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The Commercial Growers’ Magazine



Current wisdom in aquaponics Innovative vertical growing system


The hydroponics industry Down Under A new way of thinking about greenhouses
Published by:
Casper Publications Pty Ltd
From The Editor
(A.B.N. 67 064 029 303)
PO Box 225, Narrabeen, NSW 2101
Tel: (02) 9905-9933
Colonising Space
Managing Editor
Steven Carruthers

ur feature story, Space Farming, highlights that mankind is creeping closer to
colonising the Moon, Mars and beyond. Showing the way is an experiment on
Contributing Authors
the International Space Station, which uses a very simple chamber similar to a
Rick Donnan
mini greenhouse to grow edible plants for space station inhabitants. Since 2002,
Christine Brown-Paul
Kimberley A. Williams
the chamber has been used to perform almost continuous plant growth experiments, and
Raymond A. Cloyd has produced some surprising results that will benefit Earth-based greenhouses and
controlled-environment agricultural systems. The ultimate goal for researchers is to
develop sustainable food production systems for deep space exploration and space
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colonisation, perhaps in our lifetime.
Mark Lewis
To get to NASA's intended destination—Mars—and back again will take two years and
Tel: +613 9432-5428
astronauts will need to carry foods that have a three-to-five-year shelf life. They also
plan to grow their own foods, which is the focus of our story on space farming. A team
of graduate students from the University of Colorado Boulder in the US have designed
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robots to work in a deep-space habitat, tending gardens and growing food for astronaut
Ph: (02) 9905-9933
explorers. Recently, the students demonstrated their X-Hab project at Kennedy's Space
(Int.) Tel: +612 9905-9933
Station Processing Facility: a concept for producing edible plants during long-term
missions to destinations such as Mars. The goal is to have robots do much of the work,
leaving astronauts free to concentrate on more important tasks. Their system uses a
Facebook Remotely Operated Gardening Rover (ROGR), which travels around the habitat tending
‘Like us’
to a fleet of SmartPots (SPOTS), which would be distributed throughout the habitat's living space. The SPOTS facilitate plants growing in a small, custom-designed
hydroponic growth chamber with computerised systems to monitor the vegetation's
Twitter progress. Each has its own sensor run by an embedded computer.
‘Follow us’ The student researchers envision dozens of SPOTS in a space habitat, using!/phgonline telemetry to provide data on plant condition to a computer display. The robots and
plants are networked together, and the SPOTS have the ability to monitor soil humidity
Editorial Information and issue watering requests. The SPOTS also measure air and water temperature,
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses welcomes lighting provided by LEDs, as well as levels of humidity, nutrient levels and pH. As each
freelance contributions and letters with a SPOTS monitors and supports its plants, it can determine when ROGR needs to
hydroponic, greenhouse or IPM focus. perform plant maintenance tasks.
Photographic material should be good quality ROGR is a robot on wheels, has a forklift to move SPOTS, a mechanical arm for
colour prints or transparencies, clearly named and manipulating the plants, and a fluid delivery system that can provide fresh water or
captioned. Copy is also accepted by email or disk in water with nutrients. If an astronaut requests tomatoes for a salad, the system
Word format. Hi-resolution digital images are decides which specific plants have the ripest tomatoes and assigns parallel harvesting
accepted – .tif, .jpg, .eps or .pdf format. No tasks to ROGR.
responsibility is accepted for loss or damage to Thanks in part to life sciences research such as this, astronauts may enjoy a more
unsolicited material. efficient life-support system—and some freshly grown food.
© Copyright Casper Publications Pty Ltd 2015. All
material in Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses is International study tours are a unique opportunity to combine overseas travel and
copyright. No part of this publication may be reproduced cultural experience, with studies focusing on various aspects of a region or an area of
without the written permission of the Publisher. study. They lead to knowledge transfer and new and better ways of doing things. Many
Australian growers, educators and students have benefited from international study tours, and it’s a treat to host two professors from Kansas State University who give an
American perspective in this issue of the Australian and New Zealand protected
ISSN 2202-1485 cropping industries.
Steven Carruthers

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 3

A Magazine for
Commercial Growers

Advertising Inquiries
Tel: +61 (03) 9432-5428

TRADE DIRECTORY An American Perspective.........................20
This visiting American perspective
Agnova . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 highlights industry similarities as well as
their differences.
Autogrow Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
Space Farming ........................................26

Coast Guard Netting . . . . . . . . . . . . .4

A team of graduate students designing
robots to work in a deep-space habitat, An American Perspective
Exfoliators . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .19 tending gardens and growing food for
astronaut explorers.
Extrusion Technologies Int. . . . . . . .31
Protected Cropping in the Tropics ..........36
Faber Greenhouses . . . . . . . . . . . .OBC Queensland researchers demonstrate a
new way of thinking about protected
Faber Greenhouses . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9 cropping in the tropics.

GFIA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14
GOTAFE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .24-25 Growing up ...............................................15
Space Farming
Modular hydroponic production tower,
Grodan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41 designed to increase production in
hydroponic and aquaponic systems, and
Legro . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6
facilitate sustainable food production.

Munters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10 Small-Scale Aquaponic

Food Production ......................................42
Pestech . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 Technical paper review that showcases
current wisdom in aquaponics, focusing on
Powerplants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . IFC
small-scale production.
Protected Cropping in the Tropics
From the Editor..........................................3
The information contained in this magazine whether
Reader Inquiries ........................................7
in editorial matter or in feature articles or in
News & Products .....................................11
advertisements is not published on the basis that the
Publisher accepts or assumes liability or responsibility
to any reader of the magazine for any loss or damage
Cover Image: Student Dane Larsen checks

resulting from the correctness of such information. out the forklift on a Remotely Operated
Gardening Rover, which could tend plants on a deep-space habitat. (Photo courtesy
Growing up
NASA/Bob Granath)

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 5

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Reader Inquiries

Thanks for your letters

I have a few suggestions to help us better identify your problems, and hence give the most appropriate answers:
• Some of your letters are very long. This is not a problem, but they will have to be edited down before publishing. • Please keep your actual questions
short, and limit yourself to one, or at most two, questions. • Please comment as to whether you are a hobbyist or a commercial grower, and what
crop you are growing. • Please describe at least the basics of your system, especially whether you recirculate or not. This is vital information, but
often overlooked. Other useful information, if known, would be: media type, container size and depth, channel size, length and slope, solution volume
per plant. • For irrigation and nutrient questions, please describe your typical irrigation pattern over a day, plus how and when your solutions are
made up. If you have had any analysis done, such as your raw water, please attach a copy. • Include any extra information you wish.
Rick Donnan
Address your inquiry to: PH&G PO Box 225, Narrabeen, NSW 2101 AUSTRALIA Int: +612 9905 9030 Email:

Question Answer can be quite substantial, or take a lot

of acid to lower the root zone pH, as in
What can I do to reduce acid addition? Which pH? your case.
Firstly, I am pleased that you are Not often mentioned in books is that
I have a hobby hydroponic system using controlling your system through the downside to adding acid to your
cocopeat in bags, fed by drippers. I have measuring the run-off solution (for pH feed is that it alters the nutrient
found that the pH of the solution running and presumably EC). Often growers balance. The more acid you add, the
are conscientious in checking the pH worse the imbalance becomes.
from the bags is much higher than what
of their feed solution, but ignore the
I am feeding. I have to add ‘pH down’ to
How important is pH?
bring my feed down to 5.0 pH in order to The importance of pH is well covered
Most important is the pH of the
in virtually all hydroponic books. Quite
keep the run-off pH under 6.3. solution around the plant roots, which
often the need for tight control is
This is using a lot of pH down. I guess is where the plant is actively taking up
overstated. For hobby growers a pH
that the pH down I use is an acid, but I water and nutrients. This is known as
between 5.5 and 6.5 in the run-off is
the root zone solution, and the best
don’t know what kind. Is the amount of good and between 5.0 and 7.0 is
indication of this is the run-off
acid I am using doing any damage to my usually acceptable, provided the iron
solution. The pH of the run-off will
plants, and is there anything I can do to in your fertiliser is in a chelated form.
often be different to the feed solution
reduce the amount of expensive pH pH, especially in dripper-fed media Reason for pH drift
down I use? systems. Sometimes the difference pH drift is not inherent in hydroponic

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 7

Do you have a hydroponic
Reader Inquiries | Hydroponics

or nutrient problem?
Events Free Digital Subscription

Free Articles Article Index Reader Inquiries About Shop

How do pesticides work?

We want to know about it. Popular Posts

Reader Inquiries is intended to not only help the inquirer, but

Question Issue 117: Comparing Growing
From an anonymous grower. How do pesticides work ? Media

also help usingother growers who mayhot dayhave the same problem.
I recently had a can containing some two-stroke petrol, which had gone off. Having seen where spilt petrol/oil has killed
Issue 63: Hydroponics as an

We welcome your letters and emails.

grass, I decided to use it as a weed killer a rough hand sprayer. Later on that same I sprayed another agricultural production system
weed patch with ‘Roundup’ herbicide at the recommended strength, using the same hand sprayer. It is now a week later
and I can see the results. Issue 103: Sustainable Aquaponics
(Letters and emails are published anonymously)
Those weeds sprayed with the herbicide are wilting, and the entire plant has turned yellow. Different types of weeds Issue 70: Green Feed – Livestock
Fodder Shed
are coloured to different degrees, but all are obviously dying.
Why Not Organic Hydroponics?
The weeds sprayed with the petrol are different. There are strong yellow spots on the leaves, obviously where the
actual petrol droplets have hit. The remainder of the leaf is still green. Issue 06: Planning Commercial
Hydroponics Part 1
Can you explain this difference?
See More Issue 119: Importance of ventilation
in commercial greenhouses

Issue 114: Rabbits, Rabbits,

How do I manage acid addition and pH rise?

Everywhere Rabbits

Issue 07: Planning Commercial

Hydroponics Part 2
From a NSW hydroponic tomato grower.
Article Index
How do I manage acid addition and pH rise ?
Issue 40: Lisianthus: A Specialty Cut
I grow tomatoes in greenhouses south of Sydney. I use phosphoric acid to lower my pH. I have been adding increasing Flower
amounts of acid to bring my feed pH down about 6.0, but it is still rising to about 7.0 in the run -off. I have been adding
some liquid ammonium nitrate to reduce the pH rise, but it has only reduced the pH rise by about 0.2 pH. I have had IPM in Hydroponic Strawberries
some symptoms of what has been suggested is iron deficiency. That is, the young leaves are pale and the veins show
Index by Topic
up darker on the pale leaf.
Issue 98: Greenhouse Production In
An analysis was done of my feed and the laboratory advised that it was generally OK, except that the phosphorus (P) Japan
level was high. I would like to add more acid, but that will make the P level even worse.
Issue 35: The Fodder Factory
Can you suggest what I should do ?
See More Free Digital Edition Subscription

Issue 11: Gibberellins – Plant

Growth Hormones

Should I use hydroponics to grow stock plants? Issue 02: Sand Culture

Issue 91: Chilling The Root Zone

From a New South Wales Nurseryman.
Issue 118: ‘Truss Me’ Tomato
Should I use hydroponics to grow stock plants ? Campaign
I have a nursery in which I specialise in propagating large numbers of a narrow range of native trees from cuttings. I
Index by Issue
know there are a few nurserymen who grow their stock plants in hydroponics. Would you suggest that this is a good
idea? If yes, could you give me some guidance on the fundamentals. Issue 85: Challenges Faced by the
See More Hydroponics Industry Worldwide
Issue 101: Aquaponics Revisited

About Us

Issue 14: Nurient Management in

Hydroponics Systems – Part 2

Postal Address: PO Box 225 Narrabeen NSW Australia 2101 Ph: +61 (0)2 9905-9933 Email:[19/03/2013 3:27:55 PM]

8 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

systems; rather, it comes from the all been taken up by the plant). the fertiliser you are using and
effect of nutrient uptake by the plant Because it is a positively charged ion, compare it with the others available
compared to what is in the feed. positive ions are exuded by the plant to you. If you find one containing a
The main influence here is the form to try to keep it electrically neutral. higher proportion of ammonium, give
of nitrogen nutrients in the solution. This positive exudate is hydrogen ion
that a try.
In hydroponic solutions, nitrogen (H+), the ‘acid’ ion, which lowers the
The second is to add a small amount
usually comes as two different ions. pH. Put another way, ammonium in
of ammonium sulphate to your
These are negatively charged nitrate the hydroponic feed results in the
ions (NO3-) and positively charged fertiliser. In either case, allow a
plant exuding natural acid into the
ammonium ions (NH4+), with a much root zone solution to lower the pH. couple of days for it to take effect. This
higher proportion of nitrate is because of the time it takes for a
compared to ammonium. Ammonium management dripper feed to work its way through
The factors influencing pH in the In commercial hydroponic operations,
to run-off.
root zone solution are the charge on most growers add a small proportion
How much ammonium sulphate
these two ions and their relative rates of ammonium to their feed formula, to
would you add? Make a stock solution
of uptake by the plant. The relatively avoid upward pH drift. While the
preferred option would be ammonium containing 3 grams ammonium
high nitrate content is taken up by the
nitrate, this is difficult to obtain, and sulphate in a litre of water. Add the
plant at a relatively moderate rate.
Because it is a negatively charged ammonium sulphate can be same volume of this solution as the
ion, in order that the plant does not substituted. This is not added like volume of Part B concentrate you use.
develop an electric charge, negative acid, but rather it becomes part of the This should give a modest reduction in
ions are exuded by the plant to keep fertiliser formulation. Enough is added pH rise. Check the response in the
it electrically neutral. The negative to control upward pH drift. Especially run-off (which will take at least a day
exudates, such as hydroxide (OH-) for a fruiting crop, the nutrient
or two). If not enough response, add
and bicarbonate (HCO3-) ions will balance uptake varies through the life
the same amount again to your stock
raise the pH, which is what is cycle of the crop and the amount of
solution. Continue until you reach the
happening in your case. ammonium added may be changed
stable pH you want, and mark how
On the other hand, ammonium ions typically about four times through the
are taken up much more rapidly than life of the crop. many grams per litre on the (dark)
nitrate ions (to the extent that As a hobby grower you have two stock solution bottle. If the pH starts
chemical analysis of the run-off ways to possibly use this technique. drifting too low, make up a slightly
usually shows no ammonium—it has The first is to check the analysis of weaker stock solution. b

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 9

News & Products

2015 World Greenhouse 110 full-sized pages of detailed take over a 4.7ha glasshouse in Tatura,
Vegetable Statistics descriptions, instructions, 20 Victoria, along with the licence to the
The 2015 editions of World Greenhouse illustrations, 57 colour photos, and 70 Kumato tomato variety. The Sydney-
Vegetable Statistics, International List of tables, charts and lists for a complete, based company will also have access to
Growers and production handbooks for practical handbook on greenhouse Moraitis’ strategically aligned network of
both temperate and tropical greenhouse vegetable production (metric and tomato growers.
vegetable crops are now available from US/english units). The ‘Temperate Perfection Fresh have been growing
Cuesta Roble (Spanish for Oak Hill) Regions’ version includes information on fruit and vegetables for the Australian
Greenhouse Vegetable Consulting. winter heating. The ‘Tropical Regions’ market for over 30 years. The business
The statistics publication covers version excludes heating, but has has grown from a small plot in Western
127 countries, containing all available additional information for hot, humid Sydney and is now spread Australia-wide
data on greenhouse vegetable conditions. with farms, strategically aligned contract
production. The 133-page publication The cost for the production handbooks growers, joint ventures and share
includes greenhouse area, crops grown, is USD$35 each (emailed PDF). farmers committed to growing and
types of greenhouses, sales data, etc. These publications have been supplying Perfection Fresh customers
According to the latest edition, the produced by Gary W. Hickman, a with innovative, quality produce.
total world greenhouse area is horticultural advisor with the University This latest acquisition by Perfection
144,127 hectares (1,023,330 acres). of California for 25 years, and now a Fresh follows the merger with South-
The cost for the revised edition of consultant on greenhouse projects Australian based D’VineRipe, Australia’s
World Greenhouse Vegetable Statistics is funded by the US Agency for largest glasshouse facility in June 2014.
USD$250 (emailed PDF). The Moratis aquisition aligns the
International Development, Inter-
The International List of Growers company’s business strategy to build
American Investment Bank, Canadian
includes information and contact data Australia's predominant tomato
Centre for International Studies, USDA -
for 1798 of the world’s largest producers production facilities through investments
FAS, as well as many private commercial
across 95 countries. In this new revised in growing, licensed varieties and fresh
operations and NGO's.
edition, these largest producers value-added processing.
represent over 15,300 hectares (37,840 For full descriptions, sample pages and “The tomato category has been a
acres) of world-wide greenhouse ordering information, go to: major focus for our growth and one of
vegetable production area. Website the fastest growing segments globally,”
The cost for the revised edition of the Email: explained Perfection Fresh CEO
International List of Growers is also Michael Simonetta.
USD$250 (emailed PDF). A 20% discount Perfection Fresh expands tomato “We believe that innovation will
is offered for purchases of both World business provide new growth opportunities to
Greenhouse Vegetable Statistics and the Australian fresh produce giant create largely untapped demand and
International List of Growers. Perfection Fresh has acquired the ultimately, grow the category.”
The International crop production Moraitis’ tomato-growing business, thus Simonetta said the Tatura glasshouse
handbooks have also been recently expanding its tomato category. The would complement Perfection Fresh’s
revised and updated. They have over acquisition will see Perfection Fresh established D’VineRipe glasshouse at

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 11

Two Wells, South Australia, along with opportunities across the country.”
the company’s protected cropping facility Perfection Fresh currently employs
in Noosa, Queensland. about 600 staff at 13 sites across Australia.
He was also pleased to add the
For further information contact: Cassia
Kumato line to Perfection Fresh’s
Ferguson, Perfection Fresh Australia
“carefully selected” varietal range,
which includes Il Bello Rosso Baby MB: 0061 409 917 333
Roma, the Zima golden snacking tomato Email:
and D’VineRipe Medley. Website:
“Kumato is a uniquely coloured tomato Sweet-pepper harvesting robot
that changes from a bright green skin to The European research project Clever milestone has been reached.
its ideal dark brown colour when ripe,” Robots for Crops (CROPS) has developed Experiments in a commercial
Simonetta said. a sweet-pepper robot. The project has greenhouse have yielded a wealth of
“Kumato tomatoes are extremely been co-ordinated by Wageningen UR data and information.
sweet and have a strong and Greenhouse Horticulture and was co- Recently, a new European research
distinctive taste.” funded by the Dutch Horticultural project was awarded to Wageningen UR
Simonetta told that Product Board. for a period of three years. This new
Perfection Fresh would continue to look The four-year research project with project will specifically focus on the
at new ways to develop Australia’s 13 partners from 10 different countries further development of the pepper
tomato sector. has led to a universal robotic platform harvest robot.
“As the largest family-owned fresh- for producing and harvesting high value
produce business, we will work with crops. There were demonstration Valoya’s LED lights for
our strategically aligned partners and robots developed for selective underground growing
other leading Australian growers who harvesting of sweet-peppers, apples A London-based producer of leafy
have expertise in tomato growing,” and grapes, and for precision spraying greens has selected Valoya’s LED lights
he added. of pesticides. Sensor systems for for the initial phase of its multilayer,
“We plan to continue to expand our obstacle avoidance for forest machines underground production facility.
growing facilities, producing high quality have also been developed. Growing Underground will start
fresh produce while creating job All robots use the same type of production of leafy greens, such as lettuce,
modular system and the same software cress, herbs and a variety of micro-greens
architecture. This makes it easy for 33 metres under South London. The
example to use a different camera or production space is located in a disused
different type of robotic hand. air-raid shelter in Clapham North.
The sweet-pepper harvesting robot The plants are grown hydroponically in
developed in Wageningen is able to a system of shelves stacked on top of
locate, to approach, to hold, to detach each other utilising LED light in the
and to collect ripe fruits. The picking absence of natural light. Growing
success rate of and the needed cycle Underground required the light to be
time in practice is so far insufficient for energy efficient and to drive the natural
commercial use, but with the first ever features and taste of their produce.
working sweet-pepper harvesting robot After extensive testing Growing
in a realistic environment, an important Underground selected Valoya’s LEDs as

12 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

they proved to provide best overall
performance across a variety of plants.
“The light by Valoya, proved very
efficient in driving growth of our micro
and leafy greens, as well as in leafy
biomass, taste and visual appearance,”
says Richard Ballard, co-founder and
CEO of Growing Underground.
“We have gained significant
experience of different lights over the
past two years and have selected Valoya
for their versatility in our initial phase.”
Lars Aikala, CEO of Valoya comments:
“This is a milestone in the history of both
vertical and urban growing. Richard include: corner guidance (mechanical, multilayer applications. The new
Ballard and Steven Dring, the founders electrical), remote controls, frequency solution is especially advantageous in
of Growing Underground are realising a drives for speed variation, graphical user vertical city farms as well as for the
vision many have had but so far have interfaces, pot-forks, pot placing robots, propagation of young plants. It offers
been unable to put into action. We are grading units, and harvesting belts. more control, improved and uniform
very happy and honored to be chosen for Conveyors are a great way to improve crop quality and energy savings of up to
this exciting business.” staff efficiencies because they will no 75%. The energy-efficient LEDs also give
Valoya LED-lights have been longer have to manually transport the off less heat and create a more uniform
developed using Valoya's proprietary growing containers or crops through the light distribution, making the module
LED technology and extensive plant greenhouse. Moreover, the conveyors ideal for conditioned environments.
photobiology research. have the ability to instantly switch Although this new GreenPower
between growing beds. production module uses only 23 W—its
For further information contact:
A significant advantage of conveyor predecessor used 32 W—it still produces
Lars Aikala, CEO Valoya Oy
systems is labour cost savings, therefore the same 50 micromol output, and
Ph: +358 (0)40 546 6639 the costs per product decreases. therefore increases yield and quality.
Website: Moreover, the conveyors are designed to And it reduces energy costs by up to 75%
WPS conveyors have low maintenance, due to minimal compared to fluorescent lamps, making
Conveyors in a greenhouse offer a wide amount of moving parts, which also it the most energy-efficient LED solution
range of new opportunities and cost helps the bottom line! in this category.
reductions in the day-to-day operations Time is money, as every greenhouse Several spectral versions of the
of a business. On top of that, they help grower will know. One of the biggest GreenPower LED production module
move around the greenhouse as they can advantages of using the conveyors is have been developed, with different
he used as elevated walkways. that you can respond to orders much colours for different growing
Powerplants Australia Pty Ltd offers faster! The efficient way of working requirements. With these versions, the
WPS conveyors that move crops, makes you able to process orders much best ‘light recipe’ makes it possible to
growing containers etc., automatically faster, making you a better supplier to steer specific plant characteristics such
through the greenhouse, greatly your customers. as compactness, colour intensity and
reducing manual transport. The WPS The conveyors and be self-assembled branch development, resulting in
conveyors can be implemented with and come with a clear installation optimised crop yield and quality.
other smart conveyor belt systems. They manual to ensure smooth assembly. Of The GreenPower LED production
are designed to be efficient and smooth, course, the self-assembled components module can be used in a new installation,
at an affordable price. are a solid base for future expansions as a replacement for fluorescent lamps
and upgrades. or as an energy-efficient supplement to
The design of the conveyors is based
natural daylight. It can even be used in
on high-quality modular components For further information, contact
greenhouses and in conditioned
that are standardised to ensure smooth Powerplants for a representative near you:
environments, which are not suited to
implementation, efficient operation, long Ph: +61 (0)3 8795-7750 conventional lighting, thanks to its
lifetime and of course very competitive Email: significantly lower heat radiation.
pricing! The conveyor can be used both Website:
as a fixed main conveyor along the For more information, contact: Philips
pathway/gable, and as a fixed conveyor 25% more efficient Philips Horticulture LED Solutions, Marjan
in every bay. LED module Welvaarts, Global Marcom Manager
There are several add-ons available Royal Philips, the global leader in
Ph.: +31 (0)6 1504 3893
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efficiency of the conveyors. Add-ons GreenPower LED production module for
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Growing up

ZipGrow towers hanging inside a high tunnel greenhouse.

In line with the belief that change and innovation originates on a small-scale, one
leading US aquaponics expert is committed to helping small hobbyist growers as
well as large commercial businesses through sharing industry insights and
developing specialist vertical growing products.

By Christine Brown-Paul

leading expert in the aquaponics industry, Dr Nate “It’s important to remember that change usually doesn’t
Storey, CEO of US-based company, Bright Agrotech, take place (i.e. almost never) on a large scale. Change and
is a firm believer in keeping a positive outlook in the innovation come from the bottom.
face of uncertain times for the global food industry. “From the guy tinkering in his garage. From the chef
Bright Agrotech is involved in researching, designing, growing greens in her kitchen. From the unconventional
testing, redesigning and retesting a range of high quality, farmer growing incredibly fresh herbs on his apartment
American-made vertical growing products. building’s roof. These relatively non-traditional farmers and
“Unlike a lot of gloom and doomers, we’re very optimistic innovators may be small today, but they’ll be the ones feeding
about the direction our food system is headed. Multinational us tomorrow,” says Dr Storey who is always looking ahead.
news conglomerates like to focus on huge monoculture “As CEO of Bright Agrotech, for the most part, I spend most
farming operations and the drought and despair they are of my time trying to figure out what the market will need in
experiencing as of late,” Dr Storey says. five years, and then figuring out how we're going to meet it
“Instead, we focus on the small, upstart farmers. The ones there. That means that in the past I've done a lot of product
creating a real impact, no matter how small it may seem. development, market research and hands-on aquaponic and
These are the folks figuring out the new food model and hydroponic system management.
learning better ways to feed those around them. “These days, I'm a bit less hands on, as we've hired folks to
“While the media likes to pander to the fearful and freaked take much of the day-to- day system management work off of
out, we try to share stories of innovation, hope, and small- my plate, but I'm still involved with product development, and
scale successes,” he says. I feel fortunate that I still get to spend some time in the

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 15

ZipGrow tower window system arrangement. ZipGrow tower vertical wall system arrangement.

Dr Nate Storey, CEO of US-based company, Bright Agrotech. This Dwarf Basil crop has hidden the ZipGrow towers.

ZipGrow vegetable green wall example.

16 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

greenhouse or on site with other farms working on aspects of were using this technique to eliminate some of the labour
farm management and business development,” he says. costs of their production, and to get a higher price at market
for ‘you-pick’ produce,” he says.
Bright ideas
“We ended up selling more and more to commercial
Bright Agrotech’s latest offering for growers in the name of
producers and eventually started installing turnkey systems
innovation is the ZipGrow system.
with towers, structure, lighting, controls, etc. It just kind of
A modular hydroponic production tower, the ZipGrow
blew up.
system is designed not only to increase production in
“In the last year, we've also started looking at other
hydroponic and aquaponic systems, but also facilitate
sustainable food production. interesting applications, like living walls where growers place
“The ZipGrow towers are highly productive, modular, and towers on living walls for aesthetics or build edible living walls
functional in a variety of plant production scenarios, from that allow towers to be exchanged. We've had great feedback
commercial greens production to landscape design. Many of on these; they're really popular,” Dr Storey says.
our customers use them for aquaponic plant production—a “We also built a single-tower patio model called the Spring.
utility that takes advantage of the massive mechanical and We have lots of folks using them for growing towers of flowers,
biological filtration capacity of our towers,” Dr Storey says. tomatoes and other patio-type crops. Our folks selling in
“We developed ZipGrow towers with a very narrow focus— grocery stores use them as displays too.
home and hobby aquaponic growers who wanted to use their “There are other applications that we've played with—there's
growing space more effectively, basically, growing up instead always way more to try than we could possibly do in the next
of out, using our towers. The towers were great for this few years,” he says.
market because I'd designed them to function in the aquaponic So what are some of the benefits the ZipGrow system
systems that I used during my doctoral research. offers growers?
“As the towers began to catch on in the aquaponic “Well, they do allow you to grow more in limited space,
community, we began to discover that there were many they're modular, simple, and really the best way in the world to
hydroponic growers that were also interested. As we began to grow certain types of crops like basil or strawberries,” Dr
play with hydroponic production we realised that they work just Storey says.
as well in hydroponic applications as they do in aquaponic “We tend to have a few different groups of users who like
ones,” he says. them for different reasons. Our home and hobby growers like
As time passed, Dr Storey says he began receiving them because they feel that they're easy to maintain, eliminate
considerably more commercial interest, on both the bending over beds, and look nice in home systems. They also
hydroponic and aquaponic fronts, mostly related to the work well with high-solids hobby aquaponic systems.
company’s ‘live sales’ models or high-density systems. “Our commercial greenhouse and warehouse growers like
The towers containing the plants are placed in special store them because they're really productive per square foot,
displays designed by the company, allowing customers to pick especially if they're oriented correctly. They also allow them to
the produce live. That model eliminates the expense of cut costs with live sales technique,” he says.
harvesting and packaging produce, which accounts for about “Our greenwall users have enjoyed them mostly because of
50% of the cost of those items at the grocery store. many of the reasons that the home and hobby users have
“Live Sales is when we take grown-out towers full of expressed, but also because they're one of the most cost-
produce and send them directly to market. Small producers effective ways to build living walls.

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Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 17

“ZipGrow towers are actually going to be used to build the living
wall on the US Pavilion at the World Expo [in Milan] this year—
we're really excited about that!” he says.
Dr Storey says the ZipGrow system can offer excellent yields.
“Depending on the crop, we typically achieve production
around three times the productivity of horizontal techniques
[per square foot or square metre]. Some of our herbs like
oregano average around 10 times the production of horizontal
techniques,” he says.
Despite their relative simplicity of design, the ZipGrow towers
have been some time in development says Dr Storey.
“Since the towers have been developed, each support
product comes with its own set of challenges. It seems like
they're only getting more and more difficult as time goes on.
“Getting towers overseas has been one of our major issues—
the cost of transportation is ridiculous!” he says.
ZipGrow towers hanging from overhead rails. The Australian distributor of the ZipGrow system is Nick
Wood from Grow Packed who says the system has received a
good response here.
“The market here in Australia has such as massive potential.
Here we have an ideal climate for growing most crops and the
high yield, low water consumption that aquaponics offers
allows the installation of systems in places that were not
previously thought cost effective or possible,” Nick says.
“Like most other aquaponics advocates, we knew that there
were barriers to mass adoption, such as reliable substrates,
efficient planting and harvesting systems, bulky and
immovable equipment, as well as plumbing complications, etc.
In all our research, we were constantly led back to ZipGrow
towers, and the knowledge that Dr Nate provided with them, as
a solution to these issues. Not to mention the added
advantages and higher yields of the vertical model.
“We have already seen that other aquaponics enthusiast
here are recognising the same with ever-increasing sales in
starter systems. Commercial growers are also very excited
Spring System 7. with several smaller producers already in operation and plans
for larger scale systems in process now,” he says.
“We are excited about this product and for what it will offer
the local food production industry here in Australia.”
“Getting Nick set up at has been great, and
he's been a huge help with making towers available in the
Australian market for sure,” Dr Storey adds.
Empowering farmers
Upstart Farmers is a collective of innovative food producers
that uses Bright Agrotech’s ZipGrow tower system to grow
fresh, quality produce for a variety of local markets across the
US. Using sustainable, efficient techniques and a passion for
what they do, the group has a mission to improve agriculture
through being highly impact conscious.
“As soon as your food is harvested, it begins losing precious
flavours and nutrients. By growing locally, Upstart Farmers
are able to reduce transportation costs associated with fossil
fuel consumption. Food grown with ZipGrow towers and
harvested live by the consumer reduces the amount of
packaging, handling, and waste associated with food
distribution,” Dr Storey says.
“Consumers buying live produce from Upstart Farmers can
harvest exactly what they need—no more, no less—largely
reducing food waste. And when over 50% of North America’s
Overhead irrigation system in a commercial system. food waste is occurring at the harvest and consumption levels,
that’s a big deal.

18 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

“I will say that ZipGrow towers have been a great thing to
work on and develop and we're always really encouraged by all
of the ways that our users and our UpStart Farmers are using
them,” he adds.
Final thoughts
According to Dr Storey, Bright Agrotech strives to support the
end users of its products as much as possible.
“We believe in supporting the user as much as we can, and
so to that end we have put up over 100 YouTube videos just on
designing, setting up and operating aquaponic systems and
systems using ZipGrow Towers. I'd encourage everyone to take
advantage of them. We've tried to make them as useful as
possible over the years,” he says.
“If any of your readers are farmers, I would encourage them
to check out It's a free forum for
farmers, using towers that allows farmers to interact, voice
problems and share solutions.
“I think it can be helpful as farming is a pretty lonely ZipGrow tower planting method.
business most of the time. It's nice to be able to talk with other
folks that are dealing with many of the same issues that you incredibly innovative and unique,” Ms Langley says.
are,” Dr Storey says. “At this point, it's really about sales and marketing. He has
High praise for Bright Agrotech’s endeavours comes from all of the foundational pieces, and now he just needs to push
Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC) —a department them out to the market.
under the Office of Research and Economic Development and “We believe that this product has the potential to change the
located on the campus of University of Wyoming. economics of indoor food production.”
Christine Langley, CEO of WTBC, believes that the sky is the
limit for Bright Agrotech. About the author
"Dr Storey has major competitive advantages over any Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist and a regular
competition: the innovative intellectual property on his design. contributor to PH&G, with a special interest in the environment and
His approach to using vertical space and vertical growing is sustainable technology. Email: b

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 19

An American Perspective
Learning about the Hydroponics Industry Down Under

Kimberly A. Williams & Raymond A. Cloyd
Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA

Raymond Cloyd (centre), scouts for insect pests with Melanie Davidson, researcher in bio-protection with Plant and Food Research New Zealand
with Chris Sinnott (standing) at Harbour Head Growers in Waikuku, New Zealand.

20 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

US, and that the population of the entire country of New
During sabbatical leave from Kansas Zealand is about the same as that of the Sydney metropolitan
area, production operations have evolved a less segmented
State University, the authors travelled market structure than that which exists in the US. This seemed
to result in both advantages and disadvantages for growers in
Down Under to further their horticulture terms of responding to market demand.

knowledge and experiences that may Climate

We work in a region of the US with a temperate climate. It was
have practical applications for US interesting to see what is done with outdoor hydroponics
production along the Gold and Central Coasts where in some
protected cropping growers. Their cases only shade cloth was used to protect hydroponic
cropping systems. With production open to environmental
primary specialisations are teaching and conditions such as temperature, light, and rainfall, we had an
extension in greenhouse management, opportunity to learn how disease and insect complexes are
impacted by exposure to these environmental conditions.
plant protection and crop production in Production systems
protected environments. This American Every operation that we visited had different modifications
associated with their hydroponics system, and it was
perspective highlights industry interesting to learn how these variations evolved. We observed
nutrient film technique, sand culture, production in coir and
similarities as well as their differences. rockwool, and unique solutions to optimise propagation. Just
as in the US, growers are innovative problem-solvers and are

able to optimise production in a myriad of ways.
s faculty at Kansas State University In the United
States, our work focuses on research, Plant protection
extension/outreach, and teaching in the areas of The options available to manage insect and mite pests are
greenhouse management, plant protection, and crop much more limited than in the US, which allows for the
production systems in protected environments. Our family potential to use more biological control agents, including
spent 10 weeks of our recent sabbatical leave—from mid- parasitoids, predators, and beneficial fungi. However, this
August through October of 2014—interacting with colleagues means that it is extremely critical to establish a reliable
and touring the greenhouse industries in both Australia and scouting program so that any insect and/or mite pest
New Zealand. One area that we wanted to learn more about infestations can be detected early.
was hydroponics, as Australia and New Zealand are known We observed a number of insect pests that were new to us,
internationally as innovators in this field. such as the Rutherglen bug (Nysiuis vinitor). We noticed this
We started our visit by participating in the 2014 International insect feeding and causing extensive damage on outdoor
Horticultural Congress held in Brisbane, Australia. During our hydroponic lettuce production. Although the semi-tropical
weeks in Queensland and along the Gold Coast region, we climate does allow for outdoor production, there may be
interacted with colleagues from the University of Queensland in difficulties associated with insect pests including the Rutherglen
St Lucia and toured hydroponic operations including Corras bug that migrate into the outdoor production area from
Farms in Lowood, FreshZest in Canaiba, and Pocket Herbs in surrounding areas. This can substantially impact plant protection
Middle Pocket. In Sydney, we learned from our colleagues at programs resulting in an increased use of insecticides.
New South Wales’ Central Coast Primary Industries Centre and We also heard about how the introduction of new insect pests
with their assistance, we visited a HydroProduce operation and such as the potato/tomato psyllid (Bactericera cockerelli) can
toured several Australian markets. Next, we visited New dramatically change the dynamics of plant protection because
Zealand where we spent time in the South Island in Canterbury this insect is a vector of the bacterium Liberibacter
interacting with colleagues at Plant and Food Research New solanacearum. This results in such a low tolerance for this
Zealand, including visits to Harbor Head Growers in Waikuku insect pest that growers have to make regular applications of
and, later, to Tasman Bay Herbs in Motueka. On the north insecticides. In fact, a grower we visited that had been strictly
island, we visited colleagues at Massey University in using biological controls had to discontinue this strategy and
Palmerston North, Southern Paprika Ltd in Warkworth, and a begin relying on chemical pesticides because of the
biological control production facility of BioForce in Karaka. introduction of this insect pest into the operation.
We also observed some insect pests that are common in
Population base and market structures hydroponic production systems in the US, too, such as aphids
We never thought about how responding to the needs of a on chives and whiteflies on tomato and eggplant. It was
smaller population base would impact the development of the interesting to note that only biological control agents that are
industry. We learned that because the population of the entire native of either Australia or New Zealand can be imported,
continent of Australia is similar to the state of California in the reared, and released. This somewhat limits the types of

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 21

Rutherglen bug (Nysius vinitor) is a native species that can migrate into crops in very large numbers in favourable seasons.

Eco-friendly outdoor hydroponic grower Michael O'Dea visits with John Watkins at his operation Corras Farms in Lowood, Queensland.

22 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

biological control agents that can be used in hydroponic
production systems.
Furthermore, due to the limited number of insecticides and
miticides commercially available, we noticed that growers
were relying substantially on the systemic insecticide
imidacloprid (Confidor). The limited availability of insecticides
makes it difficult to develop rotation programs based on mode
of action, which can possibly lead to resistance development in
insect pest populations.

Cost of production
The cost of both production supplies and labour costs was a
routine source of shock for us during our travel. This shock was
enhanced by the weakness of the American dollar, such that
one US dollar was equivalent to about $0.93 during our travel.
In a conversation with one grower about reverse osmosis for produced crops in hydroponics systems through the use of only
water treatment, we indicated that the method was not used organic fertilisers and only biocontrols.
much in the US because of the cost of the system; the grower In closing, we note that the problem with generalising broad
responded that the system was so much cheaper in the US views is that they never encompass everyone. We were bowled
than Australia—especially with the weak US dollar—that he over by the helpful and friendly nature of all the members of
was buying the system abroad and having it shipped over! our great industry who took time to share their experiences
Another routine source of frustration for growers Down and expertise with us. We are now weaving what we learned
Under was cost of labour and regulations associated with into our work in our region in the US to bring Down Under
personnel. While US growers talk of similar challenges, we left advances and philosophies to production operations in the
Australia feeling that the situation was somewhat more States. And we are very grateful to all the fine people who
challenging Down Under with very high wage and employee afforded us this opportunity. b
benefits costs.

Efficient production practices About the authors

We were routinely impressed with growers’ focus on extreme Kimberly A. Williams is a
efficiency of water and energy use. Optimising pump speed to Professor of Greenhouse
deliver the minimum amount of water to NFT troughs and Management and
minimising water loss from coir slabs were examples of Distinguished Teaching
using water as efficiently as possible. While growers in the Scholar at Kansas State
US are also energy-conscious, we felt that the focus on University. She is a multi-
optimising irrigation system design and pump efficiency was award and honours
not something that we heard discussed in the US so much. recipient, including the
This philosophy also resulted in very efficient energy use. USDA Food and Agriculture
Growers Down Under were very conscious of increasing Sciences Excellence in
energy costs and focused on optimising the use of inputs so Teaching Award, North Central Region. Kimberly is the
that waste was reduced. author and co-author of many books, published papers and
articles. Kimberly’s presentation at the recent
Sustainable production International Horticultural Congress (IHC-2014) was titled:
While adoption of sustainable production practices is also a hot Challenges of using organic fertilisers in hydroponic and
topic in the US, we felt that Australia and New Zealand were recirculating production systems. Email:
leading the way. Within the context of an individual operation’s
profit margin and business philosophy, an over-all theme Raymond A. Cloyd is a
throughout our touring was that following sustainable Professor and Extension
production practices is greatly valued. Though not a Specialist in Horticultural
hydroponics operation, one industry operation that we visited Entomology/Plant Protection
was focused on achieving carbon neutrality, providing all water at Kansas State University.
used at the facility from rain capture, and zero waste leaving Author of many published
the facility—a step ahead of efforts in the US. It was inspiring! papers and articles, he
specialises in pest
Organic production management/plant
In the US, organic production is defined by the inputs that are protection, biological control,
used to grow the crops, not on the production system being plant-insect interactions, and non-chemical means of
used. For this reason, some US growers (usually small and dealing with insect and mite pests. Email:
local) are succeeding in a market niche of providing organically

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 23

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Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 25

Space Farming
Growing food in space is not a new concept, but the recent development of
robotic gardening by NASA and students from the University of Colorado
Boulder in the US is making it easier to achieve.


On board the International Space Station (ISS), crew members have

been growing plants and vegetables such as lettuce, peas and
radishes in their ‘space garden’ for some years.

26 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 27
Growing food in space helps solve one of the biggest
issues in space travel: the price of eating.

round the world, governments and private companies of pressurised modules, external trusses, solar arrays and
are undertaking research involving how to grow food other components.
on space stations or spaceships—and even on the The ISS hosts a microgravity and space environment
planet Mars. Researchers from the University of Gelph research laboratory where crew members conduct
in Ontario, Canada, are investigating the possibility of growing experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy,
long-term crops such as soybeans and barley, while at Purdue meteorology and other fields. The station is suited for the
University in Indiana, USA, scientists are looking at the potential testing of spacecraft systems and equipment required for
for adapting vertical garden design for a space environment. missions to the Moon and Mars.
Importantly, in 2013 the National Aeronautics and Space For some years, crew members aboard the ISS have been
Administration (NASA) produced its own food in orbit for the growing plants and vegetables such as lettuce, peas and
first time ever. NASA plans include growing fruits and radishes in their ‘space garden’.
vegetables on space farms—greenhouses that are A space station study is helping investigators develop
temperature-controlled, artificially lit and employ a hydroponic procedures and methods that allow astronauts to grow and
system. Crops might include soybeans, peanuts, spinach, safely eat space-grown vegetables. The experiment is also
cabbage, lettuce and rice. investigating another benefit of growing plants in space: the non-
According to NASA, in space, wheat, berries and soybeans nutritional value of providing comfort and relaxation to the crew.
can be grown and processed into pasta or bread. Astronauts "Growing food to supplement and minimise the food that
would then prepare these foods into home-cooked meals in a must be carried to space will be increasingly important on
galley kitchen. A sample dinner menu might include spinach long-duration missions," said Shane Topham, an engineer with
and tomato crouton salad, wheat pasta with tomato sauce and Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University in Logan.
a chocolate peanut butter soymilk shake. "We also are learning about the psychological benefits of
growing plants in space—something that will become more
The International Space Station important as crews travel farther from Earth."
A habitable artificial satellite completing 15.53 orbits per day The experiment, known as Lada Validating Vegetable
around Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) is a Production Unit—Plants, Protocols, Procedures and
modular structure whose first component was launched in Requirements—uses a very simple chamber similar to a
1998. Currently, it is the largest artificial body in orbit and can greenhouse. Water and light levels are controlled automatically.
often be seen with the naked eye from Earth. The ISS consists

28 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

Student Dane Larsen checks out the forklift on a Remotely
Operated Gardening Rover, or ROGR, which could tend plants on a
deep-space habitat. (Photo courtesy NASA/Bob Granath)

The experiment has four major objectives: to find out if the levels. Investigators believed the overwatering would disrupt
produce grown in space can be consumed safely; what types of nutrients and oxygen in the traditional module, making the
micro-organisms might grow on the plants and what can be newer improved module look better in the comparison.
done to reduce the threat of micro-organisms in the hardware However, as it turned out, the overwatered traditional module
prior to launch; what can be done to clean or sanitise the sprouted and developed leaves around twice as quickly.
produce after it has been harvested; and how to optimise "This suggests the conservative water level we have been
production compared to the resources required to grow it. using for all our previous experiments may be below optimal
Since 2002, the Lada greenhouse has been used to perform for plant growth in microgravity," said Topham.
almost continuous plant growth experiments on the station. The second surprising result was discovered when the root
Fifteen modules containing root media, or root modules, have modules were unpacked on the ground. The new fertiliser being
been launched to the station and 20 separate plant growth tested had a slower and more even release rate, which had
experiments have been performed. helped lower the plants' accumulation of salts during ground
A variety of Japanese lettuce called Mizuna—the most recent studies. Investigators expected to see higher salt accumulation
crop—returned to Earth in April 2010 aboard space shuttle in the space modules, however, the opposite occurred.
Discovery. It was the first time two chamber experiments were "The current theory is that the extra water and larger plant
conducted simultaneously for a side-by-side comparison of uptake of fertiliser caused the root modules to remove
plants grown using different fertilisers and treatments. nutrients faster and release fertiliser faster, thus preventing
"The idea was to validate in space the results of ground the salt accumulations that were observed in the slower-
tests, to show that minimising water usage and salt growing ground studies," said Topham.
accumulations would produce healthier plants in space," said "The space station's ability to provide on-the-spot
Shane Topham. adjustments to experiment conditions or opportunities to
"For years we've used the same method for packing root quickly repeat microgravity experiments with new conditions
modules, so this was a comparison study between old and are a big plus for researchers," said Julie Robinson, ISS
potential improvements and so far we have found a couple of program scientist at Johnson Space Center.
surprising results." "This work also shows the surprising results that
First, a sensor failure in the traditional root module on the investigators find when they take a well-understood
station caused the plants to receive higher than specified water experiment on Earth and reproduce it on the space station."

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 29

Astronauts will test the culinary and health potential of the space lettuce,
and NASA also expects the experiment to have psychological benefits,
offering a rewarding pastime for astronauts.

A variety of Japanese lettuce called Mizuna—the most recent crop grown on

the ISS—returned to Earth in April 2010 aboard space shuttle Discovery

30 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

Earth-based greenhouses and controlled-environment have psychological benefits, offering a rewarding pastime
agricultural systems will also benefit from information from this for astronauts.
research and help farmers produce better, healthier crops in NASA has a long history of testing plant growth in space, but
small spaces, using the optimum amount of water and nutrients. the goals have been largely academic. Experiments have
The experiment takes advantage of a 20-year-old included working out the effects of zero gravity on plant
cooperative agreement between the Space Dynamics growth, testing quick-grow sprouts on shuttle missions and
Laboratory and the Institute for Biomedical Problems in assessing the viability of different kinds of artificial light.
Moscow, Russia. Each organisation benefits from resources However, VEGGIE is NASA’s first attempt to grow produce that
provided by their respective national space programs—the could actually sustain space travellers.
Space Dynamics Laboratory with NASA, and the Institute for
Biomedical Problems with the Russian Federal Space Agency. Mars and beyond
Root modules with seeds are launched to the space station In order to help develop key knowledge needed to prepare for
on Russian Progress supply vehicles. Russian crew members human Mars exploration, the Mars Society has initiated the
water the plant seeds and perform maintenance. They also Mars Analog Research Station (MARS) project. The Mars
harvest the vegetables and place them in a station freezer Society is a space advocacy non-profit organisation dedicated
before transferring them to a space shuttle freezer for return to promoting the human exploration and settlement of the
to Earth for analysis by US investigators at the Space planet Mars.
Dynamics Laboratory. A global program of Mars exploration operations research,
"I don’t see future space crews leaving the Earth for long the MARS project will include four Mars base-like habitats
durations without having the ability to grow their own food," located in deserts in the Canadian Arctic, the American
said Topham. southwest, the Australian outback, and Iceland. In these Mars-
"The knowledge that we are gaining is enabling us to extend like environments, a program of extensive long-duration geology
our exploration and future colonisation of space." and biology field exploration operations will be conducted under
the same conditions as they would on the Red Planet.
The VEGGIE experiment
Currently, the Mars Society is testing a greenhouse in a
Growing food in space helps solve one of the biggest issues
remote corner of Utah. A Society spokesperson says that this
in space travel: the price of eating. According to Howard
research is invaluable preparation for growing in space.
Levine, project scientist for NASA’s International Space
Station and Spacecraft Processing Directorate, it costs
roughly $10,000 a pound to send food to the ISS. There’s a
premium on densely caloric foods with long shelf lives. Gioia
Massa, a post-doctoral fellow at NASA, says that supply
shuttles carry such limited fresh produce that astronauts
consume it almost immediately.
As well as the tools, equipment and food supplies being sent
to the ISS, a new batch of experiments will join the over 100
already being conducted at any time on board the station.
Of note is the Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE)
experiment—NASA’s prototype of an expendable plant
chamber designed to grow lettuce seedlings in space.
Levine and Massa are part of the team developing the
VEGGIE program where plants are grown on Kevlar ‘pillows’ in
a device, which expands to 12 x 15 inches, the largest plant
growth chamber yet sent to space.
The first vegetable to be tested will be the Outredgeous
lettuce variety, as it is fast growing and loaded with antioxidants,
which are a potential antidote for cosmic radiation.
The burgundy-hued lettuce will be grown under bright-pink
LED lights, ready to harvest after just 28 days. One of the
reddest romaines on the market, Outredgeous is a stout-
growing variety that can be harvested either as a baby lettuce
or allowed to mature as a 10-inch romaine. The thick, glossy,
slightly ruffled leaves are bright red on top, fading to a pale
rouge at the base.
Later veggies will be radishes, snap peas, and a special
strain of tomato that is designed to take up minimal space.
Astronauts will test the culinary and health potential of
the space lettuce, and NASA also expects the experiment to

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 31

University of Colorado Boulder graduate students Heather Hava, far left, and Daniel Zukowski, second from the left, with a
computerised SmartPot, which could be used to grow plants in a deep-space habitat. (Photo courtesy NASA/Daniel Casper)

Inside closed plant growth chambers at the Kennedy Space Center,

radishes, lettuce and green onions are grown hydroponically.

32 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

“Because today's astronauts usually stay in space for several
weeks or months, at most, they're able to carry all the food
they'll need on board. But in the future, space missions could
be significantly extended,” he says.
“To get to NASA's intended destination—Mars—and back
again will take two years. Astronauts will need to carry foods
that have a three- to five-year shelf life. They'll also need to
start growing their own foods.”

Innovation and collaboration

A team of graduate students from the University of Colorado
Boulder in the US is continuing NASA’s tradition of innovation
by designing robots to work in a deep-space habitat, tending
gardens and growing food for astronaut explorers.
“As astronauts explore beyond Earth, they will need to make
their habitat as self-sustaining as possible. This includes growing
fruits and vegetables,” said Tracy Gill, NASA's technology
strategy manager at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"We're hoping to take advantage of what these and other
students are developing and use it in future space missions.
"This program is an opportunity to engage university teams
in helping us develop new concepts,” he said.
NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation selected
seven projects from six universities for the 2013-2014 X-Hab
Academic Innovation Challenge.
Throughout the academic year, the graduate and
undergraduate student teams worked to meet a series of
milestones to develop systems and concepts that could be used
in future deep-space habitats. In doing so, they worked in close
cooperation with members of the NASA Advanced Exploration
Systems (AES) Program's Deep-Space Habitat Project team.
The challenge encourages multidisciplinary approaches,
outreach efforts and partnerships with experts and industry.
Participants are required to explore NASA's work on
development of deep-space habitats and help the agency gather
new ideas to complement its current research and development.
The University of Colorado Boulder is also among five
universities selected by NASA for the 2015 X-Hab Academic
Innovation Challenge. The team's project will focus on
designing a Deployable Greenhouse for Food Production for
deep-space missions.

Plants anywhere
The University of Colorado team's entry in the eXploration
HABitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge is called
‘Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces’.
Instead of an area set aside just for vegetation, the approach
calls for plants to be distributed in any available space in a
deep-space habitat.
The X-Hab challenge is a university-level project designed to
engage and retain students in science, technology, engineering
and maths (STEM). The competition is intended to link student
design projects with senior and graduate-level curricula that
emphasise hands-on design, research, development, and
manufacture of functional prototype subsystems that could be
used in extra-terrestrial habitats and during deep-space
exploration missions.
Recently, the University of Colorado students demonstrated

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 33

their X-Hab project at Kennedy's Space Station Processing
Facility to a group of employees that included centre director,
Bob Cabana. The students are developing a Distributed
Remotely Operated Plant Production System, or DROPPS—a
concept for producing edible plants during long-term missions
to destinations such as Mars.
Heather Hava, who is working on a doctorate in aerospace
engineering sciences, explains that the goal is to have robots do
much of the monotonous tasks, saving time for the astronauts.
"The 'Plants Anywhere' approach is designed to help
minimise astronaut workload," said Hava, whose degree will
focus in bioastronautics.
"This keeps them free to concentrate on more important tasks."

Robotic gardening
A year ago, the University of Colorado student team
demonstrated a gardening system with plants robotically
tended on a Lazy Susan-like device.
"We took what we learned the past two years and applied it
to this new system," Hava said. "We decided to get away from
the 'hub concept’. The DROPPS system gives us much more
The Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE) experiment is flexibility and takes advantage of unutilised space in
NASA’s prototype of an expendable plant chamber designed to the habitat."
grow lettuce seedlings in space. In their new system, a Remotely Operated Gardening Rover
(ROGR) travels around the habitat tending to a fleet of
SmartPots (SPOTS), which would be distributed throughout the
deep-space habitat's living space.
The SPOTS facilitate plants growing in a small, custom-
designed hydroponic growth chamber with computerised
systems to monitor the vegetation's progress. Each has its own
sensor run by an embedded computer.
"We envision dozens of SPOTS on a space habitat," said
Dane Larsen who is working on a master's degree on
computer science.
"Telemetry in each SPOT provides data on plant condition to
a computer display."
The robots and plants are networked together, and the
SPOTS have the ability to monitor their fruits or vegetables'
soil humidity and issue watering requests.
"The SPOTS also can measure air and water temperature,
Exploration imagery. lighting provided by LEDs, as well as levels of humidity,
nutrient levels and pH," Hava said.
As each SPOT monitors and supports its plants, it can
The potential for living in space determine when ROGR needs to perform plant maintenance
With a number of studies ongoing for possible lunar
tasks. ROGR is a robot on wheels, has a forklift to move SPOTS, a
expeditions, many concepts for living and working on Earth's mechanical arm for manipulating the plants, and a fluid delivery
natural satellite have been examined. This art concept reflects system that can provide fresh water or water with nutrients.
the evaluation and study at JSC by the Man Systems Division Larsen said that the system could be operated remotely or
and Johnson Engineering personnel. A 16-metre diameter with a controller similar to those used with video games.
inflatable habitat such as the one depicted here could The ROGR robots can visit a specific plant to deliver water or
accommodate the needs of a dozen astronauts living and to locate and grasp a fruit or vegetable. If an astronaut
working on the surface of the Moon. Depicted are astronauts requests tomatoes for a salad, the system decides which
exercising, a base operations centre, a pressurised lunar rover, specific plants have the ripest tomatoes and assigns parallel
a small clean room, a fully equipped life sciences lab, a lunar harvesting tasks to ROGR.
lander, selenological work, hydroponic gardens, a wardroom, While living in a space habitat is basically residing in a
private crew quarters, dust-removing devices for lunar surface mechanised environment, Hava says humans, by their makeup,
still need to be around nature.
work and an airlock.
"We want to optimise a system, allowing the humans to get

34 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

The first vegetable to be tested under the VEGGIE program will be the Outredgeous lettuce variety, as it is fast growing and loaded with
antioxidants, which are a potential antidote for cosmic radiation.

psychological benefits from interacting with the plants," she said. and explore,” she said.
"We also want the plants to be in the astronauts' “I see myself as potentially being the first Mars
environment so they can see them, smell them and be around space gardener.”
them. Who doesn't love to pick a fresh strawberry?" In its Vision for Space Exploration program, NASA is already
For Daniel Zukowski, who is also working on a master's in looking ahead to a future on the Moon, Mars and beyond.
computer science, the X-Hab Challenge is an opportunity to Thanks in part to the life sciences research underway today,
use terrestrial-based know-how and take it to a new level. tomorrow’s astronauts may enjoy a more efficient life-support
"Before joining this project, I had been working on system—and some freshly grown food.
developing robotic farming systems," he said.
"Now I have an opportunity to bridge Earth farming systems About the author
to space." Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist and a regular
Heather Hava said that the team has benefited from support contributor to PH&G, with a special interest in the environment and
from former NASA astronaut Joe Tanner, who is now a senior sustainable technology. Email: b
instructor of aerospace engineering sciences at the University
of Colorado, and Nikolaus Correll, assistant professor of
computer science at the university.
NASA’s Tracy Gill says involving students in ongoing NASA
projects is crucial for the future.
"This is an opportunity to prepare the next generation of
engineers, scientists and explorers for our space program,"
he said.
"They tell us how their design for the system keeps evolving.
That's provided them with some real-world exposure to the
systems engineering process."
He added that Gioia Massa, Ph.D., of the International Space
Station Ground Processing and Research Project Office,
Morgan Simpson of NASA Ground Processing Directorate, and
Ray Wheeler, Ph.D., of the Surface Systems office in NASA's
Engineering and Technology Directorate also provided
guidance for the University of Colorado team. They all helped
advise the students as they developed their project and helped
organise their demonstration.
"These students from the University of Colorado are an
impressive group," Massa said.
"This is an ambitious project, and they've put in a lot of effort
to make it work."
Other universities participating for the coming year are the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, University of South
Alabama, University of Vermont and Oklahoma State University.
Hava says she would like to have an opportunity to apply her
research on a deep-space mission.
"While the research is exciting, I would love to go to Mars

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 35

Protected Cropping
in the Tropics

Melon plants were grown in the Dry Tropics under a protective structure (a high
walk-in tunnel) and they were pruned following a particular method to keep the
main stem and some of the lateral shoots. by Steven Carruthers

36 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

allowing for off-season production and supplying niche
markets in the Australian melon market,” he said.
Historically, growers in tropical Australia have “There are low-cost and effective systems available for
warm environments that can moderate extremes of our
been slow to embrace protected cropping variable climatic conditions and lead to high yields,” he added.
Early trials using low-cost systems have led to marketable
techniques, mainly because temperatures and yields up to 2.6 times greater than common yields of
light levels are suitable for open field fruit and rockmelons grown in the open field.
“We have consistently seen results of two to four high quality
vegetable production. Many growers associate fruits per plant using protective cropping, giving yields up to
8 kg/m2,” said Dr Jovicich.
protected cropping to costly high-tech “Melons have shorter cropping periods than tomatoes or
glasshouses with full environmental control, capsicums, and growers could fit melon crops in between the
harvest of these other crop species, or in crop rotation
but that is not necessarily the case. In this schemes that are compatible with market strategies,” he said.
article, Queensland researchers demonstrate a Proof of concept
new way of thinking about protected cropping As a ‘proof of concept’, small trials are being conducted at
Giru, a small town 54 kilometres south-east of Townsville. The
in the tropics. structure being used is an existing high poly-tunnel, previously
used to grow cucumbers in soilless media. It is a low cost
design consisting of two bays—60 metres long, 6 metres wide

reenhouses are used in many tropical regions of the and 3 metres high—with insect exclusion netting as side walls.
world for the production of vegetable crops. The The roof is covered with a semi-transparent UV stabilised
primary reasons for protected cropping in the tropics polyfabric film, which creates some shading and diffuses light
are for protection from heavy rain and wind, over the plants. The cultivation method is an open system with
protection from extreme solar radiation, and pest exclusion. the drainage collected and re-used on an adjacent mango
These are somewhat different reasons than for greenhouses in orchard or outside-grown vegetable crops. The only
temperate zones, where controlling temperature extremes— automation used in the trial is an inexpensive timer to control
particularly low temperatures—is the primary factor in irrigation cycles. The complete nutrient solutions are prepared
greenhouse designs. and stored in large tanks and the irrigation solution is
Because greenhouses in the tropics are used for different delivered to pots containing pumice rock.
reasons than temperate ones, their design and construction is “The setup in Giru has been working well for the grower, but
also different. An effective design has to be tall (sometimes up to there are several improvements that can be made. When
6 metres high), with a polyethylene roof and preferably have growing melons, we temporarily had to open sections of the
insect exclusion netting for side walls. Passive ventilation can be sidewalls that were screened to allow the entrance of bees.
achieved with roof vents or in designs that have retractable roofs. With these first crops, we wanted to identify, which are major
In North Queensland, researchers are now exploring the environmental constraints that would appear from growing
benefits of using low-cost protected cropping systems for melons and other specialty crops in the existing system” said
high-value crops such as specialty melons and capsicums. Dr Jovicich.
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) Higher structures will also allow for trellising crops higher
horticulturist and project leader, Dr Elio Jovicich, believes low- while avoiding extreme high temperatures in the crop
cost protected cropping could be the key to opening up canopies. In the tropics, tall passively-ventilated structures
diversity in Australia’s melon market. usually have a sawtooth roof design, which is created by roof
“Rockmelons and honeydews are the two melon fruit types vents (a series of vertical surfaces separated by a series of
most commonly consumed in Australia, however, there is straight or curved sloping surfaces), which assist removing
room for more diversity in our market,” Dr Jovicich said. heat. In designs for warm environments, these roof vents
“While it is now possible to find piel de sapo (the Spanish remain permanently open but can be screened with insect
name meaning ‘toad skin’) and small canary melons in exclusion nets. The slope of the roof reflects a high proportion
supermarkets, other specialty melons such as galia and of solar radiation away from the greenhouse, and natural
charentais types are generally absent in Australian markets,” ventilation increases when open vents face away from the
he said. wind—air flow over the roof causes negative pressure that
Dr Jovicich says several growers in North Queensland have sucks out warm greenhouse air. This also causes outside air to
started exploring the potential of growing a greater variety of be drawn into the greenhouse through the open windward side
melon types because yields of some specialty melons have wall, which mixes and cools the inside air before discharging
been unsuccessful when grown outdoors. out the roof vents.
“The use of protective cropping has a high potential for There are also other structure designs that look very
improving fruit quality, increasing yield per square metre, promising for growing crops in the tropics. For example, the

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 37


Good fruit set of small canary melons grown under protective

cropping in North Queensland. These fruits did not detach from
the peduncle when they reached maturity.

Consistent fruit size of galia melons grown under a walk-in tunnel

in Giru, Queensland. Yields reached 7.8 kg/m2.

Capsicums were transplanted under a simple poly tunnel in Giru,

Queensland, in April 2014. Plants were trellised vertically
following a simple system that involves minimum pruning. The
first fruits were harvested in July 2014. The small trial included
several cultivars with fruits that ripened to either red, orange,
yellow or white.

Specialty eggplants were grown in the Dry Tropics under a

protective structure (a high walk-in tunnel).

While it is raining outside, DAFF technical officer Heidi

Wiggenhauser works on specialty melons grown in a low-cost
protective structure in Giru, Queensland.

38 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

high structures with roofs that can be retracted. In these "We are growing speciality crops that should attract a higher
designs, the roof is a polyfabric film material suspended on value than the crops you are growing outside," he said.
wires, and where the film can be folded or extended by electric "The vegetables that are grown under protective cropping
motors. This allows for having partial or full sun over the crop generally can be considered different commodities than those
and a rain protection cover when it is necessary. The roofs can extensively grown outdoors. There is potential for marketing
have a slope and gutters to drain water from rainfalls. some of the produce in a different way; that would also attract
In the tropics, the side walls of these structures are large for a higher value.
maximum ventilation, but are covered with insect exclusion "So while protective cropping involves more labour per
screens. Roll-up poly films can be fitted on the side walls; square metre than in extensive outdoor vegetable crops, you
however, all sidewalls will remain open during most of the year. are getting three, five or six times more yield per square metre.
Sawtooth greenhouses and retractable roof structures are Well managed crops are also more efficient in the use of water
less expensive than glass or polycarbonate greenhouses, and and nutrients, based on the unit weight of harvested produce.
they offer a number of advantages for growers in terms of "We are soon going to start running some numbers, based
extreme solar radiation and passive ventilation. on the yields we were achieving," Dr Jovicich said.

Other specialty crops South Pacific solution

In addition to melons, the project has included research on The North Queensland project is part of the Pacific
specialty capsicums, cucumbers and eggplants with very Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative (PARDI) with
encouraging early results. Argentine-born Dr Jovicich says funding from DAFF and the Australian Centre for International
while it's still early days, past experience and promising Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
results from the recent trials in North Queensland make In 2012, Dr Jovicich (protective cropping project leader) and
protected cropping a complementary system to outdoor Shane Dullahide (PARDI crop component leader), met with
vegetable production in warm environments. Before 2007, he industry representatives in Fiji and Samoa to discuss low-cost
was involved in protective cropping research, development and protective structures and research activities. Dr Jovicich said it
extension (R&DE) in Florida, US, for many years where he was clear from the meetings that participants would make the
gained experience working with Dr Daniel Cantliffe from the most of the opportunities offered by protective cropping systems.
University of Florida. “The research began in 2013, first identifying a low-cost
"With capsicums, we had some crops planted in Giru in April structure design, then setting up demonstration sites and
and May last year, and we were still harvesting in early more recently starting to validate crop growing systems that
January 2015,” Dr Jovicich said. are likely to raise the production of high-value vegetables in
"It is the end of January and we are reaching up to 18 the region and increase grower income,” he said.
kilograms of red fruit per square metre with some cultivars, In 2014, five structures, each covering a ground area of 360 m2,
when a normal capsicum in the field will give you a yield of were built in locations with distinct environmental conditions in
about 3 kilograms per square metre. Fiji (Sigatoka, Koronivia, and Tavua) and Samoa (Nu’u and
"Yield increases are a combination of an increase in fruits Tapatapao). Supply chain analyses and surveys, and advice from
per plant, plant density, and the prolonged harvesting period. collaborating farmers, pinpointed the highest demand/high-
This can be achieved with cultivars bred for greenhouse value crops among buyers and consumers.
production, and by trellising plants vertically and maintaining “These crops—tomato, capsicum and cucumber—are the
them healthy, so they can keep on growing and setting fruit," subject of the first round of trials. Some growers have also
he explained. decided to grow crops such as potatoes, herbs, leafy
While the research team is keen for local farmers to test the vegetables and red cabbage as they are easy-to-grow, high-
concept themselves, Dr Jovicich says selling the idea to value commodities that can rapidly bring returns while they
growers is proving a little difficult. learn how to grow more complex crops such as tomatoes and
"When we talk to farmers here about protective cropping, capsicums,” said Dr Jovicich.
many times they identify the system with glasshouse The greenhouse design includes high roofs (up to 4.5 m),
production, hydroponics and very expensive operations," roof vents, shade screens and insect-exclusion netting. The
he said. greenhouse structures use only passive ventilation for cooling
"But we are thinking about structures that are much (no electric fans) and create an improved crop environment
cheaper,” he added. with respect to outdoor growing conditions and compared to
"What we have to keep in mind is that the designs for the low-roof, walk-in tunnel designs.
structures used up here in tropical places have to remove the “Walk-in tunnel designs are already used by some farmers
heat from the greenhouse in the best way possible. and usually have roofs that are less than three metres high, no
"So the structures have to be very tall, they have to have a roof roof vents, and small open areas for lateral ventilation.
vent and openings all around. They have to protect plants from Temperatures under these structures frequently reach levels
rain, so basically we are only creating a roof over the plants." that are higher than optimal for plant growth and fruit setting
Dr Jovicich says although he's yet to thoroughly analyse the in vertically trellised crops such as tomatoes, capsicums, and
economic benefit of the protective cropping system, he's cucumbers,” he explained.
confident the figures will stack up. Dr Jovicich said that the purpose of using taller and better

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 39


Farmer Munsami Naiker set up a protective structure to test

high value vegetable production in Fiji.

Farmers attend a hands-on project field day where they discuss

structure design, prepare planting beds, setup and learn to use
a gravitational drip irrigation and transplant tomatoes in Fiji.

Project leader Elio Jovicich discusses tomato transplanting and

set drip irrigation with farmers under a high roof passively-
ventilated structure setup by the project in Fiji.

Farmer and project collaborator Edwin Tamasese inspects soil

moisture in a new planting of tomatoes under a high roof
passively-ventilated structure setup by the project in Samoa.

Capsicums planted in April and May 2014 are still being

harvested in January 2015. Plants reached 2.5 metres high and
yields in some cultivars are up to 18 kg per metre square.

DAFF Horticulturist Dr Elio Jovicich inspecting harvested

capsicums, January 2015.

40 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

ventilated structures, such as the ones designed for the PARDI
project, is to demonstrate that crops can be trellised to higher Advantages of tropical greenhouses
levels, and thus, production can be increased with more
harvests throughout the season. This environment is also • Higher yields and better quality produce
better for short, leafy vegetable crops, and because crops are • Reduced risks for yields and quality
grown in soil, allow for using diverse plant species for crop
• Fewer pest and disease problems because of less wetting
rotation. In addition to providing improved growing conditions,
and damage by heavy rainfall
the structures are designed to be partially disassembled when
extreme weather conditions (i.e. cyclones) are forecasted. • Extended harvest time
Dr Jovicich says that training farmers is an important part of • Reduced water and nutrient use per unit of
the project, given that the production system is new to the region. harvested produce
“The project also provides training to farmers and local
• More effective use of pesticides and biological control.
research and extension officers in new irrigation technologies
(e.g. drip), and new plant growing practices (e.g. trellising and
pruning). Our aim is to also manage pest and diseases with low design considerations that help with the heat removal and thus
pesticide use. We collaborate with other ACIAR projects on provide an environment that leads to acceptable yields.”
integrated crop management to monitor and manage pest and Collaborator vegetable farmers in Fiji and Samoa have been
diseases during the trials.” growing their first crops under protected cropping and already
As well as ACIAR funding, several local commercial companies are able to see first-hand the increases in yield and produce
backed the research. Wah Sing Yee, Director of Marco Polo quality. Although farmers still have to learn and adapt many
International Ltd, helped to import the structures and supported crop practices to their specific environments and farming
the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) Fiji to import additional scenarios, the design of the sourced greenhouses provide
structures and irrigation components. Edwin Tamasese, a improved ventilation and crop protection, thanks to the
farmer and Director of Soil Health Pacific Ltd, set-up two combined efforts by ACIAR and DAFF and considerable local
structures, and assisted with the importation of seeds and industry and business support.
irrigation components in Samoa. Mr Tamasese and Mr Munsami
Naiker, farmer and Director of All Season Nursery in Tavua, Fiji, For further information contact: Department of Agriculture,
assisted with the production of seedlings for the trials. Fisheries and Forestry. Ph: +61 (0)7 3404-6999
“Currently, there are farmers that are also building Email:
structures with wood, which is fine as long as you keep some Website: b

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Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 41

Small-scale aquaponic
food production
The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has released a technical paper that showcases current
wisdom in aquaponics, focusing on small-scale production. The target audience is agriculture
extension agents, aquaculture officers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community
organisers, companies and individuals—worldwide.

Illustrations Food & Agriculture Organization

he Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has released removed from the water, first using a mechanical filter that
a technical paper that showcases current wisdom in removes the solid waste and then through a biofilter that
aquaponics, focusing on small-scale production. The processes the dissolved wastes. The biofilter provides a
intention is to bring a general understanding of location for bacteria to convert ammonia, which is toxic for
aquaponics to people who previously may have only known fish, into nitrate, a more accessible nutrient for plants. This
about one aspect (i.e. aquaculture devotees without experience process is called nitrification. As the water (containing nitrate
in hydroponics, and vice versa). and other nutrients) travels through plant grow beds, the
Aquaponics is the integration of recirculating aquaculture plants uptake these nutrients, and finally, the water returns to
and hydroponics in one production system. In an aquaponic the fish tank purified. This process allows the fish, plants and
unit, water from the fish tank cycles through filters, plant grow bacteria to thrive symbiotically and to work together to create
beds and then back to the fish. In the filters, the fish waste is a healthy growing environment for each other, provided that
the system is properly balanced.
ISSN 207

AND The practice of aquaponics is not new. Faecal waste and


overall excrements from fish to fertilise plants has existed for


millennia, with early civilisations in both Asia and South
America applying this method, but it has only been in recent
decades that this basic form of aquaponics has evolved into the
ale aqua modern food production systems of today.
Small-sc duction
food pro t farmin
Prior to the technological advances of the 1980s, most
ed fis h and pl
attempts to integrate hydroponics and aquaculture had limited
success. The 1980s and 1990s saw advances in system design,
biofiltration and the identification of the optimal fish-to-plant
ratios that led to the creation of closed systems that allow for
the recycling of water and nutrient build-up for plant growth. In
its early aquaponic systems, North Carolina State University
demonstrated that water consumption in integrated systems
was just 5% of that used in pond culture for growing tilapia.
This development, among other key initiatives, pointed to the
suitability of integrated aquaculture and hydroponic systems
for raising fish and growing vegetables, particularly in arid and
water poor regions.
The technical paper, Small-scale aquaponic production, does
not provide a prescriptive approach to aquaponics; instead, it is
a resource paper and includes description and discussion of
the major concepts needed for aquaponics. A broad range of
parties may find interest in aquaponics, especially those whose

42 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

focus incorporates at least one of the
following topics: sustainable
agriculture, resilient methods of
domestic food production, or urban and
peri-urban food security. Although not
strictly necessary, some experience
with vegetable and/or fish production
would be advantageous for the reader.
Divided into nine chapters and nine
appendixes, with each chapter
dedicated to a specific facet of an
aquaponic system, the publication is
written in a style designed to be
digestible by a non-technical reader.
The publication includes diverse
subjects from aquaculture to
hydroponics, water chemistry to
ecosystem balance and technical
aspects of plumbing and construction;
Simple hydroponic unit
the challenge has been to provide a
bridge towards common understanding
of the broad field of aquaponics, using
adequate technical details in substantial
depth without allowing the publication
to become unwieldy and unusable.
Small-scale aquaponic food production
begins by introducing the concept of
aquaponics, including a brief history of
its development and its place within the
larger category of soilless culture and
modern agriculture. It discusses the
main theoretical concepts of aquaponics,
including the nitrogen cycle and the
nitrification process, the role of bacteria,
and the concept of balancing an
aquaponic unit. It then moves on to cover
important considerations of water quality
parameters, water testing, and water
sourcing for aquaponics, as well as
methods and theories of unit design, Simple aquaculture unit
including the three main methods of
aquaponic systems: media beds, nutrient
film technique, and deep water culture.
The publication discusses in detail the
three groups of living organisms
(bacteria, plants and fish) that make up
the aquaponic ecosystem. It also
presents management strategies and
troubleshooting practices, as well as
related topics, specifically highlighting
local and sustainable sources of
aquaponic inputs.
The publication also includes nine
appendixes that present other key
topics: ideal conditions for common
plants grown in aquaponics; chemical
and biological controls of common Simple aquaponic unit
pests and diseases, including a

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 43


Media bed unit

Top view
Fish tank Grow bed


2 Water

1.2m 1.2m

Side view

Fish tank Grow bed


1 Bell


1.2m Sump tank water pump

Water flow diagram

1 W

2.2 Water flows from the media bed into the sump tank.
3.3 Water flows back to the fish tank from the sump by using the water pump.

44 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) unit

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 45

compatible planting guide; common fish diseases and related publication designed as a supplemental handout for outreach,
symptoms, causes and remedies; tools to calculate the extension and education.
ammonia produced and biofiltration media required for a
certain fish stocking density and amount of fish feed added; Final remarks
production of homemade fish feed; guidelines and With the advent of highly efficient aquaponic systems, there
considerations for establishing aquaponic units; a cost–benefit has been an interest by FAO in discovering how the concept
analysis of a small-scale, media bed aquaponic unit; a fares in developing countries. The authors note that examples
comprehensive guide to building small-scale versions of each of aquaponic initiatives can be seen in Barbados, Brazil,
of the three aquaponic methods; and a brief summary of this Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica,
Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Panama, the Philippines, Thailand
Benefits and weaknesses and Zimbabwe. At first glance, there appears to be a
of aquaponic food production considerable amount of aquaponic activity within the
humanitarian sphere.
Major benefits of aquaponic food production
In addition, small-scale aquaponic units are components of
• Sustainable and intensive food production system some urban or peri-urban agriculture initiatives, particularly
• Two agricultural products (fish and vegetables) are with NGOs and other stakeholders in urban food and nutrition
produced from one nitrogen source (fish food) security, because of their ability to be installed in many
• Extremely water-efficient different urban landscapes. In particular, the FAO has piloted
• Does not require soil small-scale aquaponic units on rooftops in The West Bank and
• Does not use fertiliSers or chemical pesticides Gaza Strip—in response to the chronic food and nutrition
• Higher yields and qualitative production security issues seen across the region. To date, this pilot
• Organic-like management and production project and subsequent scale-up are one of a growing number
• Higher level of biosecurity and lower risks from of examples around the world where aquaponics is being
outer contaminants successfully integrated into medium-scale emergency food
• Higher control on production leading to lower losses security interventions. However, the authors note that many
attempts are ad hoc and opportunistic, in many cases leading
• Can be used on non-arable land such as deserts,
to stand-alone, low-impact interventions. They advise caution
degraded soil or salty, sandy islands
when evaluating the success of humanitarian aquaponics.
• Creates little waste
The authors also note there has been a surge of aquaponic
• Daily tasks, harvesting and planting are labour-saving
conferences worldwide in the recent years. Furthermore,
and therefore can include all genders and ages
aquaponics is increasingly a part of conferences on
• Economical production of either family food production aquaculture and hydroponics. Many of these forums outline
or cash crops in many locations concerns among researchers from different backgrounds and
• Construction materials and information base are specialisations, policy makers and stakeholders to find
widely available. sustainable solutions to ensure a long-lasting growth and
secure increased food output for a growing world population.
Major weaknesses of aquaponic food production
Finally, the ‘Fish in aquaponics’ component of this
• Expensive initial start-up costs compared with soil
publication is extensive and profiles talapia, carp, catfish,
vegetable production or hydroponics trout, Largemouth bass and prawns. From an Australian
• Knowledge of fish, bacteria and plant production is perspective, there are other species to choose from with
needed for each farmer to be successful ongoing development work to determine fish/plant ratios;
• Fish and plant requirements do not always however, this publication is targeted at communities where
match perfectly water and resources are scarce. The publication is a valuable
• Not recommended in places where cultured fish and resource for both novice and commercial operators planning a
plants cannot meet their optimal temperature ranges small-scale aquaponic venture anywhere in the world. The
• Reduced management choices compared with stand- information is based on practical experience with small-scale
alone aquaculture or hydroponic systems and commercial aquaponic systems, and the publication was
• Mistakes or accidents can cause catastrophic collapse developed to share lessons and current knowledge learned so
of system that fledgling farmers can benefit from these experiences.
Small-scale aquaponic food production is a valuable
• Daily management is mandatory
document for anyone considering aquaponics. At 288 pages,
• Energy demanding
the publication is illustrated with many images, line drawings
• Requires reliable access to electricity, fish seed and
and tables. It is available in print and PDF editions from the
plant seeds
FAO website (, or it can be
purchased via email ( b
• Alone, aquaponics will not provide a complete diet.

46 . Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015

The First 20 Years
Millennium Collection

Valuable Educational Resource

This interactive DVD contains every article published in
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses since the first issue,
many as relevant today as they were when first published.
(PDF format)

Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses . February . 2015. 47

Local Knowledge Innovative Design

Higher Yields Future Proof