, “Varieties of cabbage, lettuce, and tomato differed widely, with some varieties having twice the nutrient content of others in all species.” In other words, he explains, “We can’t say that romaine is better for you than iceberg, or that red cabbage is better for you than green cabbage, but we can say which varieties of romaine or red cabbage are best.”
This is good news for farmers, who are eager to hear Barker’s recommendations so they can plant and market healthier foods. It’s good for breeders, who are interested in using the information to develop higher-nutrient plants through genetic improvement. And of course, it’s good for the consumers who take those fruits and vegetables home. In fact, one of the project’s main goals is to build public awareness of the nutrient content in different types of produce, thus opening new marketing opportunities for farmers while helping to combat malnutrition.
But choosing the most nutritious tomato is only part of the picture. Much of the project’s value lies in helping farmers determine not just what to plant, but how.
“Soil fertility problems associated with nutrient depletion by crop production are worldwide,” says Barker. Since the 1960s, he explains, fruit, vegetable, and grain yields have increased markedly, resulting in a dilution of the minerals available in the soil and, it follows, in the crops themselves. “There’s concern that we’re mining the soil, taking out more nutrients than we put back in,” he explains. “For nutrient-sufficient foods to be sustainable, elemental depletion of soils must be compensated for by return of nutrients through fertilization.” That’s been hindered, says Barker, by the cost of fertilizers and by recent criticisms of over-fertilization.
To find the most effective way to replenish the soil, Barker and his team used three regimes to grow their specimens: organic fertilizer, conventional chemical fertilizer, and compost. Each of the three media was fundamentally equal in nutrient content, that is to say, richly fertilized. “We fed them well,” says Barker.
In analyzing the harvest, Barker found that the fruits and vegetables grown using quick-releasing chemical fertilizer were equally nutrient-dense to those grown with slower-acting organic fertilizer. Trailing behind was compost, which is effective in the long term, says Barker, but may require several years to build up the soil. The experiment suggests that what’s critical in growing mineral-rich produce is not the type of fertilizer used, but rather the quality and quantity of nutrients provided.
Barker hopes to take these results further in several directions. One is to discover whether the mineral content of nutrient-dense varieties can be boosted even more with vigorous fertilization. He’d like to see if a plant’s nutrient components can be enhanced in soil as they have been when grow hydroponically. And he’s eager to correlate his results with those of scientists who are researching other plant components, such as vitamin content.
“There are quite a few people looking at other constituents, but we’re kind of unique,” says Barker. “I don’t know of anyone who’s studying the specific factor that we are with as much intensity.”
UConn Extension has been adding new programs in Sustainable Food Systems over the past couple of years. Extension Educator Jiff Martin is helping to coordinate a team of talented individuals as they build these programs. “I am more of a generalist than a specialist, so for me teamwork is pretty essential to getting things done,” Jiff says. She points out that food issues can bring a variety of people together naturally – much like cooking together and eating together. She also notes, “There are enormous challenges ahead if we really want to see a sustainable food system that meets our needs for fresh, healthy, affordable food today without jeopardizing the ability of future generations from doing the same. That’s why I believe most of the work around sustainable food systems nationally tends to depend on regional collaborations and coalitions.”
The Scaling Up Program for Beginning Farmers, funded by USDA, is a three-year outreach and training program for new and beginner farmers in Connecticut. “In the whole farm planning activity of this program, an extension educator team will work intensively with at least 10 beginning farmers over three years, helping them navigate multiple challenges as they scale up their farm enterprises into full-time viable and growing operations,” Jiff begins. Areas of education for the whole farm planning participants include: business management, IPM, crop planning, labor management, equipment use, conservation, land access and tenure. “We will also develop a set of new training tools and curriculum to help beginner farmers acquire Farm Management skills in the core areas of production planning, infrastructure decisions, and non-production management. Extension educators in the Scaling Up Program include: Jude Boucher, Leanne Pundt, Joe Bonelli and Mary Concklin. The team also hired Eero Ruuttila to serve as the Sustainable Agriculture specialist and Kip Kolesinskas as the Land Conservation specialist. An advisory team of farmers and agricultural professionals are also working with the team, as well as partner organizations: CT NOFA, New CTFarmers Alliance, CAES and Land for Good.
FoodCorps CT is a service program for college graduates focused on improving school food environments via school gardens, nutrition education, and farm to school. Five FoodCorps service members are working in the following school districts: Bridgeport, New Haven, Windham, New Britain and Norwich. The FoodCorps fellow, Dana Stevens is based out of the Tolland County Extension Center. “FoodCorps service members are incredibly motivated and effective, and it’s inspiring to see what this ‘boots on the ground’ program can do to excite children about healthy, fresh food,” Jiff says. “The service members, partner organizations and advisory team are another group of experienced and talented people who together are making FoodCorps CT into a model program. “ Extension and UConn team members include: Maryann Fusco-Rollins, Erica Benvenuti, Heather Pease, Heather Peracchio, Tina Dugdale and Linda Drake.
The BuyCTGrown project is building the #1 online hub for our community of consumers who are ready to discover and experience local Connecticut agriculture. UConn Extension is partnering with CitySeed, a non-profit in New Haven, as we plan to redesign the website, www.BuyCTGrown.com and launch the 10% campaign in 2013. “The 10% Campaign is a great concept modeled on a project from North Carolina. It engages consumers and others that are already excited about local agriculture and tracks the economic impact that occurs when consumers, chefs, food service directors and produce buyers make a commitment to buying 10% local.” My vision is that other extension educators will want to join the 10% Campaign as local campaign coordinators, in the same manner that North Carolina Extension has mobilized over 100 coordinators. UConn Extension team members Ben Campbell and Nancy Barrett have been working with Jiff, as well as CT Dept. of Agriculture, CT Farm Bureau, and CT NOFA on laying the groundwork for the 10% Campaign.
Tapping into the local food movement and a growing interest in ‘collective impact’ strategies, on December 4th, over 80 individuals gathered at the Middlesex County Extension Center to launch the Connecticut Food System Alliance. Jiff and a planning team of 8 partner organizations worked over several months with a facilitator to lay the groundwork for this statewide network of food system leaders, practitioners, and stakeholders. A new listserv was also launched in tandem: CT_Food_System_Leader-L. “The timing is right for this sort of network and there is real pent-up opportunity for more collaboration, alignment, and joint action,” Jiff states. Extension team members that have participated so far include Mike O’Neill, Bonnie Burr, Diane Hirsch, Joe Bonelli, and Linda Drake.
UConn’s Cooperative Extension System (Jiff Martin, Jude Boucher, Joe Bonelli and Mary Concklin), the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) and CT NOFA sponsored a CSA School on November 28th, at the Middlesex County Extension Office. A total of 81 people attended the event and 49 (60%) filled out an evaluation form. Eighty percent of the participants grew vegetable crops and many also grew flowers, small fruit and had greenhouses. Eight growers, two Extension Educators and one “Typical Customer” made presentations about their CSAs’ at the workshop, while four more farmers led discussion groups on how to get started, get better and deal with regulations. Presentations included a ‘Typical CSA Vegetable Share’, ‘Multi-farmer CSA’, ‘Multi-season CSA’, ‘Partnering with Chefs’, ‘a Meat CSA’, ‘Tips & Tools for CSA Business Management’, ‘Insuring a CSA’, and a farmer panel of first-year CSA growers who shared what to do and not to do when getting started.
Seventy-nine percent of the folks who answered the evaluation rated the program as “excellent” while the rest rated it as “good”. Participants all received a CSA_School_Booklet_112812 and all rated it either “Excellent” or “Good”. The full booklet has been posted on the UConn RMA web site at www.ctfarmrisk.uconn.edu/. Of the respondents, 86% said they learned something to change their marketing practices, while 80% said the program will improve their farm profitability. Almost everyone raved about the locally-grown lunch from River Tavern and some said it was worth the price of admission all by itself. Four respondents said they would start a CSA next summer while 10 claimed they would add a farm credit-style CSA option to their operation. Others said they would start an entertaining CSA newsletter, begin office or church deliveries, increase their crop diversity, partner with restaurants, add items to shares, write up shareholder agreements, plan production to meet share requirements, start a swap box, change the amount in each share, and have more personal contact with shareholders.
Left: Rick Hermonot, from Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, describes his “Meat CSA.” Right: Steve Munno, from Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge, leads a discussion on how to improve your CSA.