Growing up in BioPods

Experimental compact urban greenhouses provide controlled climate to help plants reach their full potential.

By Judie Steeves C

ompact greenhouses located in urban areas can use the limited space more efficiently by building vertical growing towers, an idea that is currently being researched by the Agricultural Centre of Excellence at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Such ‘BioPods’ have been in place for the past couple of years in a Surrey

neighbourhood, explains Garry Fehr, director of the centre of excellence, and they are being used for a variety of

experiments, including growing organic strawberries in the towers.

The UFV BioPods are a Garry Fehr

collaboration of the university, the City of Surrey and the Volken Academy, a drug and alcohol recovery centre nearby, which is a source of labour for the agricultural research greenhouses. Research on the Affinor Growers vertical growing towers began with eight arms per tower, but they have been re- configured now with 12 arms so each can grow 20 times the amount of produce, explains Fehr.

It’s been two years since the first strawberries were planted in the towers, which have LED lights added now to the larger tower to increase light to the centre of the tower.

The offset arms rotate and a high- diffusion trolley of lights is used so there’s always movement and very little shadow on the plants. Fehr notes there was slower production of strawberries in winter because the plants have a natural

6 British Columbia Berry Grower • Summer 2018

dormant cycle, but kale or lettuce could be grown in them during that season. Due to the initial

investment, a high-value crop needs to be grown to make the investment worthwhile, he notes. Although the cost of the infrastructure is high, the labour costs are not significant; probably less than in the field, he reports, because it’s such a compact operation. During the research, comparisons have been made between various nutrients, watering

techniques and varieties.

Plants are grown in soil, not hydro- ponically, and without

chemicals or

pesticides. Each plant is exposed to a unique micro- climate; an optimal environment based on the

plant’s growth cycle requirements, so each can reach its full potential. One objective of the research is to find out how efficiently crops can be grown in a controlled environment, indoors, year- round, notes Fehr.


A vertical growing tower inside a BioPod in Surrey.

The growing conditions save water at the same time as increasing production on a smaller footprint than field-grown produce.

Even more unusual is the fact that the research is being conducted in the middle of a city, rather than in a rural area, he adds.

Discussions are underway about what technologies will be tested in the BioPods next.

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