With raw materials becoming scarcer and fertilizer and energy prices rising in the air recently, it has become crucial to do more with less in growing food. This provides opportunities for Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). Still, it is anything but a complete solution, says Joseph Chidiac (JC) horticultural engineer and technical advisor at Cultivation Bioengineering
“When I was first taken to visit greenhouses in Aruba, I saw that none of them were fully designed to meet the unique needs of the Caribbean climate and market. Historically, horticultural companies have used conventional solutions such as NFT, DFT. or Dutch bucket systems, quonset greenhouses and cushion and fan cooling systems. These solutions are designed in and for Europe and North America and do not perform as well in the tropics as they do at higher latitudes. “
The problems with Caribbean breeders
Much of the work JC does is for the Caribbean. He says the challenges for gardeners are twofold: “They need to control the climate to improve crop performance and want to reduce or eliminate the use of expensive and often toxic pesticides (PPPs).”
Because the vast majority of horticultural companies in the Caribbean are outdoors, they are constantly confronted with pests and diseases as well as climatic challenges. “This is the case for tropical and warm crops,” says JC. “So when it comes to cool crops like leafy greens and herbs, growers suffer even more from poor yields and crop quality, as well as seasonal discrepancies, droughts, floods and hurricanes.
At the same time, efforts in places like Jamaica and Trinidad have helped demonstrate the value of simple solutions such as drip irrigation, shading and polyethylene film to reduce crop stress and improve results. These are relatively inexpensive solutions, but bringing them to a higher level of control and efficiency requires greater judgment and technical know-how. “
This is a huge battle for growers dealing with razor-thin profit margins. This makes growing crops in cool climates more risky and less attractive despite the higher market prices they have. This would not be such a problem if food consumption in the Caribbean was primarily limited to local, indigenous crops. However, tourists visiting the Caribbean islands expect to be able to eat the same food that they are used to at home. Little by little, therefore, the market for chilled vegetables has grown to the same size as the market for indigenous crops, “and it is no longer only visitors who consume these vegetables, but also the local population. As a result, it has become an important market. imports of such products are reduced in order to increase their quality and the positive effects on local labor markets. “
Barbados is the perfect example of the challenges facing Caribbean growers and how a different method of gardening could help them become profitable and grow high-quality crops. “Barbados, for example, is largely covered by sugar cane plantations, which have many problems with pests, weeds and fungal diseases. Sugar cane growers make extensive use of PPPs, and although their horticultural model is not sustainable or profitable, they keep it up. “Due to limited opportunities and resources, on the other hand, governments in the Caribbean often subsidize these gardening models that do not lead to progress or prosperity, and this is where the CEA can make a big difference.”
Setting up greenhouses in Aruba and Anguilla
JC started his journey in the Caribbean with a project in Aruba where he started a Shallow Aero Ebb-and-Flow (SAEF) hydroponic farm based on his master’s thesis. The system enables the production of a wide range of crops and reduces the amount of energy required for irrigation, ventilation and cooling of the root zone. “In recent years, we have demonstrated the stability and efficiency of such a cultivation system, and we have actually succeeded in cultivating more with less, proving that such simple innovations can have a broader effect,” he says.
On the farm Local Pride Aruba, they now grow different types of micro greens, lettuce, basil, coriander, chives, parsley, bok choy, arugula and kale. In addition, they have also experimented with tomatoes, beans and some alternative crops. “Spinach is one of the most difficult crops to grow in the tropics because it needs cooler weather,” says JC. “That’s why we grow a tropical crop, Malabar spinach, whose leaves look and taste like spinach consumers are used to. It has an even higher nutritional value, making it an excellent alternative crop.” As this project expands and third party interest in the model grows, JC is increasingly collaborating with various investors and growers to implement the low-threshold SAEF system for hydroponic cultivation in different environments.
Another interesting project is greenhouse cultivation at Aurora Resort & Golf Club on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. “There used to be a very iconic greenhouse there, run by Dr. Howard Resh, but it was unfortunately wiped out by Hurricane Irma. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to design the new farm and install SAEF systems in the new one, Hurricane “resistant greenhouses. They can grow a wide variety of crops, which is very unusual for a commercial farm. But since they only supply to the resort’s restaurants, it helps to reduce their imports of fresh produce significantly.” These types of resorts typically generate a huge demand for such crops in cool weather, and the Anguilla example shows that if a system is tailored to the complexity of a particular location, successful and diverse protected cultivation is possible in the Caribbean.
No location for vertical farming
It is noteworthy that the potential is greatest for greenhouse cultivation because vertical farms are less suitable for the Caribbean due to many factors. “The Caribbean is one of the places in the world where vertical farming is currently the least viable for most crops,” says JC. “The energy required for lighting and climate control is significant, and energy costs in the Caribbean are among the highest in the world. As a result, cultivation costs are higher than in a greenhouse. Besides, there is so much sun here, it just makes no sense. some examples of vertical farming in the region and most of them are containers with a few exceptions, for example there is a vertical aquaponic grower in Puerto Rico and it is a good example of what is possible. need to move to renewable energy sources to become more competitive. “
Improving horticulture in the Caribbean
“With so many experiments in the Caribbean horticultural sector and with new horticultural companies now emerging across the region, the technologies and methods that contribute to success and the least possible solutions will become clearer to everyone. After all, the goal is to create a resilient and climate-smart food system. that can stand the test of time and provide for people in the long run. “
Seizing opportunities in horticulture is therefore about being realistic about the specific challenges and finding the most cost-effective and sustainable ways to solve them. “Greenhouse constructions, climate systems, crop types and varieties, cultivation systems and methods; they all need to be focused on overcoming the particular challenge. This means thinking seriously instead of the more common copy-paste approach.”
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Cultivation Bioengineering LTD