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The Commercial Growers Magazine

FEBRUARY 2015

ISSUE
152

www.hydroponics.com.au

SPACE FARMING
SMALL-SCALE AQUAPONICS

GROWING UP

Current wisdom in aquaponics

Innovative vertical growing system

AN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE

PROTECTED CROPPING IN THE TROPICS

The hydroponics industry Down Under

A new way of thinking about greenhouses

From The Editor

Published by:
Casper Publications Pty Ltd
(A.B.N. 67 064 029 303)

PO Box 225, Narrabeen, NSW 2101


Tel: (02) 9905-9933

Colonising Space

info@hydroponics.com.au

Managing Editor
Steven Carruthers

editor@hydroponics.com.au

Contributing Authors
Rick Donnan
Christine Brown-Paul
Kimberley A. Williams
Raymond A. Cloyd

Advertising Sales
Mark Lewis
Tel: +613 9432-5428
Email: marklewis@hydroponics.com.au

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Editorial Information
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses welcomes
freelance contributions and letters with a
hydroponic,

greenhouse

or

IPM

focus.

Photographic material should be good quality


colour prints or transparencies, clearly named and
captioned. Copy is also accepted by email or disk in
Word format. Hi-resolution digital images are
accepted .tif, .jpg, .eps or .pdf format. No
responsibility is accepted for loss or damage to
unsolicited material.

ur feature story, Space Farming, highlights that mankind is creeping closer to


colonising the Moon, Mars and beyond. Showing the way is an experiment on
the International Space Station, which uses a very simple chamber similar to a
mini greenhouse to grow edible plants for space station inhabitants. Since 2002,
the chamber has been used to perform almost continuous plant growth experiments, and
has produced some surprising results that will benefit Earth-based greenhouses and
controlled-environment agricultural systems. The ultimate goal for researchers is to
develop sustainable food production systems for deep space exploration and space
colonisation, perhaps in our lifetime.
To get to NASA's intended destinationMarsand back again will take two years and
astronauts will need to carry foods that have a three-to-five-year shelf life. They also
plan to grow their own foods, which is the focus of our story on space farming. A team
of graduate students from the University of Colorado Boulder in the US have designed
robots to work in a deep-space habitat, tending gardens and growing food for astronaut
explorers. Recently, the students demonstrated their X-Hab project at Kennedy's Space
Station Processing Facility: a concept for producing edible plants during long-term
missions to destinations such as Mars. The goal is to have robots do much of the work,
leaving astronauts free to concentrate on more important tasks. Their system uses a
Remotely Operated Gardening Rover (ROGR), which travels around the habitat tending
to a fleet of SmartPots (SPOTS), which would be distributed throughout the habitat's
living space. The SPOTS facilitate plants growing in a small, custom-designed
hydroponic growth chamber with computerised systems to monitor the vegetation's
progress. Each has its own sensor run by an embedded computer.
The student researchers envision dozens of SPOTS in a space habitat, using
telemetry to provide data on plant condition to a computer display. The robots and
plants are networked together, and the SPOTS have the ability to monitor soil humidity
and issue watering requests. The SPOTS also measure air and water temperature,
lighting provided by LEDs, as well as levels of humidity, nutrient levels and pH. As each
SPOTS monitors and supports its plants, it can determine when ROGR needs to
perform plant maintenance tasks.
ROGR is a robot on wheels, has a forklift to move SPOTS, a mechanical arm for
manipulating the plants, and a fluid delivery system that can provide fresh water or
water with nutrients. If an astronaut requests tomatoes for a salad, the system
decides which specific plants have the ripest tomatoes and assigns parallel harvesting
tasks to ROGR.
Thanks in part to life sciences research such as this, astronauts may enjoy a more
efficient life-support systemand some freshly grown food.

Copyright Casper Publications Pty Ltd 2015. All


material in Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses is
copyright. No part of this publication may be reproduced
without the written permission of the Publisher.

www.hydroponics.com.au
ISSN 2202-1485

International study tours are a unique opportunity to combine overseas travel and
cultural experience, with studies focusing on various aspects of a region or an area of
study. They lead to knowledge transfer and new and better ways of doing things. Many
Australian growers, educators and students have benefited from international study
tours, and its a treat to host two professors from Kansas State University who give an
American perspective in this issue of the Australian and New Zealand protected
cropping industries.
Steven Carruthers
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 3

A Magazine for
Commercial Growers
Advertising Inquiries
Tel: +61 (03) 9432-5428
marklewis@hydroponics.com.au

ISSUE 152 :: FEBRUARY 2015 :: THE COMMERCIAL GROWERS MAGAZINE

Features
TRADE DIRECTORY

An American Perspective.........................20
This visiting American perspective

Agnova . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17

highlights industry similarities as well as


their differences.

Autogrow Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
Coast Guard Netting . . . . . . . . . . . . .4

Space Farming ........................................26

A team of graduate students designing


robots to work in a deep-space habitat,

Exfoliators . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .19

An American Perspective

tending gardens and growing food for


astronaut explorers.

Extrusion Technologies Int. . . . . . . .31

Protected Cropping in the Tropics ..........36


Faber Greenhouses . . . . . . . . . . . .OBC

Queensland researchers demonstrate a


new way of thinking about protected

Faber Greenhouses . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9

cropping in the tropics.

GFIA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14

Practical

GOTAFE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .24-25

Growing up ...............................................15

Modular hydroponic production tower,


Grodan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41

Space Farming

designed to increase production in


hydroponic and aquaponic systems, and

Legro . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6

facilitate sustainable food production.

Munters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10

Small-Scale Aquaponic

Pestech . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12

Technical paper review that showcases

Food Production ......................................42

Powerplants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . IFC

current wisdom in aquaponics, focusing on


small-scale production.
Protected Cropping in the Tropics

Departments
Disclaimer
The information contained in this magazine whether
in editorial matter or in feature articles or in
advertisements is not published on the basis that the

From the Editor..........................................3


Reader Inquiries ........................................7
News & Products .....................................11

Publisher accepts or assumes liability or responsibility


to any reader of the magazine for any loss or damage

Cover Image: Student Dane Larsen checks

resulting from the correctness of such information.

out the forklift on a Remotely Operated

www.hydroponics.com.au

a deep-space habitat. (Photo courtesy

Gardening Rover, which could tend plants on


NASA/Bob Granath)

Growing up
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 5

Your
plants
deserve
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right?
Lets grow!
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Reader Inquiries

Thanks for your letters


I have a few suggestions to help us better identify your problems, and hence give the most appropriate answers:
Some of your letters are very long. This is not a problem, but they will have to be edited down before publishing. Please keep your actual questions
short, and limit yourself to one, or at most two, questions. Please comment as to whether you are a hobbyist or a commercial grower, and what
crop you are growing. Please describe at least the basics of your system, especially whether you recirculate or not. This is vital information, but
often overlooked. Other useful information, if known, would be: media type, container size and depth, channel size, length and slope, solution volume
per plant. For irrigation and nutrient questions, please describe your typical irrigation pattern over a day, plus how and when your solutions are
Rick Donnan

made up. If you have had any analysis done, such as your raw water, please attach a copy. Include any extra information you wish.

Address your inquiry to: PH&G PO Box 225, Narrabeen, NSW 2101 AUSTRALIA Int: +612 9905 9030 Email: info@hydroponics.com.au

Question

Answer

What can I do to reduce acid addition?

Which pH?

can be quite substantial, or take a lot


of acid to lower the root zone pH, as in
your case.

Firstly, I am pleased that you are

Not often mentioned in books is that

I have a hobby hydroponic system using

controlling your system through

the downside to adding acid to your

cocopeat in bags, fed by drippers. I have

measuring the run-off solution (for pH

feed is that it alters the nutrient

found that the pH of the solution running

and presumably EC). Often growers

balance. The more acid you add, the

are conscientious in checking the pH

worse the imbalance becomes.

from the bags is much higher than what


I am feeding. I have to add pH down to
bring my feed down to 5.0 pH in order to
keep the run-off pH under 6.3.
This is using a lot of pH down. I guess
that the pH down I use is an acid, but I
dont know what kind. Is the amount of
acid I am using doing any damage to my
plants, and is there anything I can do to

of their feed solution, but ignore the


run-off.

How important is pH?


The importance of pH is well covered

Most important is the pH of the


solution around the plant roots, which
is where the plant is actively taking up
water and nutrients. This is known as
the root zone solution, and the best
indication of this is the run-off
solution. The pH of the run-off will
often be different to the feed solution

in virtually all hydroponic books. Quite


often the need for tight control is
overstated. For hobby growers a pH
between 5.5 and 6.5 in the run-off is
good and between 5.0 and 7.0 is
usually acceptable, provided the iron
in your fertiliser is in a chelated form.

reduce the amount of expensive pH

pH, especially in dripper-fed media

Reason for pH drift

down I use?

systems. Sometimes the difference

pH drift is not inherent in hydroponic

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 7

Do you have a hydroponic


or nutrient problem?

Reader Inquiries | Hydroponics

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How do pesticides work?

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Media
but
Reader Inquiries is intended to not only help the inquirer,
I recently had a can containing some two-stroke petrol, which had gone off. Having seen where spilt petrol/oil has killed
Issue 63: Hydroponics as an
the same problem.
may
who
growers
help
also
grass, I decided to use it as
a weed killer
usingother
a rough hand
sprayer. Later on
that same
hot dayhave
I sprayed another
agricultural production system
weed patch with Roundup herbicide at the recommended strength, using the same hand sprayer. It is now a week later
emails.
and
letters
your
welcome
We
Issue 103: Sustainable Aquaponics
and I can see the results.
Issue 117: Comparing Growing

Question
From an anonymous grower. How do pesticides work ?

(Letters and emails are published anonymously)

Those weeds sprayed with the herbicide are wilting, and the entire plant has turned yellow. Different types of weeds
are coloured to different degrees, but all are obviously dying.
The weeds sprayed with the petrol are different. There are strong yellow spots on the leaves, obviously where the
actual petrol droplets have hit. The remainder of the leaf is still green.
Can you explain this difference?

See More

Why Not Organic Hydroponics?


Issue 06: Planning Commercial
Hydroponics Part 1

Issue 119: Importance of ventilation


in commercial greenhouses
Issue 114: Rabbits, Rabbits,
Everywhere Rabbits

How do I manage acid addition and pH rise?

Issue 07: Planning Commercial


Hydroponics Part 2

From a NSW hydroponic tomato grower.


How do I manage acid addition and pH rise ?

Article Index

I grow tomatoes in greenhouses south of Sydney. I use phosphoric acid to lower my pH. I have been adding increasing
amounts of acid to bring my feed pH down about 6.0, but it is still rising to about 7.0 in the run -off. I have been adding
some liquid ammonium nitrate to reduce the pH rise, but it has only reduced the pH rise by about 0.2 pH. I have had

some symptoms of what has been suggested is iron deficiency. That is, the young leaves are pale and the veins show
up darker on the pale leaf.
An analysis was done of my feed and the laboratory advised that it was generally OK, except that the phosphorus (P)
level was high. I would like to add more acid, but that will make the P level even worse.
Can you suggest what I should do ?

Issue 70: Green Feed Livestock


Fodder Shed

See More

Should I use hydroponics to grow stock plants?

Issue 40: Lisianthus: A Specialty Cut


Flower
IPM in Hydroponic Strawberries
Index by Topic

Issue 98: Greenhouse Production In


Japan
Issue 35: The Fodder Factory

Free Digital Edition Subscription


Issue 11: Gibberellins Plant
Growth Hormones
Issue 02: Sand Culture

Issue 91: Chilling The Root Zone

From a New South Wales Nurseryman.

Should I use hydroponics to grow stock plants ?


I have a nursery in which I specialise in propagating large numbers of a narrow range of native trees from cuttings. I

know there are a few nurserymen who grow their stock plants in hydroponics. Would you suggest that this is a good
idea? If yes, could you give me some guidance on the fundamentals.

See More

Issue 118: Truss Me Tomato


Campaign
Index by Issue

Issue 85: Challenges Faced by the


Hydroponics Industry Worldwide

www.hydroponics.com.au

Issue 101: Aquaponics Revisited


About Us

Issue 14: Nurient Management in


Hydroponics Systems Part 2

Postal Address: PO Box 225 Narrabeen NSW Australia 2101 Ph: +61 (0)2 9905-9933 Email: info@hydroponics.com.au

http://hydroponics.com.au/category/reader_inquiries/[19/03/2013 3:27:55 PM]

8 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

systems; rather, it comes from the


effect of nutrient uptake by the plant
compared to what is in the feed.
The main influence here is the form
of nitrogen nutrients in the solution.
In hydroponic solutions, nitrogen
usually comes as two different ions.
These are negatively charged nitrate
ions (NO3-) and positively charged
ammonium ions (NH4+), with a much
higher proportion of nitrate
compared to ammonium.
The factors influencing pH in the
root zone solution are the charge on
these two ions and their relative rates
of uptake by the plant. The relatively
high nitrate content is taken up by the
plant at a relatively moderate rate.
Because it is a negatively charged
ion, in order that the plant does not
develop an electric charge, negative
ions are exuded by the plant to keep
it electrically neutral. The negative
exudates, such as hydroxide (OH-)
and bicarbonate (HCO3-) ions will
raise the pH, which is what is
happening in your case.
On the other hand, ammonium ions
are taken up much more rapidly than
nitrate ions (to the extent that
chemical analysis of the run-off
usually shows no ammoniumit has

all been taken up by the plant).

the fertiliser you are using and

Because it is a positively charged ion,

compare it with the others available

positive ions are exuded by the plant

to you. If you find one containing a

to try to keep it electrically neutral.

higher proportion of ammonium, give

This positive exudate is hydrogen ion


(H+), the acid ion, which lowers the
pH. Put another way, ammonium in
the hydroponic feed results in the
plant exuding natural acid into the
root zone solution to lower the pH.

that a try.
The second is to add a small amount
of ammonium sulphate to your
fertiliser. In either case, allow a
couple of days for it to take effect. This
is because of the time it takes for a

Ammonium management
In commercial hydroponic operations,
most growers add a small proportion
of ammonium to their feed formula, to
avoid upward pH drift. While the

dripper feed to work its way through


to run-off.
How much ammonium sulphate
would you add? Make a stock solution

preferred option would be ammonium

containing 3 grams ammonium

nitrate, this is difficult to obtain, and

sulphate in a litre of water. Add the

ammonium sulphate can be

same volume of this solution as the

substituted. This is not added like

volume of Part B concentrate you use.

acid, but rather it becomes part of the

This should give a modest reduction in

fertiliser formulation. Enough is added

pH rise. Check the response in the

to control upward pH drift. Especially

run-off (which will take at least a day

for a fruiting crop, the nutrient


balance uptake varies through the life
cycle of the crop and the amount of
ammonium added may be changed
typically about four times through the
life of the crop.
As a hobby grower you have two
ways to possibly use this technique.
The first is to check the analysis of

or two). If not enough response, add


the same amount again to your stock
solution. Continue until you reach the
stable pH you want, and mark how
many grams per litre on the (dark)
stock solution bottle. If the pH starts
drifting too low, make up a slightly
weaker stock solution. b

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 9

News & Products


2015 World Greenhouse
Vegetable Statistics
The 2015 editions of World Greenhouse
Vegetable Statistics, International List of
Growers and production handbooks for
both temperate and tropical greenhouse
vegetable crops are now available from
Cuesta Roble (Spanish for Oak Hill)
Greenhouse Vegetable Consulting.
The statistics publication covers
127 countries, containing all available
data on greenhouse vegetable
production. The 133-page publication
includes greenhouse area, crops grown,
types of greenhouses, sales data, etc.
According to the latest edition, the
total world greenhouse area is
144,127 hectares (1,023,330 acres).
The cost for the revised edition of
World Greenhouse Vegetable Statistics is
USD$250 (emailed PDF).
The International List of Growers
includes information and contact data
for 1798 of the worlds largest producers
across 95 countries. In this new revised
edition, these largest producers
represent over 15,300 hectares (37,840
acres) of world-wide greenhouse
vegetable production area.
The cost for the revised edition of the
International List of Growers is also
USD$250 (emailed PDF). A 20% discount
is offered for purchases of both World
Greenhouse Vegetable Statistics and the
International List of Growers.
The International crop production
handbooks have also been recently
revised and updated. They have over

110 full-sized pages of detailed


descriptions, instructions, 20
illustrations, 57 colour photos, and 70
tables, charts and lists for a complete,
practical handbook on greenhouse
vegetable production (metric and
US/english units). The Temperate
Regions version includes information on
winter heating. The Tropical Regions
version excludes heating, but has
additional information for hot, humid
conditions.
The cost for the production handbooks
is USD$35 each (emailed PDF).
These publications have been
produced by Gary W. Hickman, a
horticultural advisor with the University
of California for 25 years, and now a
consultant on greenhouse projects
funded by the US Agency for
International Development, InterAmerican Investment Bank, Canadian
Centre for International Studies, USDA FAS, as well as many private commercial
operations and NGO's.
For full descriptions, sample pages and
ordering information, go to:
Website www.cuestaroble.com
Email: gwh@sti.net

Perfection Fresh expands tomato


business
Australian fresh produce giant
Perfection Fresh has acquired the
Moraitis tomato-growing business, thus
expanding its tomato category. The
acquisition will see Perfection Fresh

take over a 4.7ha glasshouse in Tatura,


Victoria, along with the licence to the
Kumato tomato variety. The Sydneybased company will also have access to
Moraitis strategically aligned network of
tomato growers.
Perfection Fresh have been growing
fruit and vegetables for the Australian
market for over 30 years. The business
has grown from a small plot in Western
Sydney and is now spread Australia-wide
with farms, strategically aligned contract
growers, joint ventures and share
farmers committed to growing and
supplying Perfection Fresh customers
with innovative, quality produce.
This latest acquisition by Perfection
Fresh follows the merger with SouthAustralian based DVineRipe, Australias
largest glasshouse facility in June 2014.
The Moratis aquisition aligns the
companys business strategy to build
Australia's predominant tomato
production facilities through investments
in growing, licensed varieties and fresh
value-added processing.
The tomato category has been a
major focus for our growth and one of
the fastest growing segments globally,
explained Perfection Fresh CEO
Michael Simonetta.
We believe that innovation will
provide new growth opportunities to
create largely untapped demand and
ultimately, grow the category.
Simonetta said the Tatura glasshouse
would complement Perfection Freshs
established DVineRipe glasshouse at

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 11

Two Wells, South Australia, along with


the companys protected cropping facility
in Noosa, Queensland.
He was also pleased to add the
Kumato line to Perfection Freshs
carefully selected varietal range,
which includes Il Bello Rosso Baby
Roma, the Zima golden snacking tomato
and DVineRipe Medley.
Kumato is a uniquely coloured tomato
that changes from a bright green skin to
its ideal dark brown colour when ripe,
Simonetta said.
Kumato tomatoes are extremely
sweet and have a strong and
distinctive taste.
Simonetta told Fruitnet.com that
Perfection Fresh would continue to look
at new ways to develop Australias
tomato sector.
As the largest family-owned freshproduce business, we will work with
our strategically aligned partners and
other leading Australian growers who
have expertise in tomato growing,
he added.
We plan to continue to expand our
growing facilities, producing high quality
fresh produce while creating job

opportunities across the country.


Perfection Fresh currently employs
about 600 staff at 13 sites across Australia.
For further information contact: Cassia
Ferguson, Perfection Fresh Australia
MB: 0061 409 917 333
Email: cassia.ferguson@perfection.com.au
Website: www.perfection.com.au

Sweet-pepper harvesting robot


The European research project Clever
Robots for Crops (CROPS) has developed
a sweet-pepper robot. The project has
been co-ordinated by Wageningen UR
Greenhouse Horticulture and was cofunded by the Dutch Horticultural
Product Board.
The four-year research project with
13 partners from 10 different countries
has led to a universal robotic platform
for producing and harvesting high value
crops. There were demonstration
robots developed for selective
harvesting of sweet-peppers, apples
and grapes, and for precision spraying
of pesticides. Sensor systems for
obstacle avoidance for forest machines
have also been developed.
All robots use the same type of
modular system and the same software
architecture. This makes it easy for
example to use a different camera or
different type of robotic hand.
The sweet-pepper harvesting robot
developed in Wageningen is able to
locate, to approach, to hold, to detach
and to collect ripe fruits. The picking
success rate of and the needed cycle
time in practice is so far insufficient for
commercial use, but with the first ever
working sweet-pepper harvesting robot
in a realistic environment, an important

12 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

milestone has been reached.


Experiments in a commercial
greenhouse have yielded a wealth of
data and information.
Recently, a new European research
project was awarded to Wageningen UR
for a period of three years. This new
project will specifically focus on the
further development of the pepper
harvest robot.

Valoyas LED lights for


underground growing
A London-based producer of leafy
greens has selected Valoyas LED lights
for the initial phase of its multilayer,
underground production facility.
Growing Underground will start
production of leafy greens, such as lettuce,
cress, herbs and a variety of micro-greens
33 metres under South London. The
production space is located in a disused
air-raid shelter in Clapham North.
The plants are grown hydroponically in
a system of shelves stacked on top of
each other utilising LED light in the
absence of natural light. Growing
Underground required the light to be
energy efficient and to drive the natural
features and taste of their produce.
After extensive testing Growing
Underground selected Valoyas LEDs as

they proved to provide best overall


performance across a variety of plants.
The light by Valoya, proved very
efficient in driving growth of our micro
and leafy greens, as well as in leafy
biomass, taste and visual appearance,
says Richard Ballard, co-founder and
CEO of Growing Underground.
We have gained significant
experience of different lights over the
past two years and have selected Valoya
for their versatility in our initial phase.
Lars Aikala, CEO of Valoya comments:
This is a milestone in the history of both
vertical and urban growing. Richard
Ballard and Steven Dring, the founders
of Growing Underground are realising a
vision many have had but so far have
been unable to put into action. We are
very happy and honored to be chosen for
this exciting business.
Valoya LED-lights have been
developed using Valoya's proprietary
LED technology and extensive plant
photobiology research.
For further information contact:
Lars Aikala, CEO Valoya Oy
Ph: +358 (0)40 546 6639
Website: www.valoya.com

WPS conveyors
Conveyors in a greenhouse offer a wide
range of new opportunities and cost
reductions in the day-to-day operations
of a business. On top of that, they help
move around the greenhouse as they can
he used as elevated walkways.
Powerplants Australia Pty Ltd offers
WPS conveyors that move crops,
growing containers etc., automatically
through the greenhouse, greatly
reducing manual transport. The WPS
conveyors can be implemented with
other smart conveyor belt systems. They
are designed to be efficient and smooth,
at an affordable price.
The design of the conveyors is based
on high-quality modular components
that are standardised to ensure smooth
implementation, efficient operation, long
lifetime and of course very competitive
pricing! The conveyor can be used both
as a fixed main conveyor along the
pathway/gable, and as a fixed conveyor
in every bay.
There are several add-ons available
that help to maximise the operational
efficiency of the conveyors. Add-ons

include: corner guidance (mechanical,


electrical), remote controls, frequency
drives for speed variation, graphical user
interfaces, pot-forks, pot placing robots,
grading units, and harvesting belts.
Conveyors are a great way to improve
staff efficiencies because they will no
longer have to manually transport the
growing containers or crops through the
greenhouse. Moreover, the conveyors
have the ability to instantly switch
between growing beds.
A significant advantage of conveyor
systems is labour cost savings, therefore
the costs per product decreases.
Moreover, the conveyors are designed to
have low maintenance, due to minimal
amount of moving parts, which also
helps the bottom line!
Time is money, as every greenhouse
grower will know. One of the biggest
advantages of using the conveyors is
that you can respond to orders much
faster! The efficient way of working
makes you able to process orders much
faster, making you a better supplier to
your customers.
The conveyors and be self-assembled
and come with a clear installation
manual to ensure smooth assembly. Of
course, the self-assembled components
are a solid base for future expansions
and upgrades.
For further information, contact
Powerplants for a representative near you:
Ph: +61 (0)3 8795-7750
Email: sales@powerplants.com.au
Website: www.powerplants.com.au

25% more efficient Philips


LED module
Royal Philips, the global leader in
lighting, has introduced a new
GreenPower LED production module for

multilayer applications. The new


solution is especially advantageous in
vertical city farms as well as for the
propagation of young plants. It offers
more control, improved and uniform
crop quality and energy savings of up to
75%. The energy-efficient LEDs also give
off less heat and create a more uniform
light distribution, making the module
ideal for conditioned environments.
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Growing up

ZipGrow towers hanging inside a high tunnel greenhouse.

In line with the belief that change and innovation originates on a small-scale, one
leading US aquaponics expert is committed to helping small hobbyist growers as
well as large commercial businesses through sharing industry insights and
developing specialist vertical growing products.
By Christine Brown-Paul

leading expert in the aquaponics industry, Dr Nate


Storey, CEO of US-based company, Bright Agrotech,
is a firm believer in keeping a positive outlook in the
face of uncertain times for the global food industry.
Bright Agrotech is involved in researching, designing,
testing, redesigning and retesting a range of high quality,
American-made vertical growing products.
Unlike a lot of gloom and doomers, were very optimistic
about the direction our food system is headed. Multinational
news conglomerates like to focus on huge monoculture
farming operations and the drought and despair they are
experiencing as of late, Dr Storey says.
Instead, we focus on the small, upstart farmers. The ones
creating a real impact, no matter how small it may seem.
These are the folks figuring out the new food model and
learning better ways to feed those around them.
While the media likes to pander to the fearful and freaked
out, we try to share stories of innovation, hope, and smallscale successes, he says.

Its important to remember that change usually doesnt


take place (i.e. almost never) on a large scale. Change and
innovation come from the bottom.
From the guy tinkering in his garage. From the chef
growing greens in her kitchen. From the unconventional
farmer growing incredibly fresh herbs on his apartment
buildings roof. These relatively non-traditional farmers and
innovators may be small today, but theyll be the ones feeding
us tomorrow, says Dr Storey who is always looking ahead.
As CEO of Bright Agrotech, for the most part, I spend most
of my time trying to figure out what the market will need in
five years, and then figuring out how we're going to meet it
there. That means that in the past I've done a lot of product
development, market research and hands-on aquaponic and
hydroponic system management.
These days, I'm a bit less hands on, as we've hired folks to
take much of the day-to- day system management work off of
my plate, but I'm still involved with product development, and
I feel fortunate that I still get to spend some time in the
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 15

ZipGrow tower window system arrangement.

ZipGrow tower vertical wall system arrangement.

Dr Nate Storey, CEO of US-based company, Bright Agrotech.

This Dwarf Basil crop has hidden the ZipGrow towers.

ZipGrow vegetable green wall example.


16 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

greenhouse or on site with other farms working on aspects of


farm management and business development, he says.

Bright ideas
Bright Agrotechs latest offering for growers in the name of
innovation is the ZipGrow system.
A modular hydroponic production tower, the ZipGrow
system is designed not only to increase production in
hydroponic and aquaponic systems, but also facilitate
sustainable food production.
The ZipGrow towers are highly productive, modular, and
functional in a variety of plant production scenarios, from
commercial greens production to landscape design. Many of
our customers use them for aquaponic plant productiona
utility that takes advantage of the massive mechanical and
biological filtration capacity of our towers, Dr Storey says.
We developed ZipGrow towers with a very narrow focus
home and hobby aquaponic growers who wanted to use their
growing space more effectively, basically, growing up instead
of out, using our towers. The towers were great for this
market because I'd designed them to function in the aquaponic
systems that I used during my doctoral research.
As the towers began to catch on in the aquaponic
community, we began to discover that there were many
hydroponic growers that were also interested. As we began to
play with hydroponic production we realised that they work just
as well in hydroponic applications as they do in aquaponic
ones, he says.
As time passed, Dr Storey says he began receiving
considerably more commercial interest, on both the
hydroponic and aquaponic fronts, mostly related to the
companys live sales models or high-density systems.
The towers containing the plants are placed in special store
displays designed by the company, allowing customers to pick
the produce live. That model eliminates the expense of
harvesting and packaging produce, which accounts for about
50% of the cost of those items at the grocery store.
Live Sales is when we take grown-out towers full of
produce and send them directly to market. Small producers

were using this technique to eliminate some of the labour


costs of their production, and to get a higher price at market
for you-pick produce, he says.
We ended up selling more and more to commercial
producers and eventually started installing turnkey systems
with towers, structure, lighting, controls, etc. It just kind of
blew up.
In the last year, we've also started looking at other
interesting applications, like living walls where growers place
towers on living walls for aesthetics or build edible living walls
that allow towers to be exchanged. We've had great feedback
on these; they're really popular, Dr Storey says.
We also built a single-tower patio model called the Spring.
We have lots of folks using them for growing towers of flowers,
tomatoes and other patio-type crops. Our folks selling in
grocery stores use them as displays too.
There are other applications that we've played withthere's
always way more to try than we could possibly do in the next
few years, he says.
So what are some of the benefits the ZipGrow system
offers growers?
Well, they do allow you to grow more in limited space,
they're modular, simple, and really the best way in the world to
grow certain types of crops like basil or strawberries, Dr
Storey says.
We tend to have a few different groups of users who like
them for different reasons. Our home and hobby growers like
them because they feel that they're easy to maintain, eliminate
bending over beds, and look nice in home systems. They also
work well with high-solids hobby aquaponic systems.
Our commercial greenhouse and warehouse growers like
them because they're really productive per square foot,
especially if they're oriented correctly. They also allow them to
cut costs with live sales technique, he says.
Our greenwall users have enjoyed them mostly because of
many of the reasons that the home and hobby users have
expressed, but also because they're one of the most costeffective ways to build living walls.

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Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 17

ZipGrow towers are actually going to be used to build the living


wall on the US Pavilion at the World Expo [in Milan] this year
we're really excited about that! he says.
Dr Storey says the ZipGrow system can offer excellent yields.
Depending on the crop, we typically achieve production
around three times the productivity of horizontal techniques
[per square foot or square metre]. Some of our herbs like
oregano average around 10 times the production of horizontal
techniques, he says.

Challenges

ZipGrow towers hanging from overhead rails.

Spring System 7.

Despite their relative simplicity of design, the ZipGrow towers


have been some time in development says Dr Storey.
Since the towers have been developed, each support
product comes with its own set of challenges. It seems like
they're only getting more and more difficult as time goes on.
Getting towers overseas has been one of our major issues
the cost of transportation is ridiculous! he says.
The Australian distributor of the ZipGrow system is Nick
Wood from Grow Packed who says the system has received a
good response here.
The market here in Australia has such as massive potential.
Here we have an ideal climate for growing most crops and the
high yield, low water consumption that aquaponics offers
allows the installation of systems in places that were not
previously thought cost effective or possible, Nick says.
Like most other aquaponics advocates, we knew that there
were barriers to mass adoption, such as reliable substrates,
efficient planting and harvesting systems, bulky and
immovable equipment, as well as plumbing complications, etc.
In all our research, we were constantly led back to ZipGrow
towers, and the knowledge that Dr Nate provided with them, as
a solution to these issues. Not to mention the added
advantages and higher yields of the vertical model.
We have already seen that other aquaponics enthusiast
here are recognising the same with ever-increasing sales in
starter systems. Commercial growers are also very excited
with several smaller producers already in operation and plans
for larger scale systems in process now, he says.
We are excited about this product and for what it will offer
the local food production industry here in Australia.
Getting Nick set up at GrowPacked.com has been great, and
he's been a huge help with making towers available in the
Australian market for sure, Dr Storey adds.

Empowering farmers

Overhead irrigation system in a commercial system.

18 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

Upstart Farmers is a collective of innovative food producers


that uses Bright Agrotechs ZipGrow tower system to grow
fresh, quality produce for a variety of local markets across the
US. Using sustainable, efficient techniques and a passion for
what they do, the group has a mission to improve agriculture
through being highly impact conscious.
As soon as your food is harvested, it begins losing precious
flavours and nutrients. By growing locally, Upstart Farmers
are able to reduce transportation costs associated with fossil
fuel consumption. Food grown with ZipGrow towers and
harvested live by the consumer reduces the amount of
packaging, handling, and waste associated with food
distribution, Dr Storey says.
Consumers buying live produce from Upstart Farmers can
harvest exactly what they needno more, no lesslargely
reducing food waste. And when over 50% of North Americas
food waste is occurring at the harvest and consumption levels,
thats a big deal.

I will say that ZipGrow towers have been a great thing to


work on and develop and we're always really encouraged by all
of the ways that our users and our UpStart Farmers are using
them, he adds.

Final thoughts
According to Dr Storey, Bright Agrotech strives to support the
end users of its products as much as possible.
We believe in supporting the user as much as we can, and
so to that end we have put up over 100 YouTube videos just on
designing, setting up and operating aquaponic systems and
systems using ZipGrow Towers. I'd encourage everyone to take
advantage of them. We've tried to make them as useful as
possible over the years, he says.
If any of your readers are farmers, I would encourage them
to check out UpStartFarmers.com. It's a free forum for
farmers, using towers that allows farmers to interact, voice
problems and share solutions.
I think it can be helpful as farming is a pretty lonely
business most of the time. It's nice to be able to talk with other
folks that are dealing with many of the same issues that you
are, Dr Storey says.
High praise for Bright Agrotechs endeavours comes from
Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC) a department
under the Office of Research and Economic Development and
located on the campus of University of Wyoming.
Christine Langley, CEO of WTBC, believes that the sky is the
limit for Bright Agrotech.
"Dr Storey has major competitive advantages over any
competition: the innovative intellectual property on his design.
His approach to using vertical space and vertical growing is

ZipGrow tower planting method.

incredibly innovative and unique, Ms Langley says.


At this point, it's really about sales and marketing. He has
all of the foundational pieces, and now he just needs to push
them out to the market.
We believe that this product has the potential to change the
economics of indoor food production.
About the author
Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist and a regular
contributor to PH&G, with a special interest in the environment and
sustainable technology. Email: c.brown.paul@gmail.com b

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 19

An American Perspective
Learning about the Hydroponics Industry Down Under

By

Kimberly A. Williams & Raymond A. Cloyd


Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA

Raymond Cloyd (centre), scouts for insect pests with Melanie Davidson, researcher in bio-protection with Plant and Food Research New Zealand
with Chris Sinnott (standing) at Harbour Head Growers in Waikuku, New Zealand.
20 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

US, and that the population of the entire country of New


Zealand is about the same as that of the Sydney metropolitan
area, production operations have evolved a less segmented
market structure than that which exists in the US. This seemed
to result in both advantages and disadvantages for growers in
terms of responding to market demand.

During sabbatical leave from Kansas


State University, the authors travelled
Down Under to further their horticulture
knowledge and experiences that may
have practical applications for US
protected cropping growers. Their
primary specialisations are teaching and
extension in greenhouse management,
plant protection and crop production in
protected environments. This American
perspective highlights industry
similarities as well as their differences.

We work in a region of the US with a temperate climate. It was


interesting to see what is done with outdoor hydroponics
production along the Gold and Central Coasts where in some
cases only shade cloth was used to protect hydroponic
cropping systems. With production open to environmental
conditions such as temperature, light, and rainfall, we had an
opportunity to learn how disease and insect complexes are
impacted by exposure to these environmental conditions.

Plant protection

s faculty at Kansas State University In the United


States, our work focuses on research,
extension/outreach, and teaching in the areas of
greenhouse management, plant protection, and crop
production systems in protected environments. Our family
spent 10 weeks of our recent sabbatical leavefrom midAugust through October of 2014interacting with colleagues
and touring the greenhouse industries in both Australia and
New Zealand. One area that we wanted to learn more about
was hydroponics, as Australia and New Zealand are known
internationally as innovators in this field.
We started our visit by participating in the 2014 International
Horticultural Congress held in Brisbane, Australia. During our
weeks in Queensland and along the Gold Coast region, we
interacted with colleagues from the University of Queensland in
St Lucia and toured hydroponic operations including Corras
Farms in Lowood, FreshZest in Canaiba, and Pocket Herbs in
Middle Pocket. In Sydney, we learned from our colleagues at
New South Wales Central Coast Primary Industries Centre and
with their assistance, we visited a HydroProduce operation and
toured several Australian markets. Next, we visited New
Zealand where we spent time in the South Island in Canterbury
interacting with colleagues at Plant and Food Research New
Zealand, including visits to Harbor Head Growers in Waikuku
and, later, to Tasman Bay Herbs in Motueka. On the north
island, we visited colleagues at Massey University in
Palmerston North, Southern Paprika Ltd in Warkworth, and a
biological control production facility of BioForce in Karaka.

Population base and market structures


We never thought about how responding to the needs of a
smaller population base would impact the development of the
industry. We learned that because the population of the entire
continent of Australia is similar to the state of California in the

Climate

Production systems
Every operation that we visited had different modifications
associated with their hydroponics system, and it was
interesting to learn how these variations evolved. We observed
nutrient film technique, sand culture, production in coir and
rockwool, and unique solutions to optimise propagation. Just
as in the US, growers are innovative problem-solvers and are
able to optimise production in a myriad of ways.
The options available to manage insect and mite pests are
much more limited than in the US, which allows for the
potential to use more biological control agents, including
parasitoids, predators, and beneficial fungi. However, this
means that it is extremely critical to establish a reliable
scouting program so that any insect and/or mite pest
infestations can be detected early.
We observed a number of insect pests that were new to us,
such as the Rutherglen bug (Nysiuis vinitor). We noticed this
insect feeding and causing extensive damage on outdoor
hydroponic lettuce production. Although the semi-tropical
climate does allow for outdoor production, there may be
difficulties associated with insect pests including the Rutherglen
bug that migrate into the outdoor production area from
surrounding areas. This can substantially impact plant protection
programs resulting in an increased use of insecticides.
We also heard about how the introduction of new insect pests
such as the potato/tomato psyllid (Bactericera cockerelli) can
dramatically change the dynamics of plant protection because
this insect is a vector of the bacterium Liberibacter
solanacearum. This results in such a low tolerance for this
insect pest that growers have to make regular applications of
insecticides. In fact, a grower we visited that had been strictly
using biological controls had to discontinue this strategy and
begin relying on chemical pesticides because of the
introduction of this insect pest into the operation.
We also observed some insect pests that are common in
hydroponic production systems in the US, too, such as aphids
on chives and whiteflies on tomato and eggplant. It was
interesting to note that only biological control agents that are
native of either Australia or New Zealand can be imported,
reared, and released. This somewhat limits the types of
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 21

Rutherglen bug (Nysius vinitor) is a native species that can migrate into crops in very large numbers in favourable seasons.

Eco-friendly outdoor hydroponic grower Michael O'Dea visits with John Watkins at his operation Corras Farms in Lowood, Queensland.
22 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

biological control agents that can be used in hydroponic


production systems.
Furthermore, due to the limited number of insecticides and
miticides commercially available, we noticed that growers
were relying substantially on the systemic insecticide
imidacloprid (Confidor). The limited availability of insecticides
makes it difficult to develop rotation programs based on mode
of action, which can possibly lead to resistance development in
insect pest populations.

Cost of production
The cost of both production supplies and labour costs was a
routine source of shock for us during our travel. This shock was
enhanced by the weakness of the American dollar, such that
one US dollar was equivalent to about $0.93 during our travel.
In a conversation with one grower about reverse osmosis for
water treatment, we indicated that the method was not used
much in the US because of the cost of the system; the grower
responded that the system was so much cheaper in the US
than Australiaespecially with the weak US dollarthat he
was buying the system abroad and having it shipped over!
Another routine source of frustration for growers Down
Under was cost of labour and regulations associated with
personnel. While US growers talk of similar challenges, we left
Australia feeling that the situation was somewhat more
challenging Down Under with very high wage and employee
benefits costs.

Efficient production practices


We were routinely impressed with growers focus on extreme
efficiency of water and energy use. Optimising pump speed to
deliver the minimum amount of water to NFT troughs and
minimising water loss from coir slabs were examples of
using water as efficiently as possible. While growers in the
US are also energy-conscious, we felt that the focus on
optimising irrigation system design and pump efficiency was
not something that we heard discussed in the US so much.
This philosophy also resulted in very efficient energy use.
Growers Down Under were very conscious of increasing
energy costs and focused on optimising the use of inputs so
that waste was reduced.

Sustainable production
While adoption of sustainable production practices is also a hot
topic in the US, we felt that Australia and New Zealand were
leading the way. Within the context of an individual operations
profit margin and business philosophy, an over-all theme
throughout our touring was that following sustainable
production practices is greatly valued. Though not a
hydroponics operation, one industry operation that we visited
was focused on achieving carbon neutrality, providing all water
used at the facility from rain capture, and zero waste leaving
the facilitya step ahead of efforts in the US. It was inspiring!

Organic production
In the US, organic production is defined by the inputs that are
used to grow the crops, not on the production system being
used. For this reason, some US growers (usually small and
local) are succeeding in a market niche of providing organically

produced crops in hydroponics systems through the use of only


organic fertilisers and only biocontrols.
In closing, we note that the problem with generalising broad
views is that they never encompass everyone. We were bowled
over by the helpful and friendly nature of all the members of
our great industry who took time to share their experiences
and expertise with us. We are now weaving what we learned
into our work in our region in the US to bring Down Under
advances and philosophies to production operations in the
States. And we are very grateful to all the fine people who
afforded us this opportunity. b

About the authors


Kimberly A. Williams is a
Professor of Greenhouse
Management and
Distinguished Teaching
Scholar at Kansas State
University. She is a multiaward and honours
recipient, including the
USDA Food and Agriculture
Sciences Excellence in
Teaching Award, North Central Region. Kimberly is the
author and co-author of many books, published papers and
articles. Kimberlys presentation at the recent
International Horticultural Congress (IHC-2014) was titled:
Challenges of using organic fertilisers in hydroponic and
recirculating production systems. Email: kwilliam@ksu.edu
Raymond A. Cloyd is a
Professor and Extension
Specialist in Horticultural
Entomology/Plant Protection
at Kansas State University.
Author of many published
papers and articles, he
specialises in pest
management/plant
protection, biological control,
plant-insect interactions, and non-chemical means of
dealing with insect and mite pests. Email: rcloyd@ksu.edu

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 23

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Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 25

Space Farming

Growing food in space is not a new concept, but the recent development of
robotic gardening by NASA and students from the University of Colorado
Boulder in the US is making it easier to achieve.
By CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL

On board the International Space Station (ISS), crew members have


been growing plants and vegetables such as lettuce, peas and
radishes in their space garden for some years.

26 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 27

Growing food in space helps solve one of the biggest


issues in space travel: the price of eating.

round the world, governments and private companies


are undertaking research involving how to grow food
on space stations or spaceshipsand even on the
planet Mars. Researchers from the University of Gelph
in Ontario, Canada, are investigating the possibility of growing
long-term crops such as soybeans and barley, while at Purdue
University in Indiana, USA, scientists are looking at the potential
for adapting vertical garden design for a space environment.
Importantly, in 2013 the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) produced its own food in orbit for the
first time ever. NASA plans include growing fruits and
vegetables on space farmsgreenhouses that are
temperature-controlled, artificially lit and employ a hydroponic
system. Crops might include soybeans, peanuts, spinach,
cabbage, lettuce and rice.
According to NASA, in space, wheat, berries and soybeans
can be grown and processed into pasta or bread. Astronauts
would then prepare these foods into home-cooked meals in a
galley kitchen. A sample dinner menu might include spinach
and tomato crouton salad, wheat pasta with tomato sauce and
a chocolate peanut butter soymilk shake.

The International Space Station


A habitable artificial satellite completing 15.53 orbits per day
around Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) is a
modular structure whose first component was launched in
1998. Currently, it is the largest artificial body in orbit and can
often be seen with the naked eye from Earth. The ISS consists
28 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

of pressurised modules, external trusses, solar arrays and


other components.
The ISS hosts a microgravity and space environment
research laboratory where crew members conduct
experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy,
meteorology and other fields. The station is suited for the
testing of spacecraft systems and equipment required for
missions to the Moon and Mars.
For some years, crew members aboard the ISS have been
growing plants and vegetables such as lettuce, peas and
radishes in their space garden.
A space station study is helping investigators develop
procedures and methods that allow astronauts to grow and
safely eat space-grown vegetables. The experiment is also
investigating another benefit of growing plants in space: the nonnutritional value of providing comfort and relaxation to the crew.
"Growing food to supplement and minimise the food that
must be carried to space will be increasingly important on
long-duration missions," said Shane Topham, an engineer with
Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University in Logan.
"We also are learning about the psychological benefits of
growing plants in spacesomething that will become more
important as crews travel farther from Earth."
The experiment, known as Lada Validating Vegetable
Production UnitPlants, Protocols, Procedures and
Requirementsuses a very simple chamber similar to a
greenhouse. Water and light levels are controlled automatically.

Student Dane Larsen checks out the forklift on a Remotely


Operated Gardening Rover, or ROGR, which could tend plants on a
deep-space habitat. (Photo courtesy NASA/Bob Granath)

The experiment has four major objectives: to find out if the


produce grown in space can be consumed safely; what types of
micro-organisms might grow on the plants and what can be
done to reduce the threat of micro-organisms in the hardware
prior to launch; what can be done to clean or sanitise the
produce after it has been harvested; and how to optimise
production compared to the resources required to grow it.
Since 2002, the Lada greenhouse has been used to perform
almost continuous plant growth experiments on the station.
Fifteen modules containing root media, or root modules, have
been launched to the station and 20 separate plant growth
experiments have been performed.
A variety of Japanese lettuce called Mizunathe most recent
cropreturned to Earth in April 2010 aboard space shuttle
Discovery. It was the first time two chamber experiments were
conducted simultaneously for a side-by-side comparison of
plants grown using different fertilisers and treatments.
"The idea was to validate in space the results of ground
tests, to show that minimising water usage and salt
accumulations would produce healthier plants in space," said
Shane Topham.
"For years we've used the same method for packing root
modules, so this was a comparison study between old and
potential improvements and so far we have found a couple of
surprising results."
First, a sensor failure in the traditional root module on the
station caused the plants to receive higher than specified water

levels. Investigators believed the overwatering would disrupt


nutrients and oxygen in the traditional module, making the
newer improved module look better in the comparison.
However, as it turned out, the overwatered traditional module
sprouted and developed leaves around twice as quickly.
"This suggests the conservative water level we have been
using for all our previous experiments may be below optimal
for plant growth in microgravity," said Topham.
The second surprising result was discovered when the root
modules were unpacked on the ground. The new fertiliser being
tested had a slower and more even release rate, which had
helped lower the plants' accumulation of salts during ground
studies. Investigators expected to see higher salt accumulation
in the space modules, however, the opposite occurred.
"The current theory is that the extra water and larger plant
uptake of fertiliser caused the root modules to remove
nutrients faster and release fertiliser faster, thus preventing
the salt accumulations that were observed in the slowergrowing ground studies," said Topham.
"The space station's ability to provide on-the-spot
adjustments to experiment conditions or opportunities to
quickly repeat microgravity experiments with new conditions
are a big plus for researchers," said Julie Robinson, ISS
program scientist at Johnson Space Center.
"This work also shows the surprising results that
investigators find when they take a well-understood
experiment on Earth and reproduce it on the space station."

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 29

Astronauts will test the culinary and health potential of the space lettuce,
and NASA also expects the experiment to have psychological benefits,
offering a rewarding pastime for astronauts.

A variety of Japanese lettuce called Mizunathe most recent crop grown on


the ISSreturned to Earth in April 2010 aboard space shuttle Discovery

30 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

Earth-based greenhouses and controlled-environment


agricultural systems will also benefit from information from this
research and help farmers produce better, healthier crops in
small spaces, using the optimum amount of water and nutrients.
The experiment takes advantage of a 20-year-old
cooperative agreement between the Space Dynamics
Laboratory and the Institute for Biomedical Problems in
Moscow, Russia. Each organisation benefits from resources
provided by their respective national space programsthe
Space Dynamics Laboratory with NASA, and the Institute for
Biomedical Problems with the Russian Federal Space Agency.
Root modules with seeds are launched to the space station
on Russian Progress supply vehicles. Russian crew members
water the plant seeds and perform maintenance. They also
harvest the vegetables and place them in a station freezer
before transferring them to a space shuttle freezer for return
to Earth for analysis by US investigators at the Space
Dynamics Laboratory.
"I dont see future space crews leaving the Earth for long
durations without having the ability to grow their own food,"
said Topham.
"The knowledge that we are gaining is enabling us to extend
our exploration and future colonisation of space."

The VEGGIE experiment


Growing food in space helps solve one of the biggest issues
in space travel: the price of eating. According to Howard
Levine, project scientist for NASAs International Space
Station and Spacecraft Processing Directorate, it costs
roughly $10,000 a pound to send food to the ISS. Theres a
premium on densely caloric foods with long shelf lives. Gioia
Massa, a post-doctoral fellow at NASA, says that supply
shuttles carry such limited fresh produce that astronauts
consume it almost immediately.
As well as the tools, equipment and food supplies being sent
to the ISS, a new batch of experiments will join the over 100
already being conducted at any time on board the station.
Of note is the Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE)
experimentNASAs prototype of an expendable plant
chamber designed to grow lettuce seedlings in space.
Levine and Massa are part of the team developing the
VEGGIE program where plants are grown on Kevlar pillows in
a device, which expands to 12 x 15 inches, the largest plant
growth chamber yet sent to space.
The first vegetable to be tested will be the Outredgeous
lettuce variety, as it is fast growing and loaded with antioxidants,
which are a potential antidote for cosmic radiation.
The burgundy-hued lettuce will be grown under bright-pink
LED lights, ready to harvest after just 28 days. One of the
reddest romaines on the market, Outredgeous is a stoutgrowing variety that can be harvested either as a baby lettuce
or allowed to mature as a 10-inch romaine. The thick, glossy,
slightly ruffled leaves are bright red on top, fading to a pale
rouge at the base.
Later veggies will be radishes, snap peas, and a special
strain of tomato that is designed to take up minimal space.
Astronauts will test the culinary and health potential of
the space lettuce, and NASA also expects the experiment to

have psychological benefits, offering a rewarding pastime


for astronauts.
NASA has a long history of testing plant growth in space, but
the goals have been largely academic. Experiments have
included working out the effects of zero gravity on plant
growth, testing quick-grow sprouts on shuttle missions and
assessing the viability of different kinds of artificial light.
However, VEGGIE is NASAs first attempt to grow produce that
could actually sustain space travellers.

Mars and beyond


In order to help develop key knowledge needed to prepare for
human Mars exploration, the Mars Society has initiated the
Mars Analog Research Station (MARS) project. The Mars
Society is a space advocacy non-profit organisation dedicated
to promoting the human exploration and settlement of the
planet Mars.
A global program of Mars exploration operations research,
the MARS project will include four Mars base-like habitats
located in deserts in the Canadian Arctic, the American
southwest, the Australian outback, and Iceland. In these Marslike environments, a program of extensive long-duration geology
and biology field exploration operations will be conducted under
the same conditions as they would on the Red Planet.
Currently, the Mars Society is testing a greenhouse in a
remote corner of Utah. A Society spokesperson says that this
research is invaluable preparation for growing in space.

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 31

University of Colorado Boulder graduate students Heather Hava, far left, and Daniel Zukowski, second from the left, with a
computerised SmartPot, which could be used to grow plants in a deep-space habitat. (Photo courtesy NASA/Daniel Casper)

Inside closed plant growth chambers at the Kennedy Space Center,


radishes, lettuce and green onions are grown hydroponically.
32 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

Because today's astronauts usually stay in space for several


weeks or months, at most, they're able to carry all the food
they'll need on board. But in the future, space missions could
be significantly extended, he says.
To get to NASA's intended destinationMarsand back
again will take two years. Astronauts will need to carry foods
that have a three- to five-year shelf life. They'll also need to
start growing their own foods.

Innovation and collaboration


A team of graduate students from the University of Colorado
Boulder in the US is continuing NASAs tradition of innovation
by designing robots to work in a deep-space habitat, tending
gardens and growing food for astronaut explorers.
As astronauts explore beyond Earth, they will need to make
their habitat as self-sustaining as possible. This includes growing
fruits and vegetables, said Tracy Gill, NASA's technology
strategy manager at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"We're hoping to take advantage of what these and other
students are developing and use it in future space missions.
"This program is an opportunity to engage university teams
in helping us develop new concepts, he said.
NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation selected
seven projects from six universities for the 2013-2014 X-Hab
Academic Innovation Challenge.
Throughout the academic year, the graduate and
undergraduate student teams worked to meet a series of
milestones to develop systems and concepts that could be used
in future deep-space habitats. In doing so, they worked in close
cooperation with members of the NASA Advanced Exploration
Systems (AES) Program's Deep-Space Habitat Project team.
The challenge encourages multidisciplinary approaches,
outreach efforts and partnerships with experts and industry.
Participants are required to explore NASA's work on
development of deep-space habitats and help the agency gather
new ideas to complement its current research and development.
The University of Colorado Boulder is also among five
universities selected by NASA for the 2015 X-Hab Academic
Innovation Challenge. The team's project will focus on
designing a Deployable Greenhouse for Food Production for
deep-space missions.

Plants anywhere
The University of Colorado team's entry in the eXploration
HABitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge is called
Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces.
Instead of an area set aside just for vegetation, the approach
calls for plants to be distributed in any available space in a
deep-space habitat.
The X-Hab challenge is a university-level project designed to
engage and retain students in science, technology, engineering
and maths (STEM). The competition is intended to link student
design projects with senior and graduate-level curricula that
emphasise hands-on design, research, development, and
manufacture of functional prototype subsystems that could be
used in extra-terrestrial habitats and during deep-space
exploration missions.
Recently, the University of Colorado students demonstrated
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 33

their X-Hab project at Kennedy's Space Station Processing


Facility to a group of employees that included centre director,
Bob Cabana. The students are developing a Distributed
Remotely Operated Plant Production System, or DROPPSa
concept for producing edible plants during long-term missions
to destinations such as Mars.
Heather Hava, who is working on a doctorate in aerospace
engineering sciences, explains that the goal is to have robots do
much of the monotonous tasks, saving time for the astronauts.
"The 'Plants Anywhere' approach is designed to help
minimise astronaut workload," said Hava, whose degree will
focus in bioastronautics.
"This keeps them free to concentrate on more important tasks."

Robotic gardening

The Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE) experiment is


NASAs prototype of an expendable plant chamber designed to
grow lettuce seedlings in space.

Exploration imagery.

The potential for living in space


With a number of studies ongoing for possible lunar
expeditions, many concepts for living and working on Earth's
natural satellite have been examined. This art concept reflects
the evaluation and study at JSC by the Man Systems Division
and Johnson Engineering personnel. A 16-metre diameter
inflatable habitat such as the one depicted here could
accommodate the needs of a dozen astronauts living and
working on the surface of the Moon. Depicted are astronauts
exercising, a base operations centre, a pressurised lunar rover,
a small clean room, a fully equipped life sciences lab, a lunar
lander, selenological work, hydroponic gardens, a wardroom,
private crew quarters, dust-removing devices for lunar surface
work and an airlock.

34 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

A year ago, the University of Colorado student team


demonstrated a gardening system with plants robotically
tended on a Lazy Susan-like device.
"We took what we learned the past two years and applied it
to this new system," Hava said. "We decided to get away from
the 'hub concept. The DROPPS system gives us much more
flexibility and takes advantage of unutilised space in
the habitat."
In their new system, a Remotely Operated Gardening Rover
(ROGR) travels around the habitat tending to a fleet of
SmartPots (SPOTS), which would be distributed throughout the
deep-space habitat's living space.
The SPOTS facilitate plants growing in a small, customdesigned hydroponic growth chamber with computerised
systems to monitor the vegetation's progress. Each has its own
sensor run by an embedded computer.
"We envision dozens of SPOTS on a space habitat," said
Dane Larsen who is working on a master's degree on
computer science.
"Telemetry in each SPOT provides data on plant condition to
a computer display."
The robots and plants are networked together, and the
SPOTS have the ability to monitor their fruits or vegetables'
soil humidity and issue watering requests.
"The SPOTS also can measure air and water temperature,
lighting provided by LEDs, as well as levels of humidity,
nutrient levels and pH," Hava said.
As each SPOT monitors and supports its plants, it can
determine when ROGR needs to perform plant maintenance
tasks. ROGR is a robot on wheels, has a forklift to move SPOTS, a
mechanical arm for manipulating the plants, and a fluid delivery
system that can provide fresh water or water with nutrients.
Larsen said that the system could be operated remotely or
with a controller similar to those used with video games.
The ROGR robots can visit a specific plant to deliver water or
to locate and grasp a fruit or vegetable. If an astronaut
requests tomatoes for a salad, the system decides which
specific plants have the ripest tomatoes and assigns parallel
harvesting tasks to ROGR.
While living in a space habitat is basically residing in a
mechanised environment, Hava says humans, by their makeup,
still need to be around nature.
"We want to optimise a system, allowing the humans to get

The first vegetable to be tested under the VEGGIE program will be the Outredgeous lettuce variety, as it is fast growing and loaded with
antioxidants, which are a potential antidote for cosmic radiation.

psychological benefits from interacting with the plants," she said.


"We also want the plants to be in the astronauts'
environment so they can see them, smell them and be around
them. Who doesn't love to pick a fresh strawberry?"
For Daniel Zukowski, who is also working on a master's in
computer science, the X-Hab Challenge is an opportunity to
use terrestrial-based know-how and take it to a new level.
"Before joining this project, I had been working on
developing robotic farming systems," he said.
"Now I have an opportunity to bridge Earth farming systems
to space."
Heather Hava said that the team has benefited from support
from former NASA astronaut Joe Tanner, who is now a senior
instructor of aerospace engineering sciences at the University
of Colorado, and Nikolaus Correll, assistant professor of
computer science at the university.
NASAs Tracy Gill says involving students in ongoing NASA
projects is crucial for the future.
"This is an opportunity to prepare the next generation of
engineers, scientists and explorers for our space program,"
he said.
"They tell us how their design for the system keeps evolving.
That's provided them with some real-world exposure to the
systems engineering process."
He added that Gioia Massa, Ph.D., of the International Space
Station Ground Processing and Research Project Office,
Morgan Simpson of NASA Ground Processing Directorate, and
Ray Wheeler, Ph.D., of the Surface Systems office in NASA's
Engineering and Technology Directorate also provided
guidance for the University of Colorado team. They all helped
advise the students as they developed their project and helped
organise their demonstration.
"These students from the University of Colorado are an
impressive group," Massa said.
"This is an ambitious project, and they've put in a lot of effort
to make it work."
Other universities participating for the coming year are the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, University of South
Alabama, University of Vermont and Oklahoma State University.
Hava says she would like to have an opportunity to apply her
research on a deep-space mission.
"While the research is exciting, I would love to go to Mars

and explore, she said.


I see myself as potentially being the first Mars
space gardener.
In its Vision for Space Exploration program, NASA is already
looking ahead to a future on the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Thanks in part to the life sciences research underway today,
tomorrows astronauts may enjoy a more efficient life-support
systemand some freshly grown food.
About the author
Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist and a regular
contributor to PH&G, with a special interest in the environment and
sustainable technology. Email: c.brown.paul@gmail.com b

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 35

Protected Cropping
in the Tropics

Melon plants were grown in the Dry Tropics under a protective structure (a high
walk-in tunnel) and they were pruned following a particular method to keep the
main stem and some of the lateral shoots.

36 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

by Steven Carruthers

Historically, growers in tropical Australia have


been slow to embrace protected cropping
techniques, mainly because temperatures and
light levels are suitable for open field fruit and
vegetable production. Many growers associate
protected cropping to costly high-tech
glasshouses with full environmental control,
but that is not necessarily the case. In this
article, Queensland researchers demonstrate a
new way of thinking about protected cropping
in the tropics.

reenhouses are used in many tropical regions of the


world for the production of vegetable crops. The
primary reasons for protected cropping in the tropics
are for protection from heavy rain and wind,
protection from extreme solar radiation, and pest exclusion.
These are somewhat different reasons than for greenhouses in
temperate zones, where controlling temperature extremes
particularly low temperaturesis the primary factor in
greenhouse designs.
Because greenhouses in the tropics are used for different
reasons than temperate ones, their design and construction is
also different. An effective design has to be tall (sometimes up to
6 metres high), with a polyethylene roof and preferably have
insect exclusion netting for side walls. Passive ventilation can be
achieved with roof vents or in designs that have retractable roofs.
In North Queensland, researchers are now exploring the
benefits of using low-cost protected cropping systems for
high-value crops such as specialty melons and capsicums.
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF)
horticulturist and project leader, Dr Elio Jovicich, believes lowcost protected cropping could be the key to opening up
diversity in Australias melon market.
Rockmelons and honeydews are the two melon fruit types
most commonly consumed in Australia, however, there is
room for more diversity in our market, Dr Jovicich said.
While it is now possible to find piel de sapo (the Spanish
name meaning toad skin) and small canary melons in
supermarkets, other specialty melons such as galia and
charentais types are generally absent in Australian markets,
he said.
Dr Jovicich says several growers in North Queensland have
started exploring the potential of growing a greater variety of
melon types because yields of some specialty melons have
been unsuccessful when grown outdoors.
The use of protective cropping has a high potential for
improving fruit quality, increasing yield per square metre,

allowing for off-season production and supplying niche


markets in the Australian melon market, he said.
There are low-cost and effective systems available for
warm environments that can moderate extremes of our
variable climatic conditions and lead to high yields, he added.
Early trials using low-cost systems have led to marketable
yields up to 2.6 times greater than common yields of
rockmelons grown in the open field.
We have consistently seen results of two to four high quality
fruits per plant using protective cropping, giving yields up to
8 kg/m2, said Dr Jovicich.
Melons have shorter cropping periods than tomatoes or
capsicums, and growers could fit melon crops in between the
harvest of these other crop species, or in crop rotation
schemes that are compatible with market strategies, he said.

Proof of concept
As a proof of concept, small trials are being conducted at
Giru, a small town 54 kilometres south-east of Townsville. The
structure being used is an existing high poly-tunnel, previously
used to grow cucumbers in soilless media. It is a low cost
design consisting of two bays60 metres long, 6 metres wide
and 3 metres highwith insect exclusion netting as side walls.
The roof is covered with a semi-transparent UV stabilised
polyfabric film, which creates some shading and diffuses light
over the plants. The cultivation method is an open system with
the drainage collected and re-used on an adjacent mango
orchard or outside-grown vegetable crops. The only
automation used in the trial is an inexpensive timer to control
irrigation cycles. The complete nutrient solutions are prepared
and stored in large tanks and the irrigation solution is
delivered to pots containing pumice rock.
The setup in Giru has been working well for the grower, but
there are several improvements that can be made. When
growing melons, we temporarily had to open sections of the
sidewalls that were screened to allow the entrance of bees.
With these first crops, we wanted to identify, which are major
environmental constraints that would appear from growing
melons and other specialty crops in the existing system said
Dr Jovicich.
Higher structures will also allow for trellising crops higher
while avoiding extreme high temperatures in the crop
canopies. In the tropics, tall passively-ventilated structures
usually have a sawtooth roof design, which is created by roof
vents (a series of vertical surfaces separated by a series of
straight or curved sloping surfaces), which assist removing
heat. In designs for warm environments, these roof vents
remain permanently open but can be screened with insect
exclusion nets. The slope of the roof reflects a high proportion
of solar radiation away from the greenhouse, and natural
ventilation increases when open vents face away from the
windair flow over the roof causes negative pressure that
sucks out warm greenhouse air. This also causes outside air to
be drawn into the greenhouse through the open windward side
wall, which mixes and cools the inside air before discharging
out the roof vents.
There are also other structure designs that look very
promising for growing crops in the tropics. For example, the
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 37

(TOP to BOTTOMLEFT to RIGHT)


Good fruit set of small canary melons grown under protective
cropping in North Queensland. These fruits did not detach from
the peduncle when they reached maturity.
Consistent fruit size of galia melons grown under a walk-in tunnel
in Giru, Queensland. Yields reached 7.8 kg/m2.
Capsicums were transplanted under a simple poly tunnel in Giru,
Queensland, in April 2014. Plants were trellised vertically
following a simple system that involves minimum pruning. The
first fruits were harvested in July 2014. The small trial included
several cultivars with fruits that ripened to either red, orange,
yellow or white.
Specialty eggplants were grown in the Dry Tropics under a
protective structure (a high walk-in tunnel).
While it is raining outside, DAFF technical officer Heidi
Wiggenhauser works on specialty melons grown in a low-cost
protective structure in Giru, Queensland.

38 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

high structures with roofs that can be retracted. In these


designs, the roof is a polyfabric film material suspended on
wires, and where the film can be folded or extended by electric
motors. This allows for having partial or full sun over the crop
and a rain protection cover when it is necessary. The roofs can
have a slope and gutters to drain water from rainfalls.
In the tropics, the side walls of these structures are large for
maximum ventilation, but are covered with insect exclusion
screens. Roll-up poly films can be fitted on the side walls;
however, all sidewalls will remain open during most of the year.
Sawtooth greenhouses and retractable roof structures are
less expensive than glass or polycarbonate greenhouses, and
they offer a number of advantages for growers in terms of
extreme solar radiation and passive ventilation.

"We are growing speciality crops that should attract a higher


value than the crops you are growing outside," he said.
"The vegetables that are grown under protective cropping
generally can be considered different commodities than those
extensively grown outdoors. There is potential for marketing
some of the produce in a different way; that would also attract
a higher value.
"So while protective cropping involves more labour per
square metre than in extensive outdoor vegetable crops, you
are getting three, five or six times more yield per square metre.
Well managed crops are also more efficient in the use of water
and nutrients, based on the unit weight of harvested produce.
"We are soon going to start running some numbers, based
on the yields we were achieving," Dr Jovicich said.

Other specialty crops

South Pacific solution

In addition to melons, the project has included research on


specialty capsicums, cucumbers and eggplants with very
encouraging early results. Argentine-born Dr Jovicich says
while it's still early days, past experience and promising
results from the recent trials in North Queensland make
protected cropping a complementary system to outdoor
vegetable production in warm environments. Before 2007, he
was involved in protective cropping research, development and
extension (R&DE) in Florida, US, for many years where he
gained experience working with Dr Daniel Cantliffe from the
University of Florida.
"With capsicums, we had some crops planted in Giru in April
and May last year, and we were still harvesting in early
January 2015, Dr Jovicich said.
"It is the end of January and we are reaching up to 18
kilograms of red fruit per square metre with some cultivars,
when a normal capsicum in the field will give you a yield of
about 3 kilograms per square metre.
"Yield increases are a combination of an increase in fruits
per plant, plant density, and the prolonged harvesting period.
This can be achieved with cultivars bred for greenhouse
production, and by trellising plants vertically and maintaining
them healthy, so they can keep on growing and setting fruit,"
he explained.
While the research team is keen for local farmers to test the
concept themselves, Dr Jovicich says selling the idea to
growers is proving a little difficult.
"When we talk to farmers here about protective cropping,
many times they identify the system with glasshouse
production, hydroponics and very expensive operations,"
he said.
"But we are thinking about structures that are much
cheaper, he added.
"What we have to keep in mind is that the designs for
structures used up here in tropical places have to remove the
heat from the greenhouse in the best way possible.
"So the structures have to be very tall, they have to have a roof
vent and openings all around. They have to protect plants from
rain, so basically we are only creating a roof over the plants."
Dr Jovicich says although he's yet to thoroughly analyse the
economic benefit of the protective cropping system, he's
confident the figures will stack up.

The North Queensland project is part of the Pacific


Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative (PARDI) with
funding from DAFF and the Australian Centre for International
Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
In 2012, Dr Jovicich (protective cropping project leader) and
Shane Dullahide (PARDI crop component leader), met with
industry representatives in Fiji and Samoa to discuss low-cost
protective structures and research activities. Dr Jovicich said it
was clear from the meetings that participants would make the
most of the opportunities offered by protective cropping systems.
The research began in 2013, first identifying a low-cost
structure design, then setting up demonstration sites and
more recently starting to validate crop growing systems that
are likely to raise the production of high-value vegetables in
the region and increase grower income, he said.
In 2014, five structures, each covering a ground area of 360 m2,
were built in locations with distinct environmental conditions in
Fiji (Sigatoka, Koronivia, and Tavua) and Samoa (Nuu and
Tapatapao). Supply chain analyses and surveys, and advice from
collaborating farmers, pinpointed the highest demand/highvalue crops among buyers and consumers.
These cropstomato, capsicum and cucumberare the
subject of the first round of trials. Some growers have also
decided to grow crops such as potatoes, herbs, leafy
vegetables and red cabbage as they are easy-to-grow, highvalue commodities that can rapidly bring returns while they
learn how to grow more complex crops such as tomatoes and
capsicums, said Dr Jovicich.
The greenhouse design includes high roofs (up to 4.5 m),
roof vents, shade screens and insect-exclusion netting. The
greenhouse structures use only passive ventilation for cooling
(no electric fans) and create an improved crop environment
with respect to outdoor growing conditions and compared to
the low-roof, walk-in tunnel designs.
Walk-in tunnel designs are already used by some farmers
and usually have roofs that are less than three metres high, no
roof vents, and small open areas for lateral ventilation.
Temperatures under these structures frequently reach levels
that are higher than optimal for plant growth and fruit setting
in vertically trellised crops such as tomatoes, capsicums, and
cucumbers, he explained.
Dr Jovicich said that the purpose of using taller and better
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 39

(TOP to BOTTOMLEFT to RIGHT)


Farmer Munsami Naiker set up a protective structure to test
high value vegetable production in Fiji.
Farmers attend a hands-on project field day where they discuss
structure design, prepare planting beds, setup and learn to use
a gravitational drip irrigation and transplant tomatoes in Fiji.
Project leader Elio Jovicich discusses tomato transplanting and
set drip irrigation with farmers under a high roof passivelyventilated structure setup by the project in Fiji.
Farmer and project collaborator Edwin Tamasese inspects soil
moisture in a new planting of tomatoes under a high roof
passively-ventilated structure setup by the project in Samoa.
Capsicums planted in April and May 2014 are still being
harvested in January 2015. Plants reached 2.5 metres high and
yields in some cultivars are up to 18 kg per metre square.
DAFF Horticulturist Dr Elio Jovicich inspecting harvested
capsicums, January 2015.

40 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

ventilated structures, such as the ones designed for the PARDI


project, is to demonstrate that crops can be trellised to higher
levels, and thus, production can be increased with more
harvests throughout the season. This environment is also
better for short, leafy vegetable crops, and because crops are
grown in soil, allow for using diverse plant species for crop
rotation. In addition to providing improved growing conditions,
the structures are designed to be partially disassembled when
extreme weather conditions (i.e. cyclones) are forecasted.
Dr Jovicich says that training farmers is an important part of
the project, given that the production system is new to the region.
The project also provides training to farmers and local
research and extension officers in new irrigation technologies
(e.g. drip), and new plant growing practices (e.g. trellising and
pruning). Our aim is to also manage pest and diseases with low
pesticide use. We collaborate with other ACIAR projects on
integrated crop management to monitor and manage pest and
diseases during the trials.
As well as ACIAR funding, several local commercial companies
backed the research. Wah Sing Yee, Director of Marco Polo
International Ltd, helped to import the structures and supported
the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) Fiji to import additional
structures and irrigation components. Edwin Tamasese, a
farmer and Director of Soil Health Pacific Ltd, set-up two
structures, and assisted with the importation of seeds and
irrigation components in Samoa. Mr Tamasese and Mr Munsami
Naiker, farmer and Director of All Season Nursery in Tavua, Fiji,
assisted with the production of seedlings for the trials.
Currently, there are farmers that are also building
structures with wood, which is fine as long as you keep some

Advantages of tropical greenhouses


Higher yields and better quality produce
Reduced risks for yields and quality
Fewer pest and disease problems because of less wetting
and damage by heavy rainfall
Extended harvest time
Reduced water and nutrient use per unit of
harvested produce
More effective use of pesticides and biological control.
design considerations that help with the heat removal and thus
provide an environment that leads to acceptable yields.
Collaborator vegetable farmers in Fiji and Samoa have been
growing their first crops under protected cropping and already
are able to see first-hand the increases in yield and produce
quality. Although farmers still have to learn and adapt many
crop practices to their specific environments and farming
scenarios, the design of the sourced greenhouses provide
improved ventilation and crop protection, thanks to the
combined efforts by ACIAR and DAFF and considerable local
industry and business support.
For further information contact: Department of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Forestry. Ph: +61 (0)7 3404-6999
Email: elio.jovicich@daff.qld.gov.au
Website: www.daff.qld.gov.au b

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Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 41

Small-scale aquaponic
food production

The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has released a technical paper that showcases current
wisdom in aquaponics, focusing on small-scale production. The target audience is agriculture
extension agents, aquaculture officers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community
organisers, companies and individualsworldwide.
By STEVEN CARRUTHERS
Illustrations Food & Agriculture Organization

he Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has released


a technical paper that showcases current wisdom in
aquaponics, focusing on small-scale production. The
intention is to bring a general understanding of
aquaponics to people who previously may have only known
about one aspect (i.e. aquaculture devotees without experience
in hydroponics, and vice versa).
Aquaponics is the integration of recirculating aquaculture
and hydroponics in one production system. In an aquaponic
unit, water from the fish tank cycles through filters, plant grow
beds and then back to the fish. In the filters, the fish waste is
ISSN 207
0-7010

FAO
AND
FISHERIES TURE
L
AQUACU ICAL
TECHN
PAPER

589

ponic
ale aqua
Small-sc duction
g
food pro
t farmin
ed fis
Integrat

h and pl

an

42 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

removed from the water, first using a mechanical filter that


removes the solid waste and then through a biofilter that
processes the dissolved wastes. The biofilter provides a
location for bacteria to convert ammonia, which is toxic for
fish, into nitrate, a more accessible nutrient for plants. This
process is called nitrification. As the water (containing nitrate
and other nutrients) travels through plant grow beds, the
plants uptake these nutrients, and finally, the water returns to
the fish tank purified. This process allows the fish, plants and
bacteria to thrive symbiotically and to work together to create
a healthy growing environment for each other, provided that
the system is properly balanced.
The practice of aquaponics is not new. Faecal waste and
overall excrements from fish to fertilise plants has existed for
millennia, with early civilisations in both Asia and South
America applying this method, but it has only been in recent
decades that this basic form of aquaponics has evolved into the
modern food production systems of today.
Prior to the technological advances of the 1980s, most
attempts to integrate hydroponics and aquaculture had limited
success. The 1980s and 1990s saw advances in system design,
biofiltration and the identification of the optimal fish-to-plant
ratios that led to the creation of closed systems that allow for
the recycling of water and nutrient build-up for plant growth. In
its early aquaponic systems, North Carolina State University
demonstrated that water consumption in integrated systems
was just 5% of that used in pond culture for growing tilapia.
This development, among other key initiatives, pointed to the
suitability of integrated aquaculture and hydroponic systems
for raising fish and growing vegetables, particularly in arid and
water poor regions.
The technical paper, Small-scale aquaponic production, does
not provide a prescriptive approach to aquaponics; instead, it is
a resource paper and includes description and discussion of
the major concepts needed for aquaponics. A broad range of
parties may find interest in aquaponics, especially those whose

focus incorporates at least one of the


following topics: sustainable
agriculture, resilient methods of
domestic food production, or urban and
peri-urban food security. Although not
strictly necessary, some experience
with vegetable and/or fish production
would be advantageous for the reader.
Divided into nine chapters and nine
appendixes, with each chapter
dedicated to a specific facet of an
aquaponic system, the publication is
written in a style designed to be
digestible by a non-technical reader.
The publication includes diverse
subjects from aquaculture to
hydroponics, water chemistry to
ecosystem balance and technical
aspects of plumbing and construction;
the challenge has been to provide a
bridge towards common understanding
of the broad field of aquaponics, using
adequate technical details in substantial
depth without allowing the publication
to become unwieldy and unusable.
Small-scale aquaponic food production
begins by introducing the concept of
aquaponics, including a brief history of
its development and its place within the
larger category of soilless culture and
modern agriculture. It discusses the
main theoretical concepts of aquaponics,
including the nitrogen cycle and the
nitrification process, the role of bacteria,
and the concept of balancing an
aquaponic unit. It then moves on to cover
important considerations of water quality
parameters, water testing, and water
sourcing for aquaponics, as well as
methods and theories of unit design,
including the three main methods of
aquaponic systems: media beds, nutrient
film technique, and deep water culture.
The publication discusses in detail the
three groups of living organisms
(bacteria, plants and fish) that make up
the aquaponic ecosystem. It also
presents management strategies and
troubleshooting practices, as well as
related topics, specifically highlighting
local and sustainable sources of
aquaponic inputs.
The publication also includes nine
appendixes that present other key
topics: ideal conditions for common
plants grown in aquaponics; chemical
and biological controls of common
pests and diseases, including a

Simple hydroponic unit

Simple aquaculture unit

Simple aquaponic unit

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 43

THE MEDIA BED UNIT

Media bed unit

Top view
Fish tank

Grow bed

1m

Bell
siphon

Water
pump

Sump
tank
1.2m

1.2m

3
4.6m
Side view
Fish tank

Grow bed

Bell
siphon

1.17m

2
1.2m

Sump tank

water pump

Water flow diagram


1 W
2.2 Water flows from the media bed into the sump tank.
3.3 Water flows back to the fish tank from the sump by using the water pump.

44 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) unit

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 45

compatible planting guide; common fish diseases and related


symptoms, causes and remedies; tools to calculate the
ammonia produced and biofiltration media required for a
certain fish stocking density and amount of fish feed added;
production of homemade fish feed; guidelines and
considerations for establishing aquaponic units; a costbenefit
analysis of a small-scale, media bed aquaponic unit; a
comprehensive guide to building small-scale versions of each
of the three aquaponic methods; and a brief summary of this

Benefits and weaknesses


of aquaponic food production
Major benefits of aquaponic food production
Sustainable and intensive food production system
Two agricultural products (fish and vegetables) are
produced from one nitrogen source (fish food)
Extremely water-efficient
Does not require soil
Does not use fertiliSers or chemical pesticides
Higher yields and qualitative production
Organic-like management and production
Higher level of biosecurity and lower risks from
outer contaminants
Higher control on production leading to lower losses
Can be used on non-arable land such as deserts,
degraded soil or salty, sandy islands
Creates little waste
Daily tasks, harvesting and planting are labour-saving
and therefore can include all genders and ages
Economical production of either family food production
or cash crops in many locations
Construction materials and information base are
widely available.
Major weaknesses of aquaponic food production
Expensive initial start-up costs compared with soil
vegetable production or hydroponics
Knowledge of fish, bacteria and plant production is
needed for each farmer to be successful
Fish and plant requirements do not always
match perfectly
Not recommended in places where cultured fish and
plants cannot meet their optimal temperature ranges
Reduced management choices compared with standalone aquaculture or hydroponic systems
Mistakes or accidents can cause catastrophic collapse
of system
Daily management is mandatory
Energy demanding
Requires reliable access to electricity, fish seed and
plant seeds
Alone, aquaponics will not provide a complete diet.

46 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

publication designed as a supplemental handout for outreach,


extension and education.

Final remarks
With the advent of highly efficient aquaponic systems, there
has been an interest by FAO in discovering how the concept
fares in developing countries. The authors note that examples
of aquaponic initiatives can be seen in Barbados, Brazil,
Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica,
Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Panama, the Philippines, Thailand
and Zimbabwe. At first glance, there appears to be a
considerable amount of aquaponic activity within the
humanitarian sphere.
In addition, small-scale aquaponic units are components of
some urban or peri-urban agriculture initiatives, particularly
with NGOs and other stakeholders in urban food and nutrition
security, because of their ability to be installed in many
different urban landscapes. In particular, the FAO has piloted
small-scale aquaponic units on rooftops in The West Bank and
Gaza Stripin response to the chronic food and nutrition
security issues seen across the region. To date, this pilot
project and subsequent scale-up are one of a growing number
of examples around the world where aquaponics is being
successfully integrated into medium-scale emergency food
security interventions. However, the authors note that many
attempts are ad hoc and opportunistic, in many cases leading
to stand-alone, low-impact interventions. They advise caution
when evaluating the success of humanitarian aquaponics.
The authors also note there has been a surge of aquaponic
conferences worldwide in the recent years. Furthermore,
aquaponics is increasingly a part of conferences on
aquaculture and hydroponics. Many of these forums outline
concerns among researchers from different backgrounds and
specialisations, policy makers and stakeholders to find
sustainable solutions to ensure a long-lasting growth and
secure increased food output for a growing world population.
Finally, the Fish in aquaponics component of this
publication is extensive and profiles talapia, carp, catfish,
trout, Largemouth bass and prawns. From an Australian
perspective, there are other species to choose from with
ongoing development work to determine fish/plant ratios;
however, this publication is targeted at communities where
water and resources are scarce. The publication is a valuable
resource for both novice and commercial operators planning a
small-scale aquaponic venture anywhere in the world. The
information is based on practical experience with small-scale
and commercial aquaponic systems, and the publication was
developed to share lessons and current knowledge learned so
that fledgling farmers can benefit from these experiences.
Small-scale aquaponic food production is a valuable
document for anyone considering aquaponics. At 288 pages,
the publication is illustrated with many images, line drawings
and tables. It is available in print and PDF editions from the
FAO website (www.fao.org/publications), or it can be
purchased via email (publications-sales@fao.org). b

The First 20 Years

Millennium Collection
1991-2012

Valuable Educational Resource


This interactive DVD contains every article published in
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses since the first issue,
many as relevant today as they were when first published.
(PDF format)

www.hydroponics.com.au/buynow
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 47

Local Knowledge

Innovative Design

Higher Yields

Future Proof