Controlled Environmental Agriculture: In Your Closet?

Ah- Aurora Borealis!? At this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localized entirely within your kitchen!?”

-Yes

The terms “hydroponics” has historically encompassed the efforts of small indoor cultivation. Home gardeners adopted technology and tactics for their clandestine gardening efforts. Now that many Nations and States are “coming out of the closet” and into commercial cultivation facilities, the broader and more accurate term of Controlled Environmental Agriculture has come to prominence.

With Vertical farms and acres of cannabis being deployed seemingly everyday, what lessons can we take back into our storage sheds as home cultivators?

Engineering

Convenience, costs and quarantines have facilitated unprecedented access to information and materials for the hobbyist. Add to that the rate of innovation and speed to market, port delays aside, that new products are conceived and birthed en masse. Lighting technology has past the point of no return transitioning to LED with high quality, efficient and long-lasting fixtures available at your door with the click of a button.

With each innovation in form-factor come the Knock-offs, copy-cats and wannabes. The rule is still true: You get what you pay for. But now you have the opportunity to get quite a lot for a little when it comes to your home garden, thanks to the innovation driven by the logarithmic explosion of indoor gardening in the last two decades.

Systems engineering is at the core of CEA, monitoring and managing each critical input for your crops. Light, temperature, humidity, air movement, CO2, Root-zone temperature, water, nutrients and Oxygen can all be dialed in with the advances in understanding and available technology.

Plant Science

The amount of Higher Learning currently being focused towards food security, climate change mitigation and metabolite expression is compounding annually. From the US explosion in hemp following the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill allowing cultivation and research for Food, Fiber, Fuel and Medicine to the evolution from pipe dream to profitability of vertical farming and robotic agriculture, there are more exciting opportunities to study Horticulture, Agriculture and Economics pertaining to plants that at any time ever before in history.

“What’d you go to weed college?”. Yes, yes I did says the first graduating classes of regional programs that are sponsored by Land Grant Universities from Israel to the US and Canada.  Peer-reviewed journal work is being churned out at advanced levels of academia on all aspects of Cannabis Cultivation. Much of this has been done under the legislative safety net of “Hemp” in the US and now there are public and private firms offering degrees from vocational to pharmaceutical at multiple universities and public private partnerships. 

Many of my colleagues graduated Horticulture to sell sod, chemicals or maintain landscapes. Which are all very exciting if you just love watching the grass grow. And I do. However, the new interest in cultivation technology by the digital native generation has proven to be more than a rogue hobby or a lock-down fascination. This “return to nature”, albeit under synthetic light sources, powered by fossil fuels in many cases, makes this old hort-nerd perk up to the prospect of talking gardening at parties rather than diagnosing everyone’s house plants with a cocktail in hand.

Computer Managed Control Technologies

PLC driven controls and Building Management Systems (BMS) are achievable at home by Arduino tweakers to control irrigation and light timing. Many of the analog temperature and humidity controls peddled at the Hydro shop can be monitored with inexpensive temperature and humidity meters that give and exportable data table and even do the VPD calculations for you!

Here is my “veg” VPD readings from a recent small tent setup to grow some kales and lettuces to stave off the winter blues until the soil temperature rises outside.

Off the shelf hardware has come a long way since my days on the hydro store floor a decade ago. Dim-to-off low voltage light cycle management, VPD setpoint control, irrigation scheduling with flood alarms (to alert your smart phone in the event of a broken line) are available for mix and match configuration straight from the digital divide or available same day at your well equipped shop. Leaf surface temperature, substrate moisture and EC can all be controlled remotely. Gone are the days of coming home from a vacation to find that your float valve failed and wading through debris to shut off the main.

Even I can respect the Boomer nature of this perspective. Hopefully there is genuine excitement out there for the potentials of what’s to come in the next decade. Bio-feedback, CRISPR, sonic resonance therapy and all kinds of other electromagnetic canopy manipulation!

 

Growing Systems

Home gardeners can now choose to adopt the OG commercial growing medium of rockwool, managing dry-backs, instilling “positive stress” in the form of EC, pH and drought intentionally with more precision that ever thought of in a cucumber greenhouse. This progress is very linear with some noticeable upticks in the last 3 years.

Some of the most exciting advancements in indoor gardening are coming in other forms of substrate management, bringing the best part of outdoor gardening indoors. Soil! Dirt is a four letter word in our world and tilling has never occurred in a basement. “No-till” and organic bed management indoors has gained some serious ground. 

A concept that was popularized by Permaculturists around the world to build soil rather than till and juice the top 6 inches of acreage (Acre Furrow Slice), living beds indoors brings a bio centric approach to gardening indoors. Earthworms, compost teas and other cohabitating micro flora and fauna create a root zone environment that can provide some heady cropping results. All while reducing run-off and the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Controlled Released Fertilizers are another industrial horticultural constant that are now being refined for higher value crops indoors. The little green prills in your box store house plant can now be utilized to deliver your favorite high yield specialty crops. I have seen mixed results and the punishment for over application can be in the form of a failed crop to toxicity. I remain cautiously optimistic about this approach to the highly variable needs of specialty crops based on genetics, but a low to mid dose of consistent, balanced nutrition to feed on top of has potential.

More hybrid CEA systems will continue to evolve in both storage rooms and commercial settings. Co-generation of CO2 from colonizing mycelium or brewing beer can be used to offset the carbon footprint of sealed rooms. Power management from renewable sources, power storage at commercial demand scale and “off-peak” management to reduce the grow room demand while everyone else makes their tea are being developed, and in many cases, incentivized.

 

Plant Quality

Total parameter control gives us the ability to create optimal growth conditions and reduce the chances of “that killer run” to getting a great crop over and over again while steadily manipulating inputs and monitoring the results. Government imposed metrics are a pain for the operators, but a boon to the nerds doing research.

Understanding pests and pathogens continues to reach new heights. Home gardeners can now order an army of preventative and active management controls in the form of biological controls or naturally derived pesticides. The mind share going into genetic maintenance and cleaning via tissue culture is exponentially better than the previous decades. Mapping of the genome can now be accessed from Joe Grows desktop computer. Breeding programs can address emergent issues like xyz mite and Hop Latent Viroid (HLVd).

Post-harvest quality testing of primary and secondary metabolites are more accessible that ever for home gardeners. Thanks again to the establishment of High Pressure Liquid Chromatography labs (and most importantly the standards that calibrate HPLC machines) since the hemp boom. In the Good Ole USA, hobbyists can test their crops down to the nanogram and post stats to compare with their peers, all on standardized testing equipment. It is worth mentioning that there have also emerged “pay to play” labs that will make sure your specs shine and these will go into the books with an asterisk as those labs get weeded out.

 

Production Efficiency

This focus on each and all facets of Controlled Environmental Agriculture leads to the greater end result for closet cultivators and mega-hectare growers alike. Hydroponics is now just one of the many techniques available to home hobbyists as a result of the rapid colonization and fruition of technology going on around us. 

Supply chains, speed to market and access to this technology will only continue to improve once the pandemic induced hurdles shake out. Passion for plants and the connection with nature that draws us all in further down the rabbit hole is growing like a weed. 

 

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Post by Valoya LED Grow Lights
June 10, 2023

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