As indoor agriculture matures, many advanced farms are looking to develop seed programs to improve their farm economics and give them an edge over competitors, especially in leafy greens. Given this, former American Seed Trade Association executive and Asia & Pacific Seed Association board member Michelle Klieger of Stratagerm Consulting was asked to join Indoor Ag-Con Asia on January 15-16, 2019 to discuss her views on seeds in indoor systems. Ahead of that, Indoor Ag-Con caught up with her to ask her 5 seed questions.
How did you come to form Stratagem Consulting? What do you do?
I’ve always been interested in wildlife conservation. Many people don’t think of it this way, but the greatest threat to wildlife is agriculture. So, I started working in agriculture to help farmers grow more food on less land. I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the next generation of technology that is transforming agriculture. Many of these changes are helping increase the amount of food farmers grow and reducing the environmental costs associated with producing food.
After engaging with indoor growers, I realized that they lacked important seed knowledge and that not having this information was limiting their businesses. My background as a consultant and working in the seed industry meant that I had the missing puzzle piece and could help growers make the powerful connection between seed selection and their growth potential.
Stratagerm helps indoor growers pick better seeds for their system based on their farm’s technical requirements and their customers’ needs. The goal is to increase profitability by producing more vegetables or growing higher quality vegetables. Once a farmer understands HOW to pick new seeds and integrate them into their farm, we help them better communicate with their seed supplier to reduce business risks, such as a seed shortage.
What are the trends in seed development that are most exciting to you?
Seed companies are increasingly interested in controlled environment agriculture of all kinds and they are starting to invest in this sector. This investment is focused on researching new varieties that will grow well in high tech vertical farms. Also known as plant factories, these farms have LEDs, nutrient baths, and sensors that monitor every aspect of the operation.
Right now, most of the varieties planted in vertical farms were either bred for traditional outdoor agriculture or greenhouses. Outdoor plants need to be ready for droughts, floods, insects, and other adverse conditions. Greenhouses might provide ideal water levels, but they still have insects and diseases inside of them. Surviving these conditions is essential for plants grown outdoors or in greenhouses. But, it is not necessary for your indoor crops. Your plants are grown under controlled and often sterile conditions. Farms like yours need new varieties intended for vertical farms. Ones that will grow quickly and taste amazing, but probably aren’t hearty enough to survive outside.
Which crops do you think we’ll see move indoors next?
I love that indoor growers are being creative with their indoor systems. I’ve seen people try to grow valuable spices like saffron, which is so innovative! Anything is possible for small operations – that’s what I want people to take away from this.
On a larger scale, I think tomatoes are a great option. They are a high-value vegetable. They already grow well in high-tech greenhouses. So farmers have valuable experience growing tomatoes indoors. Plus, they taste amazing the second after they are picked, so the quicker the tomatoes can get from the farm to a dinner plate the better. Indoor growers can sell a better tomato because they grow so close to the consumers who will eat them.
Why has there not been more indoor ag-specific seed development? Do you expect this to change?
There are two reasons that we have not seen more indoor ag-specific seed developments. First, it takes plant breeders seven to ten years to commercialize a new plant variety. As the industry grows and demand for seed increases, more investment has and will be made. But, it will take a while before indoor farmers can purchase these new varieties.
Second, indoor farm growing environments vary dramatically. Successful plant breeding matches the genetics to the environment the plant is growing in. Without standards across the industry, it makes it difficult for plant breeders to know which environments to breed for. Until we know which light, nutrient, and temperature combination will be most popular in the future it’s difficult to pick varieties specifically for indoor agriculture. As farm technology matures and certain practices become the industry standard, we can expect targeted investment by seed companies and plant breeders for these conditions.
How would you recommend a new or small grower in Asia go about setting up their own seed program?
Seeds are a strategic piece of your business and all of the choices you make about seeds should be recorded so you can keep improving your decisions. Before you purchase seeds take time to understand your farm, your customers and your goals. With this preparation work, you will have a more productive conversation with your seed supplier. The supplier will be able to make recommendations or give advice based on the information you shared, instead of recommending a variety that grows well hydroponically.
Remember, your business will ultimately be judged on the vegetables and herbs you sell. If your customers are happy with the produce they will be repeat customers. So, picking seeds that grow into beautiful and tasty vegetables will remain very important to your business.
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