By taking advantage of new lighting technologies and experimenting with unique produce offerings such as ice plant and purslane, ornamental growers can effectively move into the produce space, says Dr. Richard Fu, president of Agrivolution, a Connecticut-based agriculture technology company.
After hearing him speak at Indoor Ag-Con in Las Vegas this past May, Greenhouse Management recently spoke with Fu to learn more about these new opportunities in the produce market. If you would like to know more about growing produce in a controlled environment, subscribe to sister publication Produce Grower magazine at bit.ly/2sxThRU
Greenhouse Management: What does Agrivolution do?
Richard Fu: Agrivolution is a supplier of controlled environment agriculture [CEA] equipment, mostly in LED products at this moment.
We also engage in consultation works for our clients in setting up a vertical farm and greenhouse lighting. We have been doing this for a couple years now, and we hope to establish ourselves further here in North America.
GM: At Indoor Ag-Con, you discussed ice plant as a crop that is becoming more popular in Asia and that can offer opportunities for indoor growers in the United States. Can you explain what ice plant is, and why more growers in the United States should consider growing it?
RF: One of the challenges, I think, in any kind of farming, is a product differentiation. Even though there is certainly a large demand for lettuce and kale and basil and so on, there is only so much you can produce while somebody else is going to do that same thing. Eventually, you’re going to be competing on the price amongst the other growers. Even in a remote area, you’re still going to be competing against others, including much lower-priced imported field-grown produce from California.
Conventional crops are very seasonal also, to some extent. Price fluctuation is very unpredictable sometimes — it depends on the geographical location and climate, obviously. But in the majority of the markets in the U.S., you have to compete with the California and Mexico produce, and locally, you may be competing with other greenhouses or vertical farms. The demand may be there, but the margin may not be the greatest.
We believe by differentiating and offering unique products, you control the supply and pricing. The advantage of a controlled environment is that you can grow crops others cannot in certain locations. Ice plant is a succulent that is considered to be a unique crop and new to the market, so people are very curious but it is hard to grow steadily in a field. It has unique crunchy texture and briny, but lemony flavor. And it has some nutritional benefits compared to lettuce. Those are some of the unique attributes of ice plant and that makes it a good introductory crop, especially for vertical farming growers. In greenhouses, it might be a little bit harder to grow ice plant because of the temperature management, but if you are able to maintain the temperature within a certain range, then ice plant definitely can be a crop to consider as well.
In addition to that, as I mentioned about the nutritional side of it, ice plant contains a rich amount of inositol, which is a substance that helps to reduce insulin resistance, so that can help people with prediabetic conditions and PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome. Also, it’s rich in beta-Carotene and vitamin K. We were able to take this crop, and through a controlled environment agriculture technique, enhance the level of d-pinitol concentration and extract it to turn into a supplement. So there was a secondary value-added product that we were able to produce from ice plant. Those are some of the interesting things we can do through CEA that we were promoting at Indoor Ag-Con.
GM: Purslane is another crop you mentioned. It has Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, and it aids in cancer prevention and allergy control. Are you currently working with that crop?
RF: Yes. Well, I’m not directly working with this crop, but the company in Japan — the company that I partner with — is involved with it, and they have developed a technique to use this crop, which is known to contain rich amounts of Super Omega-3 and alpha-linolenic fatty acids, into a secondary supplement product, which helps to alleviate allergies.
GM: Is that something that greenhouses or controlled environment growers could grow in the United States?
RF: Yes, if there are growers in the U.S. that are interested, then ice plant and purslane certainly can be an introductory edible crops, in CEA, especially.
GM: What advice do you have for greenhouse ornamental growers entering the produce space?
RF: Whether to grow leafy greens such as lettuce and kale or flowering crops such as tomatoes and peppers is dependent on the geographical location, but the produce segment is definitely an option greenhouse growers should be considering because the local food movement is strong today. I think that’s a great opportunity, except as I mentioned before, no matter what industry you may be in, you want to have a certain competitive advantage, and having differentiating products like ice plants will definitely help to maintain your competitive edge over other growers. And you can still grow conventional crops like lettuce and kale and so on, but you want to mix a unique crop or two into your offering. Microgreens are becoming popular crops, so that’s a good option as well. But you need to find products that have high value and high margin to survive in the environment that’s becoming very crowded.
The other thing is, consumers are looking for produce year-round, so you want to be able to supply crops in demand. In order to maintain a competitive edge, your production needs to be year-round with CEA when the demand is year-round. From a CEA perspective, the challenge is to control your environmental parameters in order to grow crops at a steady production rate — especially in greenhouses where the advantage is that you take advantage of free natural light, but the disadvantage is that you’re dependent on the natural light. If you’re in a climate zone where you have shorter daylight in winter, that becomes very disadvantageous because your crop efficiency — production efficiency — can be cut in half in some cases compared to summer. So you definitely want to consider adding supplemental lighting. There are several lighting choices, but LED lighting is definitely one good option.
The other way to keep the edge is to consider adding a seedling incubator, which can promote the growth in the early stages of crop production so you have very healthy seedlings of, for example, tomatoes and peppers. Even in winter months, your crops will have an early start, and then transition into greenhouses as healthy and strong plants. Those are some of the things that you can definitely consider to maintain your competitiveness.