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Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) Q&A

The agricultural industry has come a long way since the cavemen used sticks, horn, and bone to dig. Today the industry has been transformed by the advancement in technology, and new complex methods are being used to cultivate crops. 

There are techniques used that most upcoming farmers wishing to kick start their own crop production may not understand. One of these methods is known as controlled environment agriculture (CEA). 

Today, I am going to take you through this method of crop production. I will talk about what it is, its advantages as well as disadvantages, and the environmental factors that are typically controlled in this crop production method. 

What is CEA? 

Controlled Environment Agriculture is a general term used for many different indoor plant production. This may include a simple thing as a homemade greenhouse or something more complicated as NASA’s Biomass Production System. 

But in layman’s term, CEA is simply a technique of crop cultivation where the environment under which the crop is produced is controlled using technology to ensure ideal growing circumstances. 

This process can be undertaken in practically any type of an enclosed setting, be it at home, warehouse. 

  • Flexible

CEA is extremely flexible and allows plants, mostly subsistence, to be cultivated in virtually any area. Thus, it presents agricultural opportunities in areas that would otherwise not support the growing of crops, including areas such as urban areas, deserts, or even outer space.

  • All year round

Controlled Environment Agriculture also doesn’t follow the seasons. Crops can be grown at any time of the year, since CEA is controlled and not affected by the same weather-influenced growing seasons that conventional growing is subjected to. 

With the increasing climatic change, which has caused topsoil degradation, water shortage, increased temperatures, floods, and many other problems. CEA is increasingly being turned to as an alternative form of advanced food production. 

  • Control factors

This method basically controls several factors that affect the growth rate and the health of crops. These factors include humidity, temperature (which includes air, root-zone, nutrient solution), carbon dioxide, nutrient concentration, light (spectrum, intensity, interval), and nutrient pH. 

For these conditions to be managed effectively, CEA usually enlists technological methods that regulate the input and output of nutrients and other essential resources for the growth of a plant, within the enclosure. 

CEA methods:

There are many forms of CEA methods, and the most commonly used are LED light growing, hydroponics, and vertical farming. 

Hydroponics

Hydroponics is the method of crop production where the plant is grown without soil to deliver nutrients, oxygen, and water. The plant can be produced in a wide range of media such as gravel, Rockwool, sand, oasis cubes, and coconut fiber. 

This is an excellent sustainable method of growing plants as farmers can save up to 90% on water, depending on the type of system they set up and crop. Within this method of crop production, there are a number of different systems used. 

Crops produced using this method typically include leafy greens, microgreens, peppers, tomatoes, herbs, strawberries, and even medicinal cannabis.  

Aeroponics

Aeroponics is a method of growing crops without soil as a medium and using a minimal amount of water. Unlike in traditional crop production where the plant roots are submerged, in aeroponics, the roots are suspended in the air and spurted with the necessary nutrients and water.

 The roots can only function in this manner if they are in a controlled environment. The nutrients moisture is captured by the root network and not escape into the air. Aeroponics system is usually used inside greenhouses and uses light as the primary source of energy with supplemental lighting also applied if needed. 

Aeroponics is the most water-sustainable method of growing crops, saving up to 90% of water compared to other hydroponic forms. 

Aquaponics 

On the other hand, this method uses a mix of aquaculture (rearing of fish) and hydroponics. This ecosystem is sustainable, with the waste from the fish, mainly urea and ammonium, and bacteria being used by plants as food. This agriculture method relies on the fast-growing fish species like the tilapia, trout, perch, catfish, and so on, to provide the required plant nutrients. 

Aquaponics can be installed indoors since it doesn’t require soil, and the water used by the plants can be recycled back to the fish tank. This ecosystem does not require any chemical fertilizer, making it even more eco-friendly.

Fogponics

Fogponics is described by many experts as the next stage of the aeroponic system. It uses the same basic principles of using suspended roots in the air in a controlled setting and providing the crop with nutrients and water. This system uses droplets in the form of vapor to supply the plant with nutrients and water. 

Advantages of Controlled Environment Agriculture 

There are plenty of benefits of using controlled environment agriculture, and some of them I am going to discuss below. 

  • Increased production levels 

Controlled environment agriculture plants are not affected by traditional weather-related problems such as drought and excessive rains. Also, the plants can be grown at any time of the year. For this reason, the production of crops is increased. 

  • Effective pest, disease, and weed control 

Since the CEA doesn’t use soil as a growth medium, there is no place for weed to grow. This also means disease-causing bacteria found in soil cannot affect the plant. Moreover, the plant is grown in a controlled environment where everything is monitored, which significantly reduces the chances of disease attacking the crop. 

  • Plants can be produced even off-season

Controlled environment agriculture ensures that crops can be produced at any time of the year, even during the off-season. Plants can be produced even during the harsh months of winter or intense temperatures of summer. 

  • Water conservation 

This method of crop production significantly reduces the amount of water usage. The systems used are optimized to curtail evaporation and only use the amount of water need by each plant in the enclosed environment. 

  • Save land usage 

Since a CEA system can be installed just about anywhere on earth, it means that crops can be produced in much less land, making it easier for urban dwellers to grow plants. 

  • The clean practice of crop production 

Controlled environment agriculture has very few weeds, diseases, and pests to deal with, meaning that farmers using this method don’t need to use any chemicals in the name of pesticides or herbicides during their crop production. 

  • No need of GMOs

A CEA system is usually in constant monitoring. It uses all the required mechanical solutions for consistently high, organic yields, which make the use of GMOs completely unnecessary. 

Disadvantages of Controlled Environment Agriculture 

A CEA system also has some disadvantages, including: 

  • Location 

Though this system can be used virtually anywhere, the location should be where it can capture the full sunlight, particularly if you are growing your crops off-season. 

  • Ventilation and temperature management during the warm season 

While this system is designed to entrap warmth inside the enclosed environment during cold months, it can also be a heat trap in the warm season. And if the temperature surpasses the healthy levels, crops can die.

If the temperature is not effectively controlled during cold months, the plants can be free to death. So this delicate temperature management requires start-of-art ventilation and heating system, which is also super expensive.

  • Limited pollination opportunities 

Plants as tomatoes need pollination before they can produce fruit. The fans installed in CEA systems may not generate enough wind to facilitate pollution. 

Though you can manually tap flowers to release pollen grains, this can be cumbersome if you can’t fit it into your daily schedule. Another alternative is using bumblebees as pollinators, which you can also breed inside the system. However, this can be costly. 

So how can you become a farmer using controlled environment agriculture? You can acquire a controlled environment agriculture certificate from your community college or a 4-year degree institution. 

The 5 Environment Factors Controlled in a Greenhouse 

Because different plants require different climate to flourish, a proper CEA system should be able to adjust to these conditions depending on the type of crop. Below are 5 environmental factors controlled in a greenhouse.

  • Heat 

Some crops do well in the heat while others perform well in the cold, and a greenhouse system can control heat factors to suit various plants, be it leafy greens, fruits, or flowers. 

  • Humidity 

Humidity is another environmental factor that is controlled in the greenhouse to suit any crop being planted. Humidity is important for the success of plants and also closely tied to temperature. It has a significant impact on the conditions inside the greenhouse. 

  • Sunlight 

Greenhouse technologies can help regulate the quality of sunlight reaching plants. Farmers can screen out the harmful UV radiation while maintaining high levels of light within the greenhouse. 

  • Ventilation 

Controlling ventilation has been a real challenge, especially for outdoor growers in dry areas. But with greenhouse technologies, farmers can now take absolute control of their ventilation. 

  • Carbon dioxide 

Carbon dioxide is an important element for crop growth as it is used in photosynthesis. While this element is readily available, it can be fatal when it is excess supply. However, with plants in a tightly enclosed environment in the greenhouse with very little ventilation, the carbon dioxide levels can reduce significantly.

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