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New crops, automation and big data fueled conversations at the 5th annual Indoor Ag-Con in Las Vegas.

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July 27, 2017
Patrick Williams
Photo: Patrick Williams; Logo courtesy of Indoor Ag-Con

Between the metallic dinosaur at the trade show’s entrance, vertical gardens exhibiting multicolored lettuce and leafy greens, and booths showing off the latest in lighting technology, the 5th annual Indoor Ag-Con in Las Vegas, May 3-4, provided attendees an all-encompassing tour of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) and the technology and innovation that surround it.

Produce Grower was proud to be a sponsor of the event, where sessions focused on everything from securing funding to managing lighting needs to ensuring food safety. To learn more about the keynotes and Produce Grower’s general takeaways from Indoor Ag-Con, listen to our event recap at bit.ly/2tJ0yB4. In these pages, we will look at sessions centered around new crops and the future of automation and big data in CEA.

New crop opportunities

From drastic flavor modification to growing crops with major health benefits, the Indoor Ag-Con session “Which crops will move indoors next?” spotlighted new crop opportunities in CEA.

By changing one ingredient in a hydroponic mix, Dr. Deane Falcone, SVP, plant sciences and product development at FreshBox Farms, says he and his colleagues have been able to modify the flavor intensity of arugula to create mild and spicy varieties. “[The spicy variety] is very, very spicy, and the mild is almost completely bland,” he says. “That means we have the opportunity to titrate that and ... make yet a third one.”

Additionally, scientists can adjust the phytonutrient content of specific crops to produce anticancer qualities, Falcone says. Studies over the past 10 to 15 years, for instance, have shown that broccoli possesses anticancer activity through compounds called sulforophanes, he says.

Ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) and purslane are other crops that growers may want to consider adding to their existing offerings, Dr. Richard Fu, president of Agrivolution, discussed in the session. These crops will not only allow growers in the United States to differentiate their product lines and stick out from the crowd, he says, but they carry health benefits as well.

The inositol in ice plant helps reduce insulin resistance for people with prediabetic conditions or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and it contains beta-Carotene and Vitamin K. The Super Omega-3 and alpha-linolenic fatty acids in purslane, meanwhile, can help alleviate allergies. To learn more about ice plant and purslane, read Greenhouse Management’s Q&A with Fu at bit.ly/2uFT6EG

In the fruit realm, Driscoll’s, the largest berry marketer in the world, has recently begun growing blackberries in glasshouses and has seen promising results, says Ian Justus, senior manager, controlled environment production. Justus works in research and development and produces high quality and high yields growing the company’s new Victoria variety under glass.

The Victoria crops grow approximately 13 feet tall, which makes them difficult to harvest on foot but conducive to cart passes in the greenhouse, Justus says. Multiple supplemental lighting sources exist in the glasshouses. “We’ve got high-pressure sodium lights at the top, and we’ve got really intricate LED bars down at the bottom,” Justus says.

Clockwise from left: Dr. Deane Falcone, Dr. Richard Fu, Ian Justus, Alastair Monk, Darryn Keiller, Nate Storey
Photos courtesy of Nicola Kerslake

The future of big data and automation

Many produce growers have some type of automation set up in their greenhouse or vertical farm, and all of them collect data in some way. But how can growers use automation and large data sets to improve their operations, and is there room in CEA for data sharing? These are questions that were addressed in the Indoor Ag-Con session “What impact can big data and automation have on indoor agriculture?”

Operations can track data that measures how fast crops have been growing compared to previous years, and which inputs those crops need at a given point, says Alastair Monk, co-founder and CEO of Motorleaf. Monk says he wants to see a future where every single grower can automatically use intelligent data to control their operations.

A question that came up at multiple points through Indoor Ag-Con and that Monk addressed is “Who owns the data?” He gave the example of a field farmer using a tractor that collects data. In his example, the farmer owns the raw data, but it is then put onto a server, mixed together with data from other farmers. Once the source of the data is no longer identifiable, the data is made accessible to third-party companies. “I think that’s probably the kind of model that indoor agriculture is going to have to follow,” he says.

Currently, automated systems control environments and crop dosing, but companies are beginning to look more at how to improve the productivity, quality and taste of a crop, says Darryn Keiller, CEO of Autogrow. And while much of this information is proprietary, he, too, would like companies to share data to make it “big.”

Keiller equates an improved system, at least in part, with predictive analytics. “Lighting strikes, stormfronts, record temperature drops, solar radiation, reduced cloud cover — all these things effect production practices,” Keiller says. “But what if you could predict those things?”

Rounding out the session was Nate Storey, founder and chairman of Bright Agrotech. He is also the chief science officer at Plenty, which recently acquired Bright Agrotech (Editor’s Note: Read about the acquisition at bit.ly/2sF5fbs). Storey spoke specifically about machine vision, which he explains as the process of using images to glean data such as size, color and changes over time.

In fact, Storey says, machine vision can tell changes over time better than a human can, as well as temperature, nutrient deficiencies, fruit ripeness and environmental conditions. This outlook may not rest easy with every grower, but Storey is confident in it. “Even [with] my eyes, my mind and all of my experience in growing plants, I’m not as sensitive to these issues as we can get with the right set of images and the right analysis,” he says.