Greenhouse Agriculture: The Future of High-Tech Farming

Greenhouse Agriculture: The Future of High-Tech Farming
Contributor
Contributor
External Guest Writer
May 11, 2021

Greenhouse agriculture has become very popular in all corners of the world. It originated in the 13th century, as a way to satisfy the gastronomic demands of royalty. Hundreds of years ago, greenhouse farming was also used to cultivate medicinal plants and herbs. 

Today, entire university teams are dedicated to the scientific study of greenhouse growing. Coupled with recent advancements in agricultural technology, greenhouse farming has become more and more productive and lucrative agribusiness venture.

What is Greenhouse Farming?

Greenhouse farming is the process of growing crops and vegetables in a greenhouse. Doing so typically allows farmers to increase their performance and yields, while improving the quality of products. Greenhouse farming protects crops from external threats such as certain pests and extreme weather events. 

Greenhouse agriculture also is a way of growing fruits and vegetables native to warmer climates in their colder counterparts - for example, growing tomatoes in a greenhouse in Norway. 

In greenhouses, the light, ventilation, humidity, and temperature can all be controlled. This allows the farmer to create and provide optimal micro-ecosystems for their plants, helping them grow strong, beautiful, nutritious and tasty.

Why Cultivate and Grow in a Greenhouse? 

Well-implemented greenhouses in a controlled environment can be a low-cost solution to improving a farmer's productivity and profitability in countries with harsher climates. They also serve as an excellent vehicle for broadening one's farming or gardening horizons, and improving the quality of their crops.

However, not all crops are suited to being grown in greenhouses. Typically, crops that do well in greenhouses are those that require warm growing conditions, or those that are quite delicate and thrive only in a very narrow range of environmental variables.

For example, tomatoes.

Tomatoes are thought of as a staple in most western - and even some Eastern - cuisines. Yet these crops are surprisingly delicate and require a great deal of attention to detail in order to grow well. 

In order for their tomatoes to thrive, the farmer must take into account the soil type, the quality of the soil, and the average ambient temperature.

The soil must be moist enough to allow roots to grow through it and support the fruits, yet not too inundated that it drowns the plant. Tomatoes like temperatures no higher than 25° to 27°C. Anything above that, and the plant will not bear fruit correctly.

So what does this have to do with greenhouses? Well, in order to achieve these very precise and specific conditions, the easiest solution is to use a controlled environment such as a greenhouse. 

In addition to ensuring the delicate crops are well tended to, greenhouses also protect crops from pests and sudden changes in weather patterns. This is particularly relevant in parts of the world where the weather is prone to changing rapidly in short spaces of time. Some crops are not resilient enough to successfully cope with such drastic changes in environment so quickly, and so do significantly better under the shelter of a greenhouse. 

tomatoes growing inside a greenhouse

What Should a Greenhouse Have?

What a farmer should include in their facility really depends first and foremost on what crops they will be growing in that greenhouse. Every plant has different conditions they thrive in, so the facility should be optimized for those.

However that said, there are some universal things that need to form a part of any greenhouse, or at least be considered.

Location

Arguably the most vital decision - where the facility or planthouse will be placed. It needs to be in a location that receives enough sunlight, and is sufficiently protected from the wind, but is not in the way of any falling leaves from trees that might dirty or obscure the frame. 

Also remember to factor in that at least 2 feet of access space around the facility is usually necessary for cleaning and making repairs.

Sunlight

Greenhouses should still let in adequate sunlight to allow plants to photosynthesize. This is how plants get their energy - without the sun, there is no crop. The recommendation from experienced farmers seems to be 6 to 8 hours of light a day, with at least 45% - 60% humidity in the air.

Foundations

Finally, the greenhouse will of course require a tough, durable flat base – no putting it straight onto the soil! Paving slabs are the perfect choice, and they can be wetted in the summer in order to keep the air humid.

Main material

Even though greenhouses are typically thought of as being made of glass, modern models are now available in other materials such as plastics and polycarbonates. Deciding what material you'd like your greenhouse to be made of is a crucial decision. 

Glass is the clearest and lets in the most light overall. It also lasts the longest and is the most easily replaceable in terms of single panels. However, it is also the most prone to breaking. Plastics and polycarbonates are far less likely to break, but don’t let light in as effectively, and are often more expensive options.

Glazing

The other key thing to consider is that glazing will have different insulation properties, so some may be more suitable for some climates than others. Polycarbonate sheeting tends to insulate better so less heat will be lost from your greenhouse. This will be beneficial if your garden is in a particularly cool area.

Temperature & Heating

It is recommended that average ambient temperatures should not exceed 20°C during the day, and should not fall below 7°C in the evening. The most efficient heating solution for a greenhouse is an electric fan heater combined with a propagator and a thermostat. Bubble insulation also provides additional warmth at a lower cost.

Electric costs

Firstly, it must be decided whether this will be an electric greenhouse or not. If so, then setting it up as close to the house as possible will lead to cheaper electricity installation. 

The Advantages of Greenhouse Farming

There are several benefits to greenhouse farming, including:

Extending the growing season

Greenhouse farming's biggest advantage is that it frees crops from being slaves to the natural cycles of the seasons. With the ability to control the environment, greenhouse farmers are able to grow crops year round rather than being limited by the seasons. 

Additionally, different techniques can be employed to keep a stable temperature and extend the growing season of any given crop. One very common practice is to use natural materials that absorb, store, and release thermal heat to promote strong growth early in the season. 

Protection against adverse weather events

No matter how heavy the rain is outside, or how low the temperatures have fallen, the plants remain protected in their greenhouse oasis. No matter how strong the sun or how dry the environment, the crops remain moist. There is no need to worry about seasonal changes, as the crops can continue to grow undisturbed in their greenhouse.

Growing crops in off-season (= higher profits)

Prices of fruits and vegetables fluctuate throughout the year to reflect their relative abundances on the market. Crops at the height of their season, when supplies are high, will sell for less than they do in low season. 

However, when growing in a greenhouse, supply is steady all year round. Not only that - a wider variety of crops can be grown over the whole year, compounding the profits. A greenhouse is an excellent way to set yourself up with greater availability of a crop when the market has a low supply, enabling you to charge a premium for your crop.

Pest control

The biggest threats to crops in traditional farming are arguably periods of drought, closely followed by pests. Greenhouse farming enables farmers to tightly control what comes in and what goes out of the greenhouse. In this way, pest management becomes much easier and contained, minimizing their adverse impact on the crops. 

Increasing production efficiency

Being able to grow year-round, coupled with the ability to keep track of how resources are used and manage them correctly makes greenhouse agriculture a very efficient system when implemented and run properly.

The Disadvantages of Greenhouse Farming

As with any endeavor, greenhouse farming also carries its drawbacks. For example, it is significantly roughly 260% more expensive to produce crops in a greenhouse than in traditional outdoor farming. Here are some further disadvantages to consider weighing up before jumping in with both feet:

High upfront costs and lack of investment

Getting started with a greenhouse farm requires a substantial capital investment upfront, which most people do not have to hand. Therefore, most people pursue external funding to launch their agricultural enterprise. However, investments for agriculture are not quite what they are for fintech.

Despite the promise that agricultural advancements like greenhouse farming offer, the investment world still lags behind the times. The funding available to entrepreneurs pursuing agricultural paths and careers are still quite limited, unfortunately. There are a few potential reasons for this: 

  • Lack of technological certainty
  • Timing of returns of a greenhouse farm do not match the traditional holding period of 5 years that private equity firms expect from a young business
  • Size of the market isn't deemed as big enough. Yes, everyone eats, but is the consumer demand for the precise product your farm is creating high enough to drive significant players like supermarkets to change their purchasing programs? Unlikely.

This is a short-term concern. As the technology improves and therein returns are improved and become more consistent, investors will enter the space in a more comprehensive way. 

Ongoing operating expenses

Do not underestimate the expenses required to run the greenhouse farm once it is set up. In order to make sure you use the greenhouse to the best of its ability, you will need to invest in supplies that can last a good while (read about automation in farming here).

Particularly where heating is concerned - if not carefully evaluated before installation, you could be facing much more expensive monthly energy bills than necessary with equipment that might have been slightly more expensive upfront but more energy efficient in the log run.

The lack of pollination

As mentioned previously, with greenhouse farming comes an even greater control of your plants. However, sometimes it is inevitable that some plants will carry pests such as whiteflies, which can spread quickly to the rest of the crops. 

Additionally, it is worth considering the fact that there is no way for pollinators to reach your crops. This may be a disadvantage to a greater or lesser extent depending on what kind of plants you're trying to grow in the greenhouse.

Final Word

In summary, greenhouse farming is a great solution when you're looking to grow certain crops that are perhaps more fragile than others, need a little extra warmth, protection from pests, or harsh weather conditions. 

With the potential for greenhouse farming to extend growing seasons, grow crops off-season, and grow crops that otherwise wouldn't thrive in the local climate, greenhouse agriculture presents a unique opportunity for farmers to grow their profit margins if they play the game of supply and demand correctly.

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