CEA in Arizona, growing "veganically," mini cukes, and more

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Annie White Stoffel Subscribe
Inside Grower

Celebrating Earth Week
Efficiency in the Desert
Inside Look at UA-CEAC
Beyond Organic – Veganic?
Trendy Mini Cukes
Aquaponics Workshop

Celebrating Food and Farms

For many of us, Earth Day (or Earth Week) is a time to celebrate our food and to reflect on how it’s grown, where it’s grown and how far it travels from the farm to our fork.

Earth Day isn’t just about connecting with trees and nature; it’s about connecting with food and agriculture. Revelers in Austin, Los Angeles and Boulder celebrated local food artisans at pop-up farmers' markets this week sponsored by The WellGro Co. and clothing-company Anthropologie. The United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., featured seasonal produce on Earth Day in cooking demonstrations. Lowes home improvement stores gave out packets of Beefsteak Tomato seeds to customers on Earth Day. Other companies like Plantronics in Santa Cruz offered heirloom tomato plants to their employees. All in celebration of Earth Day. All in appreciation of Earth's food systems.

Local. Organic. Pesticide-free. Sustainable. Freshness. Food safety. Food miles. GMO or non-GMO. More and more of us think about these topics when making food choices for ourselves, our families and our planet.

Green Growing in the Desert

For me, thinking about the sustainability of our food systems is part of my everyday life, and seems particularly relevant after immersing myself in the University of Arizona’s Greenhouse Crop Production and Engineering Design Short Course earlier this month. Growing food more efficiently with fewer resources and closer to the points of consumption is important for food system sustainability—and it’s a challenge many greenhouse growers are taking on.

Throughout the information-packed week of seminars and workshops, there was a common goal among the engineers, scientists and growers who shared their knowledge: to optimize plant productivity while allocating resources, including water, energy, labor, land and other resources as efficiently as possible. The greenhouse industry has the knowledge and resources to produce food that is clean, safe, abundant and affordable.

Inside Look at UA-CEAC

The Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) at the University of Arizona has a multi-disciplinary, international team of engineers and scientists, students, faculty and small-business collaborators who are all striving to develop controlled environment agriculture (CEA) as an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable agricultural option.

I spent a full day at the CEAC getting a firsthand look at the many interesting research projects, business ventures and learning opportunities for students. Here's a glimpse of just a few of the many interesting projects happening right now at the UA-CEAC.


Dr. Murat Kacira (above) and his lab are studying a prototype, off-the-grid, low cost and easily deployable greenhouse crop production system. The greenhouse system is designed for growing fresh, local produce in challenging areas, such as remote locations or disaster zones where crop production materials are limited.

Dr. Kacira’s current research in the off-the-grid greenhouse system is evaluating its resource consumption, production outputs, limitations and capabilities, and the technical and economic feasibility of the system.

The greenhouse is currently growing greens in a sand substrate using an organic liquid fertilizer from WISErg. Using patent-pending technology, WISErg uses a "harvester" to convert food waste from grocery stores to nutrient-packed organic fertilizer.

Myles Lewis explains the floating hydroponic system he uses to grow a variety of leafy produce, including the micro greens shown here.

Myles Lewis rents greenhouse space at the UA-CEAC where he runs the Arizona Vegetable Company, a small business that utilizes simple floating hydroponic technologies to grow pesticide-free greens year-round in the unmercifully hot and dry Arizona desert.

Myles is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s undergraduate and master’s programs in controlled environment agriculture and is successfully translating his academic knowledge to the business world.

The entrepreneur is growing a variety of lettuces, micro greens, herbs and edible flowers on floating rafts in custom-designed ponds of nutrient-rich water.

The teaching greenhouse at the University of Arizona Center for Controlled Environment Agriculture.

The teaching greenhouse at the center is filled with scent of ripe tomatoes and is bustling with undergraduate students tending to their own rows and helping to harvest and pack the fresh tomatoes. This is where Dr. Pat Rorabaugh teaches her students how to grow tomatoes and cucumbers in a commercial-style hydroponic system (above).

A red and blue glow is coming from a nearby greenhouse. This is where graduate student Ricardo Hernandez in Dr. Chieri Kubota’s lab is conducting a two-phase study to evaluate supplemental LED lighting technology for greenhouse vegetable transplant production. Ricardo is part of Dr. Chieri Kubota's Lab, which is also studying vegetable seedling production for grafting and growing greenhouse strawberries in a soilless culture.

The demonstration greenhouse for hobby or school simple hydroponic systems.

Not everything at the CEAC is high-tech. The demonstration greenhouse above is run by volunteers and is filled with examples of simple hydroponic systems appropriate for schools and hobbyists.

The UA-CEAC is also famous for its Prototype Lunar Greenhouse and its South Pole Growing Chamber.

Learn more about the controlled environment agriculture program and research projects HERE.

Sunizona Family Farms Grows "Veganically"

We’re all familiar with growing produce organically, but have you heard of growing "veganically?" Sunizona Family Farms is upping the ante for sustainable, ethical and healthful food production by employing a unique vegan-organic growing system, which is free of all animal products (e.g. manures, fish products, blood meals and bone meals) and uses strictly plant-based materials for fertilizing.

While on my recent trip to Arizona, I visited Sunizona Family Farms and got the scoop about veganic growing practices firsthand from the energetic and innovative farmers themselves, Byron & Janice Smith.

Janice Smith talks about the company's veganic system for growing greenhouse tomatoes.

It all started in 1996 when Byron and Janice moved to Willcox, Arizona, from northern British Columbia with their family. They were seeking a quiet country location to raise their four children and start an agricultural business their whole family could be involved in. They settled on the small community of Willcox in the southeastern part of the state. Located 80 miles from the city of Tucson, Willcox is rich with history, ranching, agriculture and, most importantly, sunshine.

The Smiths started a conventional greenhouse growing English cucumbers that were sold to distributors across North America. Motivated to live and operate their business more sustainably, the family started to shake things up in 2002.

They shifted their focus from growing for large distributors to growing for a more local market. They diversified their crops, switching from predominantly cucumber production to predominantly tomatoes, micro greens, salad greens and herbs. They replaced their natural gas heating system with a biomass boiler system, which allows them to burn local waste pecan shell.

I nibbled on this delicious assortment of micro greens while visiting Sunizona's specialty greenhouse.

Next, Sunizona wanted to make the switch to organic growing. They replaced their soilless hydroponic substrates with an organic potting soil that they made themselves from local materials, including their composted plant waste and local pecan shells. They became a certified organic farm in 2009.

However, the Smiths didn't want to follow the traditional organic growing methods, which use animal products in fertilizers. They wanted to avoid using fertilizer ingredients such as blood, bone and fish meals and animal manures, which can contain hormones and antibiotics. After years of research, they developed a unique vegan-organic growing system that is free from the use of animal products and uses strictly plant-based materials for fertilizing. They make their own pelletized fertilizer using local products such as alfalfa, beans, peanuts and wheat.

Today, Sunizona grows about 25 varieties of tomatoes "veganically" in their 1.5-acre greenhouse alongside a smaller assortment of greenhouse cucumbers, peppers, beans, peas, greens and more. They also have a 10,000 sq. ft. specialty greenhouse where they grow individual varieties of micro greens and herbs as well as mixed salad greens.

This 1.5-acre greenhouse at Sunizona Family Farms grows a wide variety of "vegan-organic" produce.

Nearly all of their produce is now sold and consumed within the state of Arizona. Their products are available at all Whole Foods Markets and AJ's Fine Foods in Arizona, some farmers markets, and direct from the farm through their FarmBox program.

Learn more about growing vegan-organic at veganicallygrown.com, a website created by Sunizona Family Farms. Also check out the Veganic Agriculture Network’s website, goveganic.net, for news, events and a directory of other veganic farms in North America.

Trendy Mini Cukes

Snack-sized cucumbers may be the next hot thing in greenhouse veggies. Mini cukes can be grown hydroponically in greenhouses much like their full-size cousins and are proving attractive to consumers.

Topline Produce is leading the way in this new trend as one of the largest growers in North America of seedless mini cucumbers. Topline grows their mini cukes in more than 35 acres of greenhouse facilities throughout North America.

McPhail Farms in Lynden, Washington, is growing mini cucumbers hydroponically alongside beefsteak and cherry tomatoes in their 14,000 sq. ft. greenhouse. I met Todd and & Tricia McPhail at the Arizona short course. They said that although the grocery stores were initially reluctant to buy and sell the mini cukes, they quickly discovered that the consumer demand was huge for the snack-sized veggies.

The McPhail Farm is a small family business and everyone in the family is eager to help out.

As a small grower, it’s not economical for the McPhails to purchase and run a shrink-wrap machine for English cucumbers, making the mini cukes a nice alternative. They package the cukes in a 16 oz. clamshell with a catchy "Lil Snacker" label. They say that they sell so quickly from the grocery stores that shelf life hasn’t been a problem.

Topline produce packages their cukes in a variety of formats, including simple 14 oz. or 2 lb. plastic bags and 6- or 8-count shrink-wrapped packages.

Topline's Jimmy Coppola notes that like with any new product that gets popular quickly, there’s a risk of many new suppliers flooding the market and depressing prices.

"The supply and demand curves shift without much notice," explained Jimmy. "So you have to forecast properly and set up proper ads at the retail level to keep movement steady."

Advanced Aquaponics Workshop

The University of Guelph is hosting a two day Advanced Aquaponics Workshop on June 6-7, 2013. The workshop will follow the Aquaculture Association of Canada’s annual conference, which is also taking place in Guelph, Ontario, June 2-5.

Workshop participants are encouraged to purchase the book "Recirculating Aquaculture" by M.B. Timmons and J.M. Ebeling for the discounted price of $125 when registering. "This textbook is considered the bible for anyone that wants to design and maintain a recirc system," says NOA Fisheries, the workshop’s organizer. "The textbook covers basic fish management and aquaponics as well as addressing all aspects on the design and management of recirculating aquaculture systems."

Register before May 6 for the early bird rate of $799 or $399 for students.

For more information about the workshop click HERE:

That's all for this week. As always, feel free to email me at awhite@ballpublishing.com with comments, questions, news and views.

Until next time,

Annie White
Inside Grower

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