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.