Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA): More than Hydroponics

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA): More than Hydroponics

Controlled Environment Agriculture - Hydroponic SolutionsWith technology evolving quickly enough for science fiction to become an overnight reality, it’s not surprising that news outlets seem to feature vertical agriculture, indoor farming, or hydroponic growing every few days. Futuristic urban buildings that contain lettuce grown in plastic pipes and farmers dressed in lab-coats do make for a great story, after all. 

All of this innovation is certainly newsworthy, but the overlapping terms and technologies may blur together for grocery-store shoppers who are simply trying to decipher where their food comes from. In order to clear up this confusion, and make these topics more accessible, it is useful to begin with an explanation of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)—the method of production that FreshBox Farms uses to best provide for its customers.

So, What is Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)?

BPS Root Module with dwarf wheat plants (NASA)

BPS Root Module with dwarf wheat plants (NASA)

Controlled Environment Agriculture is an umbrella term used for many varieties of indoor plant cultivation. This can include something as simple as a DIY greenhouse or as complex as NASA’s Biomass Production System. Most generally, however, CEA can be defined as a method of cultivating plants in an enclosed environment, using technology to ensure optimal growing conditions.

The CEA cultivation process can be done in virtually any form of contained area, whether that be a skyscraper, home, or warehouse. This flexibility permits plants, and therefore food, to be grown in almost any location, creating agricultural opportunities in typically infertile areas, such as deserts, cities, or outer space. Moreover, by using this method food may be produced at any time of the year, because CEA’s regulated environment is not subject to the same weather-constrained growing seasons that traditional agriculture is. Subsequently, as concerns build surrounding conventional field agriculture, including its impact on topsoil degradation, water usage, and distance from urban centers (to name just a few), CEA is increasingly being looked toward as a viable alternative for modern food production.

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How Does Controlled Environment Agriculture Work?

This agricultural method functions by controlling for several factors that influence the growth rate and health of crops. These factors most often include:

    • Temperature (air, nutrient solution, root-zone)
    • Humidity
    • Carbon dioxide
    • Light (intensity, spectrum, interval)
    • Nutrient concentration 
    • Nutrient pH (acidity)

In order to effectively manage growing conditions, CEA farmers typically engineer technological systems, which adjust the input and output of nutrients and resources to the plants within their enclosures. Over time, several forms of such technologies have been experimented with, and refined, to the point where they are now commonly applied within CEA operations. Some notable examples of CEA technologies are the frequently publicized methods of hydroponics, vertical farming, and LED light growing.

To help explain the tech behind the CEA process, we will take a closer look at hydroponic farming as a case-study. This will allow us to see how CEA technologies actually accomplish controlling for environmental factors. Before doing so, however, it is necessary to highlight that hydroponics is a technological method that works in conjunction with Controlled Environment Agriculture to grow food. Without the controlled environment, many of the positive aspects of hydroponic growing never actually come to fruition.

What is hydroponics?

Hydroponics is an engineered way of cultivating plants that uses a soil-less growth medium and an optimized nutrient solution in order to deliver the calculated resources that a crop requires. Because of this, plants are theoretically able to uptake the maximum amount of nutrients that they can, in the most efficient way that they can, to subsequently achieve their best possible health and fastest growth.

Research on hydroponics began to develop in the mid-1800s, as botanists and plant nutritionists sought to determine methods of quickly producing healthy food without relying on the weather or access to soil. Over time, improvements in the composition of growth mediums and nutrient cultures, as well as in the understanding of what plants are best grown hydroponically, have led to hydroponics being applied to large-scale agriculture. Today, hydroponic farming has gained popularity as a result of the successes of scientists and commercial growing operations. These groups have worked to position the technology as a possible solution for feeding the ever-growing global population of consumers, as well as for addressing the environmental issues caused by conventional agriculture.

There are many hydroponics techniques that are used within CEA. These techniques vary depending on the medium utilized and whether or not the nutrient solution is circulated or static, among other factors. In order to offer a better grasp on how hydroponics functions within CEA, a few of these techniques are briefly detailed below.

How Do Hydroponic Systems Work?

Fundamentally, hydroponic systems work by applying an engineered nutrient solution to the root system of a plant. This can occur by using any, or a mix, of the following sample methods:

Controlled Environment Agriculture: Hydroponic Static Solution Culture

Static Solution Culture
A set-up that positions plant root systems directly into a container of nutrient solution, which is either aerated or kept at a low enough level to provide adequate oxygen to the roots. After a certain level of nutrients have been absorbed, the solution is changed out or replenished to ensure maximum growth.

Controlled Environment Agriculture: Hydroponic Continuous-Flow Solution Culture

Continuous-flow Solution Culture
In this set-up, root systems of plants are constantly exposed to a flowing nutrient solution, as opposed to simply being submersed in it. This enables large-scale maintenance of nutrient levels and conditions, as the vast majority of the solution is stored in a reservoir tank at any given point.

A particularly notable example of Continuous-Flow Solution Culture is the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). The NFT places plants on a sloped grow-tray with their roots in a watertight mat beneath. A thin, highly oxygenated stream of nutrient solution is then continuously pumped up to the top of the channel, traveling down to either be absorbed by the roots or recycled in the reservoir tank. This process enables the roots to be bare, meaning that little-to-no growing medium is required.

Controlled Environment Agriculture: Hydroponic Aeroponics

A slight departure from traditional hydroponics, the aeroponics set-up utilizes a mist of solution to deliver nutrients to the plants’ root systems. The unabsorbed mist then condenses and returns via gravity to a reservoir tank for recycling. This technique is used to prevent the plant from becoming water-logged, and to increase the amount of oxygen that is delivered.

How Does Hydroponics Relate to Controlled Environment Agriculture?

Now that we have laid out the basics, it becomes important to reemphasize that hydroponics is a method used within Controlled Environment Agriculture for the best production results. This is not to say that space-saving and nutrient-efficient techniques like vertical farming and hydroponics cannot be implemented to a lesser degree of success in outdoor or uncontrolled environments. However, it is CEA’s cooperation of strategic growing strategies with technological environmental controls that creates optimal agricultural solutions.

The technological environmental controls within a large-scale CEA operation are numerous and often require a great deal of engineering prowess to set-up. At its most basic level, CEA technologies are composed of an interplay between sensors, machines, and computers. Sensors measure the levels of environmental factors (CO2, Temperature, Light, etc..). Machines, such as fans and heaters and LED lighting systems, regulate those monitored levels. Lastly, computers ensure that communication and response between sensors and machines operate smoothly and rapidly.

To reiterate, it is only when all of these items are working in conjunction with one another that a growing operation can truly reap the full benefits of CEA.

What Are the Benefits of Controlled Environment Agriculture?

Returning to the case of the grocery-store shopper, it seems like all of this information generally boils down to the question: Why should I care about this?

While there are many great answers to this question, which we will address in future blogs, some of the principle benefits of Controlled Environment Agriculture are that it enables:

  1. Much Lower Water Consumption
    CEA systems are optimized to minimize evaporation and excess – using no more than the amount of water required by each crop
  2. Cleaner Growing Practices (For You and the Environment)
    A CEA system has many fewer pests, weeds, and diseases to contend with. This means that CEA growers do not need to place nasty pesticides and herbicides in your food and waterways, like traditional agriculture does.
  3. Better Location and Distribution to Cities
    Because a CEA system may be located almost anywhere, and crops can be grown using much less land, it is easier to position a farm within or close to urban centers.
  4. No Usage of GMOs Necessary
    The monitoring and mechanical solutions utilized in CEA systems ensure consistently high, healthy yields, making the usage of GMOs unnecessary.
  5. Consistent Availability
    A CEA system ensures that crops are always in-season and experience optimal climates, regardless of whether there may be frosts or droughts outside. This means that consumers get the freshest, most reliably grown produce all year round.

After examining the food production results attained by the cooperation of hydroponics, vertical farming, and other techniques with Controlled Environment Agriculture, the question consumers should be asking is not, “Why should I care about this?”, it’s “Where can I get some?!”