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Hort Americas retrofits greenhouse for trialing hydroponic growing systems, products

Hort Americas’ special projects manager Tyler Baras is using a 12,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse to teach company staff and customers what it takes to economically grow leafy greens and herbs.

Tyler Baras is a well-traveled grower. He has worked in Florida and Colorado growing hydroponic greenhouse vegetables, including organic crops. He is now taking the knowledge and experience he has gained from those growing operations and putting it to use in a 12,000-square-foot demonstration and research greenhouse in Dallas, Texas.

Baras, who is the special projects manager at Hort Americas, is overseeing the trialing of leafy greens and herbs in five different production systems along with the testing of potential products for the company’s online catalog.

“Chris Higgins, the general manager at Hort Americas, brought me to the greenhouse and asked if I would be interested in running a demonstration and research facility,” Baras said. “He was also interested in collecting data and writing a book about leafy greens production.

“After I agreed to accept the position, I drew up blueprints of the greenhouse, preparing a design of the production systems, writing a budget and proposals on how it was going to look, and how much it was going to cost to operate, including projected sales from the produce that was grown.”

Tyler Baras, special projects manager at Hort Americas, is overseeing the trialing of leafy greens and herbs in five different production systems. Photos courtesy of Tyler Baras, Hort Americas

Tyler Baras, special projects manager at Hort Americas, is overseeing the trialing of leafy greens and herbs in five different hydroponic production systems.
Photos courtesy of Tyler Baras, Hort Americas

The retrofitted greenhouse is located behind a grocery store and prominent Dallas garden center. The grocery store and garden center will allow Baras to test his projected budgets and produce sales.

“The greenhouse was originally built for growing bedding and flowering plants,” Baras said. “It was built with passive ventilation and was not designed for leafy greens production. We had to make some major modifications. Renovations included leveling the floor, adding a vestibule air lock, upgrading the electrical system, installing evaporative cooling pads, insect screening and landscape fabric, and upgrading the motors for the shade system along with installing new shade cloth. We have been growing in the greenhouse since September.”

Hort Americas, which is a horticulture and agriculture wholesale supply company, provided the materials for the retrofit along with the hydroponic production systems that Baras will be using. The production systems include a capillary mat system, a deep water culture floating raft system, a nutrient film technique (NFT) system, a hydroponic tower system and grow racks. Hort Americas has also provided a variety of equipment and products, including substrates, fertilizers, LED lights and other products it offers to its wholesale customers.

Collecting, disseminating production data

Dallas was chosen for the research location because it is one of the hardest places to grow hydroponic leafy greens. Baras will be trialing primarily leafy greens, including a variety of lettuces (bibb and Romaine), kale, bok choy, basil and other herbs.

“We believe that if leafy greens can be grown here then they can be grown nearly anywhere by everyone,” he said. “Year-round production here is difficult. We know that we will be able to grow during the fall, winter and spring. The tricky part is going to come during the summer when there are high temperatures and high humidity. The project will take a minimum of a year to collect the data.”

Baras said he will be collecting a lot of data including: cost per plant size, how much does it cost over the production cycle to operate each system and the labor costs involved with operating each system.

The 12,000-square-foot demonstration and research greenhouse contains five different production systems including a deep water culture floating raft system.

The 12,000-square-foot demonstration and research greenhouse contains five different production systems including a deep water culture floating raft system.

“The goal is to collect data that can be used by everyone,” he said. “We are going to collect data that includes the total light delivered. If growers in more northern latitudes are dealing with lower light, they can look at the light levels we maintained in the greenhouse and reach those same levels using supplemental light so that they can mimic the exact same conditions.

“The data collected will be available to whoever has an interest in reading about it. This will enable growers to be knowledgeable about making decisions about these production systems and operating them. They will also have access to some real world baseline data from trials so they will know if they are achieving the proper metrics. For example, we will share the data of how long it took to grow a certain size head of lettuce or a certain weight of basil using specific inputs. Growers will be able to look at real world environmental conditions under which a crop was grown.”

Preliminary results

Baras said based on initial production results what makes most financial sense at this time is growing basil and lettuce.

“Our initial metrics from the data that we have collected have been good,” he said. “We are producing 8- to10-ounce heads of bibb lettuce in 38 days and we are harvesting commercial size sleeved basil in 26 days from seed.

“Most commercial standards for lettuce in the U.S. are between 6 and 10 ounces. For basil there is a wide range in regards to the standard size for weight. Generally it is done by size or by what fills up a 10-inch tall sleeve. We have been able to fill a 10-inch sleeve and make it look really good.”

Preliminary production results include harvesting commercial size sleeved basil in 26 days from seed.

Preliminary production results include harvesting commercial size sleeved basil in 26 days from seed.

Having experienced a warmer than normal October, Baras said the water temperature in most of the production systems has been 85ºF or warmer.

“Generally the water temperature for most hydroponic crops is between 65ºF-70ºF,” he said. “The water temperature here is definitely warm, but we are still having really great growth. So far it is looking like we can grow a crop during the summer. But we haven’t gone through a full summer yet and that is going to be the real test.
Baras said they want to try to avoid chilling the water and will only use this production technique as the last resort.”

“We are trying to find ways around having to chill the water, including increasing the level of dissolved oxygen in the water using a variety of methods. This includes using Venturi aerators, and if needed, injecting liquid oxygen. These methods are less costly than running chillers. Chillers can be expensive and they use a lot of energy.
“We really want to find a model that is going to be acceptable to small scale growers. We are trying to keep the inputs to a minimum and still achieve our production goals.”

Teaching and trialing

Baras said the greenhouse has already been used for onsite training.

“That is one of our main goals with the site,” he said. “We want to be able to bring in people and provide them with hands-on training, both our customers and the Hort Americas staff. For example, we want to be able to show them how to blend fertilizer, what the process looks like for moving seedlings through a hydroponic system, how to measure light levels in a greenhouse and best pest control methods.

“We want to be able to assist customers who are starting to build a greenhouse and are looking to install hydroponic equipment. The greenhouse will enable them to see what is involved before they make any purchases.”

Dallas Grown

The greenhouse will be used to provide training to Hort Americas’ customers and staff, as well as the trialing of new products.

The greenhouse will also be used for trialing new products.

“Companies often approach Hort Americas about carrying their products, the greenhouse will enable us to put them through real world trials before they’re put in our online catalog,” Baras said. “Some of the products we plan to trial include dosing systems, monitoring systems for greenhouse environmental control and meters for measuring pH and EC. We are open to looking at other equipment and other automation technology.”

For more: Hort Americas, (469) 532-2383; http://hortamericas.com.

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; dkuack@gmail.com.

 

Products being used in greenhouse trials

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