Greenhouse research shifting focus to food crops

To meet the interest and needs of students and a changing
greenhouse industry, the horticulture department at the University of Arkansas is
shifting its focus to the controlled environment production of new and
underused food crops.

By David Kuack

An increasing number of students majoring in horticulture
at the University of Arkansas are focused on food crop production. Horticulture
professor Mike Evans said there has been a shift in interest by the students
from greenhouse-grown floriculture crops to greenhouse-grown food crops. Evans
said that except for turf management, students interested in food crop
production make up the majority of students majoring in horticulture at the
university.

“More and more students who are interested in greenhouse
production want to learn about growing food crops. To accommodate this
interest, we are starting a new class in which we are teaching about the
production of tomatoes, cucumbers, greens and other food crops. We are putting
in different kinds of production systems including hydroponics. The students
will have a really well outfitted lab where they can go in and they will be
raising various food crops with different systems. It will be hands-on.”

Evans said the growing interest in greenhouse food crops
has rejuvenated him and his program.

University of Arkansas horticulture professor
Mike Evans (right) is working with other professors
to develop a program on greenhouse food production
for both students and commercial growers. 

“As the ornamental side of the greenhouse industry has
been undergoing consolidation with fewer but larger operations, we have seen an
increased interest from the industry in growing greenhouse food crops,” he said.
“The number of emails and phone calls related to greenhouse food crops have
greatly increased.

“There are a lot of people growing tomatoes, peppers and
cucumbers in greenhouses. So I started looking at greenhouse food production
and found the area of herbs and greens in many respects has been neglected.
There are people out there doing these crops, but if you look for referenced
research or talk to people, there is a lot less solid research on greens and
herbs.”

Evans has started working with fellow university
horticulture assistant professor and breeder Ainong Shi.

“We are interested in looking at new species of fresh greens
and the breeding of greens,” Evans said. “We are particularly interested in
developing crops that can take Southern hot climates. By converting our
facilities to focus on greenhouse food crops we are looking to become a central
institution to study new species of greens, developing new crops, breeding new
cultivars, and developing production protocols for these crops.”

Developing greenhouse
food crops

Evans said the agriculture industry in the United States
has been largely field-based, but there are signs that changes are occurring
when it comes to controlled environment food production.

“Much of Europe and many parts of Canada and Japan are
significantly ahead of the U.S. when it comes to the development of controlled
environment food production systems,” he said. “We are very much in a catch-up
mode.”

One of the crops that Evans will be looking at regarding
new species is fresh greens.

“Most of the greens research, including breeding, being
done in this country, by-and-large, is for field production,” he said. “Those
same varieties that were originally evaluated in the field are then taken and
grown in the greenhouse. We typically have not bred varieties for greenhouse
production.

“We want to find greens that have lower inputs, that
don’t need much water or fertilizer. They also shouldn’t have many pest
problems, have a rapid production cycle and can especially take heat.”

Evans said the issue with heat is a major obstacle for
greens grown in the southern United States.

“The problem that growers in the southern half of the
U.S. run into during the summer is what kind of greens can they produce? Greens
in the South are more of an early spring and late fall crop. The question is
can we develop greens that can be grown in the heat of summer?”

Mike Evans said he is looking for fresh greens that have lower
inputs, including water and fertilizer, few pest problems, a rapid
production cycle and can do well in hot temperatures.


One of the crops that University of Arkansas researchers
are working on is to develop a heat-resistant spinach.

“We had a breeder here, Teddy Morelock, who did a lot of
spinach breeding,” Evans said. “He passed away, but left us with hundreds
of spinach lines. We’re trying to figure out what we’ve got. Teddy never conducted
greenhouse trials or evaluated the germplasm for production in greenhouses. All
of his evaluations were done in the field. We might be sitting on the best
spinach variety to grow in a greenhouse.”

Another crop that Evans is excited about studying is
dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

“Dandelion has a higher nutritional value than spinach,”
he said. “It is loaded with iron, vitamins A and C and beta-carotene. It was
considered a medicinal plant. The early immigrants to America brought
dandelions with them for food. A lot of people suffered vitamin deficiencies
and developed scurvy. So they brought the dandelions with them.”

Evans said dandelions can be grown quickly, don’t need a
lot of inputs and are very heat tolerant.

“They are short day plants so they might need some night
interruption lighting,” he said. “That’s not real a concern because the plants
would probably be harvested before they flower.

“There is a great deal of genetic diversity in dandelions
because they are spread worldwide and are segregated. There are a lot of flavors and
traits. We are going to be collecting germplasm from all over the world. We are
going to be breeding dandelions so that they develop into what we want them to
be.”

Setting up a strawberry
cam

As part of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative, Evans will be working with professor
Elena Garcia, who is the university’s fruit specialist. The research they will
be doing is part of a program funded by the Walmart Foundation, which is being
administered by the university’s Center for Agricultural and Rural
Sustainability.

“We want to demonstrate and teach growers about various
types of hydroponic systems for strawberry production,” Evans said. “Those
systems might include NFT troughs, gutters, Dutch buckets, etc. There are
various types of hydroponic systems that we feel bring some significant
advantages to the production of strawberries and help to promote a number of
sustainability goals in the program’s guidelines.”

Evans said the type of structures used to grow the
strawberries will also be discussed.

“If a grower considers using high tunnels, he can extend
the season,” Evans said. “Or a grower might consider using drop wall
greenhouses. There is the possibility of providing heat, which could result in
year-round production. There are a lot of possible benefits for our growers.”

Evans and Garcia have been traveling around the state and
meeting with growers talking to them about the different production systems and
explaining how they can be used for strawberry production. Evans said many of
the growers that he and Garcia have met with didn’t know about the differences
in the production systems and didn’t understand the differences.

University of Arkansas professors Mike Evans and Elena Garcia
will be teaching growers in their state about various types
of hydroponic systems for strawberry production.

Evans has renovated two of the university greenhouses in which various strawberry production
systems will be installed and used to produce crops. About 4,000 square feet
has been converted to hydroponic food production with about 1,600 square feet
devoted to strawberries and the remaining used for greens.

“Our
goal is to put in several different systems and to shoot video of what we are
doing from the beginning to end,” he said. “We will shoot video of the assembly
of the different systems as well as the production of the strawberries in each
system. We will film and document in detail everything we do. The videos will
walk the growers through all aspects of design, build, manage, maintain and
grow the strawberries using a specific system.”

Evans said the videos will be used as an educational tool
allowing growers to look at the different production systems and to see the
advantages and disadvantages of each system.
Evans has also been working with University of Arizona
horticulture professor Chieri Kubota and research specialist Mark Kroggel to
prepare videos on the strawberry production research they have been conducting
at the university’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

“Not every system is perfect for everyone,” Evans said.
“Everyone has to look at what they are growing or planning to grow and what is
their market. We want to use the videos as a way to demonstrate these systems
to teach growers how to effectively select one and how to effectively use it.”

For more: Mike
Evans, University of Arkansas, Department of Horticulture; (479) 575-3179; mrevans@uark.edu.

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

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Hort Americas attends Greenhouse Vegetable Hydroponic Workshop at U of F

William Fry, Hort Americas
customer service representative

University of Florida IFAS Extension held a Starting a Successful Hydroponic Business workshop in Live Oak, Fla., on Jan. 6-7. The two-day workshop will be repeated in March. William Fry, customer service representative at Hort Americas, attended the event and provides some insight about the audience and topics covered.

Who attended and what were they looking to learn about?
The people who attended the hydroponic workshop were there for a variety of reasons. The predominant reason I heard was a need to bring in new income to their existing business. Attendees included cut flower growers looking to restart their businesses, berry growers and people passionate about gardening who wanted to take it to the next level. There were also some people who are currently involved in hydroponics either as growers or as some type of product developer.

What were some of the topics covered in the workshop?
The basics about what hydroponics is and how it is done were covered first. The attendees learned about various aspects of propagation including how to select the proper growing medium for different applications. Other topics included irrigation systems and the importance of water quality. Multi-county extension agent Bob Hochmuth demonstrated several ways that drip irrigation systems can fail to operate properly and how to correct the problems including choosing the right emitters for specific applications. The first day ended with dinner and a discussion about how to successfully market a business.

The second day was spent learning about integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, scouting crops and nutrient management. Classes were conducted at Vertical Horizon Farm in Hobe Sound, Fla. Co-owner Kevin Osburn demonstrated the step-by-step process of how he prepares fertilizers. He explained how to mix fertilizer recipes in different tanks and how to use injectors to deliver nutrient solutions to crops. The class was a very hands-on learning experience, which was not only fun but also very practical.

What did you learn about hydroponics?
There seems to be quite a bit of interest in hydroponics with current growers looking to take their businesses in a new direction. Many of the workshop attendees look at hydroponics as the wave of the future for crop production. The workshop was geared to Florida growers and their specific circumstances. Staff members at the University of Florida extension office in Live Oak seem to be in tune with the needs of state growers and are working diligently with them to achieve success. For more information: University of Florida IFAS Extension, Suwannee County Extension, Live Oak, Fla.; (386) 362-1725.

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Can Farming Save a City?

Fortune Magazine post an interesting question?

Can Farming save Detroit?

What do you think?  We think Agriculture will go thru many changes as it continues to cope with changing expectations regarding:  Sustainability, Climate, Natural Resources and Population.
But, we are not sure that it will save cities…unless that is that the expectations within those cities are greatly different than what they are today.
Please let us know what you think.
Below is what was posted at CNN on Dec 29, 2009.
By David Whitford, editor at largeDecember 29, 2009: 11:37 AM ET


DETROIT (Fortune) — John Hantz is a wealthy money manager who lives in an older enclave of Detroit where all the houses are grand and not all of them are falling apart. Once a star stockbroker at American Express, he left 13 years ago to found his own firm. Today Hantz Financial Services has 20 offices in Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia, more than 500 employees, and $1.3 billion in assets under management.
Twice divorced, Hantz, 48, lives alone in clubby, paneled splendor, surrounded by early-American landscapes on the walls, an autograph collection that veers from Detroit icons such as Ty Cobb and Henry Ford to Baron von Richthofen and Mussolini, and a set of Ayn Rand first editions.
With a net worth of more than $100 million, he’s one of the richest men left in Detroit — one of the very few in his demographic who stayed put when others were fleeing to Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills. Not long ago, while commuting, he stumbled on a big idea that might help save his dying city.
Every weekday Hantz pulls his Volvo SUV out of the gated driveway of his compound and drives half an hour to his office in Southfield, a northern suburb on the far side of Eight Mile Road. His route takes him through a desolate, postindustrial cityscape — the kind of scene that is shockingly common in Detroit.
Along the way he passes vacant buildings, abandoned homes, and a whole lot of empty land. In some stretches he sees more pheasants than people. “Every year I tell myself it’s going to get better,” says Hantz, bright-eyed, with smooth cheeks and a little boy’s carefully combed haircut, “and every year it doesn’t.”
Then one day about a year and a half ago, Hantz had a revelation. “We need scarcity,” he thought to himself as he drove past block after unoccupied block. “We can’t create opportunities, but we can create scarcity.” And that, he says one afternoon in his living room between puffs on an expensive cigar, “is how I got onto this idea of the farm.”
Yes, a farm. A large-scale, for-profit agricultural enterprise, wholly contained within the city limits of Detroit. Hantz thinks farming could do his city a lot of good: restore big chunks of tax-delinquent, resource-draining urban blight to pastoral productivity; provide decent jobs with benefits; supply local markets and restaurants with fresh produce; attract tourists from all over the world; and — most important of all — stimulate development around the edges as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in. Hantz is willing to commit $30 million to the project. He’ll start with a pilot program this spring involving up to 50 acres on Detroit’s east side. “Out of the gates,” he says, “it’ll be the largest urban farm in the world.”
This is possibly not as crazy as it sounds. Granted, the notion of devoting valuable city land to agriculture would be unfathomable in New York, London, or Tokyo. But Detroit is a special case. The city that was once the fourth largest in the country and served as a symbol of America’s industrial might has lately assumed a new role: North American poster child for the global phenomenon of shrinking postindustrial cities.
Nearly 2 million people used to live in Detroit. Fewer than 900,000 remain. Even if, unlikely as it seems, the auto industry were to rebound dramatically and the U.S. economy were to come roaring back tomorrow, no one — not even the proudest civic boosters — imagines that the worst is over. “Detroit will probably be a city of 700,000 people when it’s all said and done,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “The big challenge is, What do you do with a population of 700,000 in a geography that can accommodate three times that much?”
But still there’s the problem of what to do with the city’s enormous amount of abandoned land, conservatively estimated at 40 square miles in a sprawling metropolis whose 139-square-mile footprint is easily bigger than San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined. If you let it revert to nature, you abandon all hope of productive use. If you turn it over to parks and recreation, you add costs to an overburdened city government that can’t afford to teach its children, police its streets, or maintain the infrastructure it already has.
Faced with those facts, a growing number of policymakers and urban planners have begun to endorse farming as a solution. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, now chairman of CityView, a private equity firm that invests in urban development, is familiar with Detroit’s land problem. He says he’s in favor of “other uses that engage human beings in their maintenance, such as urban agriculture.” After studying the city’s options at the request of civic leaders, the American Institute of Architects came to this conclusion in a recent report: “Detroit is particularly well suited to become a pioneer in urban agriculture at a commercial scale.”
In that sense, Detroit might actually be ahead of the curve. When Alex Krieger, chairman of the department of urban planning and design at Harvard, imagines what the settled world might look like half a century from now, he sees “a checkerboard pattern” with “more densely urbanized areas, and areas preserved for various purposes such as farming.
The notion of a walled city, a contained city — that’s an 18th-century idea.” And where will the new ideas for the 21st century emerge? From older, decaying cities, Krieger believes, such as New Orleans, St. Louis, Cleveland, Newark, and especially Detroit — cities that have become, at least in part, “kind of empty containers.”
This is a lot to hang on Hantz. Most of what he knows about agriculture he’s picked up over the past 18 months from the experts he’s consulting at Michigan State and the Kellogg Foundation. Then there’s the fact that many of his fellow citizens are openly rooting against him. Since word leaked of his scheme last spring, he has been criticized by community activists, who call the plan a land grab. Opponents have also raised questions about the run-ins he’s had with regulators at Hantz Financial.
But Detroit is nothing if not desperate for new ideas, and Hantz has had no trouble getting his heard. “It all sounds very exciting,” says the DEGC’s Jackson, whose agency is working on assembling a package of incentives for Hantz, including free city land. “We hope it works.”
Detroit’s civic history is notable for repeated failed attempts to revitalize its core. Over the past three decades leaders have embraced a series of downtown redevelopment plans that promised to save the city.
The massive Renaissance Center office and retail complex, built in the 1970s, mostly served to suck tenants out of other downtown buildings. (Today 48 of those buildings stand empty.) Three new casinos (one already bankrupt) and two new sports arenas (one for the NFL’s dreadful Lions, the other for MLB’s Tigers) have restored, on some nights, a little spark to downtown Detroit but have inspired little in the way of peripheral development. Downtown is still eerily underpopulated, the tax base is still crumbling, and people are still leaving. The jobless rate in the city is 27%.
Nothing yet tried in Detroit even begins to address the fundamental issue of emptiness — empty factories, empty office buildings, empty houses, and above all, empty lots. Rampant arson, culminating in the annual frenzy of Devil’s Night, is partly to blame. But there has also been a lot of officially sanctioned demolition in Detroit. As white residents fled to the suburbs over the decades, houses in the decaying neighborhoods they left behind were often bulldozed.
Abandonment is an infrastructure problem, when you consider the cost of maintaining far-flung roads and sewer systems; it’s a city services problem, when you think about the inefficiencies of collecting trash and fighting crime in sparsely populated neighborhoods; and it’s a real estate problem. Houses in Detroit are selling for an average of $15,000.
That sounds like a buying opportunity, and in fact Detroit looks pretty good right now to a young artist or entrepreneur who can’t afford anyplace else — but not yet to an investor. The smart money sees no point in buying as long as fresh inventory keeps flooding the market. “In the target sites we have,” says Hantz, “we [reevaluate] every two weeks.”
As Hantz began thinking about ways to absorb some of that inventory, what he imagined, he says, was a glacier: one broad, continuous swath of farmland, growing acre by acre, year by year, until it had overrun enough territory to raise the scarcity alarm and impel other investors to act. Rick Foster, an executive at the Kellogg Foundation whom Hantz sought out for advice, nudged him gently in a different direction.
“I think you should make pods,” Foster said, meaning not one farm but many. Hantz was taken right away with the concept of creating several pods — or lakes, as he came to think of them — each as large as 300 acres, and each surrounded by its own valuable frontage. “What if we had seven lakes in the city?” he wondered. “Would people develop around those lakes?”
To increase the odds that they will, Hantz plans on making his farms both visually stunning and technologically cutting edge. Where there are row crops, Hantz says, they’ll be neatly organized, planted in “dead-straight lines — they may even be in a design.” But the plan isn’t to make Detroit look like Iowa. “Don’t think a farm with tractors,” says Hantz. “That’s old.”
In fact, Hantz’s operation will bear little resemblance to a traditional farm. Mike Score, who recently left Michigan State’s agricultural extension program to join Hantz Farms as president, has written a business plan that calls for the deployment of the latest in farm technology, from compost-heated greenhouses to hydroponic (water only, no soil) and aeroponic (air only) growing systems designed to maximize productivity in cramped settings.
He’s really excited about apples. Hantz Farms will use a trellised system that’s compact, highly efficient, and tourist-friendly. It won’t be like apple picking in Massachusetts, and that’s the point. Score wants visitors to Hantz Farms to see that agriculture is not just something that takes place in the countryside. They will be able to “walk down the row pushing a baby stroller,” he promises.
Crop selection will depend on the soil conditions of the plots that Hantz acquires. Experts insist that most of the land is not irretrievably toxic. The majority of the lots now vacant in Detroit were residential, not industrial; the biggest problem is how compacted the soil is. For the most part the farms will focus on high-margin edibles: peaches, berries, plums, nectarines, and exotic greens. Score says that the first crops are likely to be lettuce and heirloom tomatoes.
Hantz says he’s willing to put up the entire $30 million investment himself — all cash, no debt — and immediately begin hiring locally for full-time positions. But he wants two things first from Jackson at the DEGC: free tax-delinquent land, which he’ll combine with his own purchases, he says (he’s aiming for an average cost of $3,000 per acre, in line with rural farmland in southern Michigan), and a zoning adjustment that would create a new, lower tax rate for agriculture. There’s no deal yet, but neither request strikes Jackson as unattainable. “If we have reasonable due diligence,” he says, “I think we’ll give it a shot.”
Detroit mayor Dave Bing is watching closely. The Pistons Hall of Fame guard turned entrepreneur has had what his spokesman describes as “productive discussions” with Hantz. In a statement to Fortune, Bing says he’s “encouraged by the proposals to bring commercial farming back to Detroit. As we look to diversify our economy, commercial farming has some real potential for job growth and rebuilding our tax base.”
Hantz, for his part, says he’s got three or four locations all picked out (“one of them will pop”) and is confident he’ll have seeds in the ground “in some sort of demonstration capacity” this spring. “Some things you’ve got to see in order to believe,” he says, waving his cigar. “This is a thing you’ve got to believe in order to see.”
Many have a hard time making that leap. When news of Hantz’s ambitious plan broke in the Detroit papers last spring, few people even knew who he was. A little digging turned up a less-than-spotless record at Hantz Financial Services. The firm has paid fines totaling more than $1 million in the past five years, including $675,000 in 2005, without admitting or denying guilt, “for fraud and misrepresentations relating to undisclosed revenue-sharing arrangements, as well as other violations,” according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. (Hantz responds, “If we find something that isn’t in compliance, we take immediate steps to correct the problem.”)
Hantz Farms’ first hire, VP Matt Allen, did have an established reputation in Detroit, but it wasn’t a good one. Two years ago, while he was press secretary for former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Allen pleaded guilty to domestic violence and obstructing police after his wife called 911. He was sentenced to a year’s probation. Hantz says he has known Allen for many years and values his deep knowledge of the city. “He has earned a second chance, and I’m willing to give it to him,” he says.
Some of Hantz’s biggest skeptics, ironically, are the same people who’ve been working to transform Detroit into a laboratory for urban farming for years, albeit on a much smaller scale. The nonprofit Detroit Agriculture Network counts nearly 900 urban gardens within the city limits. That’s a twofold increase in two years, and it places Detroit at the forefront of a vibrant national movement to grow more food locally and lessen the nation’s dependence on Big Ag.
None of those gardens is very big (average size: 0.25 acre), and they don’t generate a lot of cash (most don’t even try), but otherwise they’re great: as antidotes to urban blight; sources of healthy, affordable food in a city that, incredibly, has no chain supermarkets; providers of meaningful, if generally unpaid, work to the chronically unemployed; and beacons around which disintegrating communities can begin to regather themselves.
That actually sounds a lot like what Hantz envisions his farms to be in the for-profit arena. But he doesn’t have many fans among the community gardeners, who feel that Hantz is using his money and connections to capitalize on their pioneering work. “I’m concerned about the corporate takeover of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit,” says Malik Yakini, a charter school principal and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates D-Town Farm on Detroit’s west side. “At this point the key players with him seem to be all white men in a city that’s at least 82% black.”
Hantz, meanwhile, has no patience for what he calls “fear-based” criticism. He has a hard time concealing his contempt for the nonprofit sector generally. (“Someone must pay taxes,” he sniffs.) He also flatly rejects the idea that he’s orchestrating some kind of underhanded land grab. In fact, Hantz says that he welcomes others who might want to start their own farms in the city. “Viability and sustainability to me are all that matters,” he says.
And yet Hantz is fully aware of the potentially historic scope of what he is proposing. After all, he’s talking about accumulating hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of acres inside a major American city. And it’s clear that he views Hantz Farms as his legacy. Already he’s told his 21-year-old daughter, Lauren, his only heir, that if she wants to own the land one day, she has to promise him she’ll never sell it. “This is like buying a penthouse in New York in 1940,” Hantz says. “No one should be able to afford to do this ever again.”
That might seem like an overly optimistic view of Detroit’s future. But allow Hantz to dream a little. Twenty years from now, when people come to the city and have a drink at the bar at the top of the Renaissance Center, what will they see? Maybe that’s not the right vantage point. Maybe they’ll actually be on the farm, picking apples, looking up at the RenCen. “That’s the beauty of being down and out,” says Hantz. “You can actually open your mind to ideas that you would never otherwise embrace.” At this point, Detroit doesn’t have much left to lose. To top of page

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