Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons, Aquaculture specialist, feeds the tilapia that are a part of his aquaponics system.
Photo courtesy of UA-CEAC

At the 2016 Spring Meeting, NGMA members took a tour through one of the nation’s most sophisticated indoor agriculture research centers to get a first-hand look into controlled environment ag’s commercial viability.

“Fundamentally, what we’re doing is highlighting our highly active research and demonstration projects,” says Dr. Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) at the University of Arizona.

The tour consisted of a walkthrough of the high-tech, commercially sized tomato greenhouse, a 1,000-square-foot deep water culture hydroponic lettuce system, an off-the-grid greenhouse powered by solar energy, as well as a greenhouse dedicated solely to strawberry production.

Plenty of tomatoes

The tomato greenhouse is a hands-on opportunity for students, Giacomelli says. There are about 700 to 800 plants that grow in coconut coir in the 6,000-square-foot greenhouse. This house has been used for both research and hands-on student practice under evaluation by Dr. Pat Rorabaugh for the past 16 years.

“This is required for them to pass her course. They have weekly duties in there to take care of those plants. We just keep the heat and the cooling on and we make sure the water is there, but they have to do the fertigation and keep the fertilizer up and watch for insects and diseases and do all of the pruning. Then we have bees in there for pollination,” he adds. “It’s pointing in the direction of how they might walk into a greenhouse with the grower of tomatoes once they graduate.”

(Left) Dr. Brunno da Silva Cerozi, aquaponics specialist in controlled environments and former student of Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons, displays the lettuce he grew in his aquaponics system; (Right) Nick Earls, former student of Dr. Pat Rorabaugh at UA-CEAC, tends to his floating raft system where he is growing bok choy.
Photos courtesy of UA-CEAC

Hydroponic lettuce

CEAC’s aquaponics system, run by UA Extension Specialist and Research Scientist Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons, uses a method that produces tilapia fish alongside lettuce and greens in a closed, mutually beneficial recirculating hydroponic (soilless) system. The fish excrement, which is first put through a biological reactor containing microorganisms naturally found in the earth, makes the water a usable fertilizer that will pump through the water that the lettuce is floating in, giving plant roots direct access to the nutrients. The system is referred to as deep water culture, a technique that places seedlings in holes cut out of Styrofoam board sheets that float on the surface of the water, and is dedicated to leafy crops. Giacomelli notes that this system is being used in many places throughout the globe, but is still relatively new in the U.S.

He describes the system’s appearance like a series of swimming pools that are about 1 foot deep. And the water in which the lettuce’s roots are submerged provides a sort of temperature protector. “It works very well in the hot climate that we have [in Arizona], or in the very cold climate because of the water,” Giacomelli says. Students who study aquaponics have traveled from Mexico, Brazil, Egypt and Vietnam to do so.

Dr. Patricia [Pat] Rorabaugh, greenhouse hydroponic specialist, leads a hydroponic tomato workshop in the CEAC Teaching Greenhouse.
Photo courtesy of UA-CEAC

Fitzsimmons notes that this type of system has become particularly popular in secondary schools. “It’s gotten so that ag teachers all of a sudden have become science teachers instead of vocational teachers. And the students — instead of being out there in the back with the welding and auto mechanics — [are] all of a sudden are science nerds headed for college,” he says.

The growing interest in aquaculture may correlate with its sustainability, along with the rising demand of seafood, and the recognition that marine fisheries have been overfished, Fitzsimmons adds. “If we are going to feed people more seafood, it’s going to have to be through aquaculture, through fish farming,” he says. “This system of doing it with aquaponics is a very sustainable way. By linking it with plant production, you would take what otherwise would be a pollution problem — this water that’s got lots of fish affluent in it — and [use] it as a fertilizer source.”

Solar-powered production

Next on the agenda (though no plants were yet housed there due to construction) was the 1,000-square-foot solar-powered greenhouse that gathers its energy from solar collectors in a field adjacent to the greenhouse.

“The Rough greenhouse — they call it their high tunnel, but it really is a climate-controlled greenhouse — can go [essentially] anywhere in the world that has fresh water and sunshine [available], and it could operate and produce fresh vegetables,” Giacomelli says. They’ve grown tomatoes, lettuce and a variety of other greens. Giacomelli adds that nutrients can be found from nearby animals. “You really can be out in nowhere, if you will, and produce food as long as you have water, the animals and the sunshine.”

Myles Lewis, hydroponic lettuce and business expert, heads up a workshop on hydroponic lettuce production in a floating raft system.
Photo courtesy of UA-CEAC

Greenhouse-grown strawberries

The last stop was the strawberry greenhouse, headed by UA’s Dr. Chieri Kubota. Kubota, using hydroponic systems, is working on a method to produce strawberries indoors to extend their season in Arizona. According to the UA-CEAC website, because the U.S. has regions that are the “best climate” to grow strawberries, soil-grown fruits often produce higher quality than those grown in a soilless system. But Kubota is working with her team to produce better tasting fruit in the offseason (Thanksgiving to January) instead of waiting until early- to mid-spring.

“It’s a new industry that can meet a market niche during that low light time of year,” Giacomelli says.

Momentum for Gen Y

Mark Kroggel, CEAC Research Specialist, leads a workshop on hydroponic strawberry production.
Photo courtesy of UA-CEAC

The technology for controlled environment agriculture has been present in the U.S. for the past 40 to 50 years, but the need for greenhouse technology didn’t exist until markets in the U.S. began demanding fresh vegetables in the offseason and were willing to pay a higher premium for them, Giacomelli says. The push started with bigger growers building large-scale greenhouses for primarily tomato and lettuce crops, but five years ago the local food movement exploded. That’s when young people began to join in.

“You didn’t have to be a big grower with a lot of investment in acres and acres of greenhouses that just grew tomatoes or lettuce. You could be a smaller grower, [catering to] nearby markets, daily harvest, daily sales and daily consumption. So it was fresh, high quality,” Giacomelli says.

Now that there is interest, and the technology is here, there is also a need for more growers. “That’s why we’re trying to educate more students to go into this to be our producers in controlled environments using hydroponics year-round and hit these higher-price markets — but also be your local farmer.”