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Things to know for a successful grow

Recently we had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Abhay Thosar, who leads the Fluence Horticultural Services team, and Chris Bezuyen, who leads the Technical Services team at Fluence. The conversation centered on the strategies around vertical farming and how a grower should approach starting their own grow.

If a grower wants to get into vertical farming, what is the first advice you would give?
Abhay: Never compare vertical farming products to those from open agriculture. These are two entirely different realms with wildly different inputs and outcomes. With controlled-environment agriculture (CEA), growers can have full control and optimize every step of the process, from seed selection to packaging.

Chris: Start with the crop. The specific crop you choose will dictate the infrastructure, technology, and processes that you need. A lot of growers make the critical mistake of beginning with engineering. They install the racking, trays, and shelves, then assume that they can insert any crop in their facility and grow it well, but this is not the case. Instead, growers should study and understand the market, select a viable crop they want to grow or are passionate about, and then build the entire operation around that selection.

Why are vertical farms popping up in cities across America? What’s the advantage?
Abhay: Vertical farming is the optimization of growing in confined spaces and represents the most efficient use of a cubic meter. When you start growing vertically, you start thinking in cubic meters as opposed to square meters. This is especially important in our increasingly urbanized world. Today, it is difficult for people to get close to nature, or they must go to the countryside—far from cities, but vertical farming can be done in an urban setting while providing a country feel.

Chris: Vertical farming allows us to grow crops in our ideal environment—one that is controlled and makes us comfortable—despite limited space or resources. It is very scalable. And it is also hyper-efficient. For instance, in an open field, roughly 70% of the water used for crops is absorbed into the water table, and another fraction evaporates. Yet, in a vertical farm, it all goes into the product, and the excess percentage gets recycled back into the total system.

What are some common mistakes that new growers make in vertical farming?
Abhay: The most common mistake is not selecting the correct cultivar. This is very important, and it is why growers need to work not only with Fluence but also with a breeding company to develop the cultivars. When you start with the right cultivar, you can then begin to build your whole operation around it and cultivate success through optimization and automation.

Chris: Many new growers are unaware that traditional breeding is done either in the open field or under high-pressure sodium lights. Fortunately, more breeding companies have developed cultivars that are genetically tuned to work specifically in vertical and CEA environments, as opposed to field environments. Fluence provides LED lighting solutions to the horticulture research industry, so we know the cultivars that are specifically developed and optimized for LED spectrum recipes. At Fluence, the science always comes first.

Abhay: I think expertise is vital. At every stage, there needs to be departmentalization, specialization, and optimization. Many operations are doomed to fail from the outset because they do not hire a professional grower with the proper experience and expertise. I cannot stress this point enough: get professional support at every step of the grow process. You need a team specialized in growing, engineering, packaging, marketing, and even operational management. If a grower can streamline and optimize each stage and process, that’s where you will start to see the profitability.

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