US (AZ): The future of farming takes root

Sustainable agriculture is quickly becoming the wave of the future as global leaders grapple with the question of how to feed a world population approaching 10 billion. At the UA, researchers are looking up for answers, in the form of vertical farming.

A vertical farm, at its most basic definition, is a crop production building. Shelves are stacked, one on top of the other, full of fast-growing leafy crops such as lettuce, basil and chard. A true vertical farm is completely enclosed, like a warehouse, and can be operated year-round, independent of geography, climate or season. Inside, every resource is carefully managed and controlled, in contrast to the unpredictability of traditional agriculture, which is highly dependent on the weather.

"To me, vertical farming is an idea whose time has come," Cuello says. "In the open field, because it's open to the atmosphere, the temperature, relative humidity and light radiation fluctuate over the course of a day. The productivity is not optimized or maximized, and it's also not consistent. Whereas in a vertical farm, productivity is optimized or maximized, and it's consistent. It helps tremendously in being able to help produce food to meet the demand."

Murat Kacira, one of Cuello's colleagues in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, conducts research in the 750-square-foot Urban Agriculture Vertical Farm Facility, or UAg Farm, located at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Controlled Environment Agriculture Center north of campus. One of his focuses is on improving air flow distribution systems in vertical farming operations.

"If crops like lettuce, commonly grown in vertical farms, are not able to transpire properly due to lack of proper or dynamic airflow, they are not able to take up calcium, and that in turn results in a crop disorder called tip burn, which prevents the marketable potential of the crop," explains Kacira, who has used experimental and computer modeling-based studies to develop alternative system designs to distribute air uniformly through each shelf, creating a desirable environment for crop growth.

Kacira also is researching monitoring systems that track all of the key variables in a vertical farm environment, including air temperature, humidity, light intensity, carbon dioxide, pH and electrical conductivity. Using artificial intelligence, he hopes to perfect a system in which the plants actually teach the computers what they need to thrive.

"We are working on camera systems where we can monitor a plant as it grows by looking at crop growth related features," Kacira says. "Later on, we would like to also study crop health by using the camera and other sensors, and use that information as a feedback to control, for example, the artificial lighting system, rather than operating our lighting in an on-and-off mode. The idea here is basically having crops actually manage their growing environments in a smarter and resource-conserving way."

Read more at the University of Arizona (Stacy Pigott)

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