The quest for knowledge in indoor farming and new crops

Soy, cotton, sugar beets, corn, hemp. They might not be the biggest greenhouse crops, but for horticultural supplier Valoya they have been important over the last couple of years. “Our customers are into breeding or seed production and all have very specific needs. We do our best to provide them with the best lights to help them reach their goals.” Now, the company’s knowledge, combined with their inquiring nature, makes them an important player in the evolving cannabis market. An exciting market, Valoya CEO Lars Aikala says. 
When talking to LED professionals and producers in the current vertical farm and greenhouse market, cannabis is an inevitable subject. This also goes for talking with Lars Aikala, CEO of Finnish LED supplier Valoya. Currently the biggest demand for both the company and their partners comes from the cannabis market. And, as Lars explains, it is a nice market to be in. “Customers are well-funded and anxious to move quickly. Once they get the license, funding is no problem and they want to move fast. It’s interesting how quickly the market is growing to be professional after being in the closet for decades. Currently a lot of knowledge is being sucked up from the greenhouse industry, but it doesn’t stop there. More or less all interesting businesses are in the target: management professionals, greenhouse experts and even former Congress Representatives are getting into the industry.”
A big challenge for the industry though is of course the young age of the sector, and thus, lack of knowledge. Due to the former illegal status of the crop, universities conducted no research on it, and now the quest for knowledge is on. Starting a research program in 2015 with some European government institutes, Valoya already built knowledge on the topic. “We recognized the opportunities in the market, but of course weren’t able to start trials in our office. We cooperated with European universities government research institutes to help them start independent research on light sources and to understand what the optimal parameters are for achieving optimal plant growth.” Italian researcher Gianpaolo Grassi, Head Researcher at CREA-CIN, is to present his results on these trials on the LEDs & Innovators Conference 2018, which is held at the GreenTech exhibition this month.

Comparing crops
Are there similarities between cannabis and other greenhouse crops? “Hemp is quite similar to cannabis, but that’s not a common greenhouse crop either”, says Lars. “Maybe peppers a little bit. But you can’t really compare them – it is a necessity to do research with specific plants and species. That’s why we’ve tested over 200 plants and plant species over the last 9 years.” 

Lars continues: “We’ve seen how strongly the plants Cannabis plants react to our fixtures and the light spectrum we provide, but also know light is just one of the grow factors. Nutrition, humidity, temperature – you name it – play a big role as well. Our biologist built extensive knowledge on the crop over the last years.” This comes in handy, since the contents of the plants grow to be more important. “With the market coming of age, more and more segments show up, as does the variety of customers. Some focus on high quality products, creating their own artisan brands or focusing on high-quality local for local production, others distinguish themselves with the chemical levels in their product, developing new ways of consuming and getting the best price for a kilo. And then there’s of course also people opting for a more low-cost production, getting maybe a bit lower price. It all comes down to the same though: the knowledge about what you grow becomes inevitable, as do the effects on the choices within the cultivation.” 
Client-specific approach 
This client-specific approach is not new to Valoya. With crop science customers having been their biggest customer segment for many years, they are used to getting special requests and partnering in a project. “When our customers are breeding or are active in seed production, they have different kinds of needs in light. Sometimes copying sunlight is the most important, for others it’s a high pollination rate in flowers. Everybody has different goals, and we do our best to provide them with the light that will help them reach those goals.” This is exactly why, even though it might sound strange for an LED company, open field crops like rice, wheat and soy are of major interest to Valoya. “But the crop science industry we focus on is quite far away from somebody growing corn for cornflakes”, he confirms. 
Medical crops
When talking about the future of indoor farms, the growth of high-value medicinal crops is often called interesting. Lars, however, is reluctant – skeptical even. “It’s not just a matter of being able to grow them. We’re forgetting that you need a doctor’s prescription and having them say that it is good for you, to get a higher price, a medical price. Finding the doctor that starts prescribing plant products is the most difficult part.” Currently marihuana is the weird duck in the pond – being called medical, but even in the US not being advertised pharmaceutical. 
“Also in other medicinal crops the established healthcare industry is reluctant, questioning the horticultural cleaning standards, the use of pesticides and worried about the dose in the product. For example look at broccoli sprouts, containing high levels of Sulforaphane. A good amount of serious research is available on Suolforaphane and the benefits related to cancer treatments. Currently no is being said to broccoli sprouts though. We have a long way to go before plant products are prescribed and recommended.” 
The focus on the final use of the customer in general is an important topic when it comes to indoor farms, Lars rounds up the story. “What we see now is that vertical farms are a bit more challenging. A lot of new companies are willing to enter, and also in Europe many new projects are starting – but the profitability is a challenge. Growers have to have an angle why they want to start with it: is it to bring food close to where people are, or to create super-clean food production on small land areas? And will you get the revenue out of it?” An example of this is the London Underground project. “They come up from the ground and have a 20 mln people market around them and even though the farm is expensive located in a challenging tunnel, there’s a huge market for their product just above it.”

Easy to start
One of the other limiting points in the VF industry is the absence of a turnkey supplier for vertical farms, Lars explains. “Due to the locations in difficult places and buildings, at the moment everybody wants different solutions, affecting the light suppliers to create a single product in high volume and for a lower price. When the first farms will turn out to operate successfully, they will help everybody else forward as well. A turnkey supplier could help make this easier, getting a uniform growth protocol that works – including how to slide[what do you mean here?], how to use water and so on. It will evade the need for everybody to go through the same learning curve individually.” 
Want to learn more about vertical farming, crop science or cannabis? On June 13th, during the GreenTech exhibition Valoya organizes the LEDS & Innovators Conference. 

The conference will gather representatives of the three market segments Valoya serves: crop science, vertical farming and cannabis. The goal is to gather experts of the three fields and have them reveal latest innovations, data and hands-on examples of working in these industries. 

For more information:
Valoya Oy, Finland
Tel: +358 10 2350300

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