When many people think of farming, the image that comes to mind is a wide expanse of fields, a big wooden barn, and a tractor making neat little rows in the background. But as new technologies grow, the surface area of farms seems to shrink. In fact, many farmers no longer need the huge swaths of land commonly associated with horticulture, and can now grow food just about anywhere. Even aboard the International Space Station.
The Vegetable Production System (nicknamed Veggie) on the ISS grows food crops using a combination of LED lights, plant “pillows” that include a growth medium and fertilizer, and water. But unlike watering plants on Earth, where there’s enough gravity to bring water down into the soil, plants in space need wicks to be placed into their pillows/bags so the water gets where it needs to go without floating away.
While astronauts on the ISS have actually been growing crops since last year, this is the first time they were eaten onboard. The first round were sent back to researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Center to be sure they were safe for human consumption. Once they passed the tests on land, they went through more thorough testing (i.e. tasting) in space.
But why does it matter if crops can be grown on a space station when we have the resources to send up food as necessary? Well, as we’ve learned in the past, space research presents a unique opportunity to develop new technologies to make life on Earth better. Having a self-contained micro-environment allows scientists to really see how different variables like light and water accessibility impact the growth, nutrition, and taste of plants.
And the ISS isn’t the only place where the next big trend in horticulture is small. All over North America, vertical farming is picking up steam. This concept takes advantage of areas where height is more plentiful than open space, such as urban areas with high-rise buildings. Plants are stacked on shelving units, with artificial light evenly dispersed in each row, and just the right amount of water applied to each plant. Without having to worry about scavenging animals, unpredictable weather, or other outside factors, plants are able to grow efficiently all year round, and harvests are more bountiful.
Another benefit is less chance of spoilage. Whereas traditional crops often travel hundreds of miles to the nearest big-box stores, these crops are already in urban areas where the customers are. This means less shipping time and reduced waste and costs.
Growers can also keep costs down by automating more of the process, which is much easier in a vertical farm. AeroFarms is an example of new-age horticulture that will soon be using automatic conveyor belts to harvest plants, in addition to using an automated packaging process.
As new technologies and methods are adopted in horticulture, we look forward to seeing how they will improve food processing and growth. If you are developing your own vertical farm and require help setting up the infrastructure, we can design and manufacture custom automated equipment to suit your needs. Give us a call at 519-824-8711 to discuss your needs.