Category Archives: Vegetable Growing

Agra Tech and CEAC Maintain a Healthy and Growing Relationship

Dr. Gene A. Giacomelli at the Greenhouse Tomatoes Cooling Studies at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Dr. Gene A. Giacomelli at the Greenhouse Tomatoes Cooling Studies at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA.

The University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) in Tucson supports education, research and extension/outreach as part of the school’s Department of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering and the School of Plant Sciences.  Both within their the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the CEAC is known as the country’s leading institution for greenhouse growing education, featuring the finest professors in every aspect of this burgeoning industry. By staying ahead of the technology, the CEAC also offers an innovation platform for plant physiology, sensor technology and applied computer technology.

About Dr. Gene Giacomelli

He teaches Controlled Environment Systems which is an introduction to the technical aspects of greenhouse design, environmental control, nutrient delivery systems, hydroponic crop production, intensive field production systems, and post-harvest handling and storage of crops.

Giacomelli’s interests include controlled environment plant productions systems [greenhouse and growth chamber] research, design, development and applications, with emphases on: crop production systems, nutrient delivery systems, environmental control, mechanization, and labor productivity.

We recently talked to Giacomelli to discuss his role at the CEAC and how Agra Tech, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of commercial greenhouses assists the program by providing education and ongoing sponsorship.

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Q:  Tell us what you do at CEAC?

A: We focus on crop production in order to help the industry to grow, but we also teach the science and the engineering involved, to know why we can make it work or why it doesn’t work. So that’s what we do – we teach undergrads; we do research to create new knowledge; we teach graduates that help us do that research and then we have outreach and extension to get to the growers by inviting them to attend our short courses.

Q: It seems as though the professionals in this industry are willing to help each other even if they are competitors?

A: Yes this is a different type of industry in that regard. Agriculture in general I think – particularly the greenhouse people – are willing to help each other in a lot of ways. There’s competition, of course, but it’s beneficial too as more and more people succeed and that’s been raising the bar for everybody. And I think organizations like ours recognize and respect it from companies like Agra Tech. And that’s why we invite them every April to our conference in Tucson.

Q: From what we’re hearing, there are actually more jobs than students out there in the commercial greenhouse growing industry right now?

A: Absolutely. And that’s why I see all of these other states now at least putting together the horticultural side so they can educate and train students to be the growers. But we’re still going to need the engineers and the technical people as well. We have the engineering design program, but now we want to create a technical, non-engineering degree. Some people just don’t like the math – let’s put it that way. But yet they’re technically directed and they like to work hands on. They could do a non-engineering technical degree.

Q: How has Agra Tech played a role in what you’re doing at the CEAC?

A: Agra Tech comes to our short course year in and year out and they exhibit, which helps us to finance the entire program. It’s beneficial for the students and growers because they can meet the greenhouse reps and find out everything they need to know before acquiring a greenhouse for their particular needs. I was introduced to the Pound family back when I was at Rutgers University in the 1990’s as I recall.  They’re prominent people in the industry and well-known. Jim Bergantz and everyone else at Agra Tech see the bigger picture when it comes to this industry. They know that in order for this industry to grow, it needs education and support. So Agra Tech has been very good to us by waving our flag and telling people about our program.  All of the folks at Agra Tech are always there to say a good word  if somebody asks about a greenhouse – what’s a good buy, what’s a reputable one–I tell them,  ‘You’ve got to determine what you need by talking to the greenhouse reps and this is a good company that can assist you.’

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Article by Edmund Attanasio

Agra Tech Plays a Role in the Helical Outpost® Project

Helical Agra Tech

As one of the world’s leading manufacturers of commercial greenhouses, Agra Tech in Pittsburg, CA is always looking for new and innovative ways to improve the industry and a huge part of that is acting as consultants for cutting-edge companies. One of these examples is their involvement in the Helical Outpost® project, a sustainable, state-of-the-art, plug-and-play food, water, electricity and communication system that comes in a box and can be easily transported. It is intended to create global goodwill, reduce poverty and hunger and improve health for communities here in the United States and worldwide.

So, what exactly is a Helical Outpost®, designed and manufactured Helical Holdings, a company with its headquarters in Lafayette, LA? Well, in simple terms, it is a sustainable, integrated, and relocatable hydroponic greenhouse and power station featuring satellite Internet access and a water filtration system that produces up to 2,000 gallons of clean water daily, generating up to 10.8 kilowatt hours of commercial grade solar power and yields approximately 2,300 crop units per week.

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Inside Agra Tech Insulator 30 greenhouse with NFT Hydroponics and Vine crops

The growing capacity with the Helical Outpost is impressive and designed to have an immediate impact on a community’s food and entrepreneurship options rather quickly once implemented. Its hydroponic farm uses 80% less water and produces more produce in 6,000 square feet than the equivalent of 3 acres of conventional farming in the soil.  All of these resources unpack from a shipping container with plug and play capabilities that can be easily deployed nearly anywhere in the world, according to the company’s website.

 

Helical leaf-lettuce

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Helical lettuce

Lettuce ready to pick

How did this amazing project begin and how many Helical Outposts are currently in operation? We asked Helical Co-founder, Kohlie Frantzen. “We were inspired by the experiences of combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan witnessing the need for basic resources like food, water, electricity and communications,” he said, noting that the veterans observed, “If a man’s family is starving and he doesn’t have any options, when someone asks him to pick up a gun in return for food for his family, he will likely do it. But if he has options and his family is fed, he is more likely to say no to something like that.” Frantzen noted, “There are currently two Outposts up and running in Virginia and Louisiana. Both of these Outposts are training hubs for veterans to learn how the Helical Outpost operates and is used for fresh, local produce.”

 

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The concept is to provide humanitarian relief anywhere it is needed.

Interestingly, Frantzen noted that the need for Outpost standardization and relocatability is not limited to international applications. “We discovered the need for accessible resources is just as important across town as it is across the world.”

To refine and develop the concept, Frantzen decided to tap into the experience and knowledge offered by Agra Tech for advice about the greenhouse aspect of the Helical Post project. “The people at Agra Tech are committed to the greenhouse industry and we could see instantly that they wanted to be involved in some capacity,” he said. “Adam Pound and the rest of the Pound family brought their knowledge and skills to this project to come up with solutions that would work for us. We were working on making it as modular as it can be and also standardization is another big factor. We now have a standard system that can easily be set up and integrated into the community quickly and Agra Tech played a role in all of that.”

With a promising future and a goal of changing the world one Helical Outpost at a time, Frantzen is hopeful and not afraid to imagine big things. “In the song Imagine by John Lennon it says–‘You can say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  And I hope someday you’ll join us…’ We have a group of artists, scientists, fabricators, war veterans and other great innovators working on this project and none of us are afraid to imagine and dream about a great future. This project will always be changing and evolving as technology evolves and changes,” he said. For instance, solar panels became more powerful and affordable now than when we began the project. If we could have 1,000 Outposts out there in the world helping communities to solve so many issues they currently face–that would be phenomenal. As we strategically rollout this solution and it continually proves itself and gets better, while working with Agra Tech and other industry leaders, we can only anticipate big, big things.”

Article by Edmund Attanasio

Helical AgraTech Lights

Agra Tech and Phoenix IRC Work Together to Create Community Farm

North Slope greenhouse

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic well being, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, to reclaim control of their future and to strengthen their communities. Recently, Agra Tech, a leading manufacturer of commercial greenhouses, played an integral role in helping IRC in Phoenix, AZ to establish a small greenhouse in conjunction with their New Roots Program.

The New Roots Program is designed to help refugee farming families achieve food security, self-sufficiency and economic empowerment through their agricultural businesses. To achieve these, the IRC provides the following services to help new Arizonan farmers/ranchers: Agricultural education and business training; Agricultural business development; and Community agricultural partnerships.

koffi_newrootsWith three community gardens, aquaponics, and more than 100 participants gardening, the IRC in Phoenix provides training for new producers at multiple farmers markets around town and currently has program participants selling at four different farmers’ markets, three popup stands, and multiple retail locations. By also providing a John Deere tractor, implements, hand tools, processing supplies, and marketing supplies, the farmers involved are set up for success. Partners for the program include Rotary Club, Vitalyst Health Foundation, City of Phoenix, Redemption Church, Hickman’s Eggs, United Dairymen of Arizona.

By playing an active role in affecting city policy surrounding community gardens and farmers’ markets, the New Roots Program has changed the way people in low income areas attain food in Phoenix. Tristan Dunton, 25, is the Community Garden and Hydroponics Coordination and part of the New Roots Farm Program. We sat down with Dunton recently to discuss his most recent project and how Agra Tech, Inc. in Pittsburg, CA helped to make it all happen.

Q: Tell us about the genesis of your project for IRC Phoenix.
A: The project started in 2014 with the support of the Steele Foundation, and in the process we were involved in changing policy. Back in 2012, the city in conjunction with some people at IRC Phoenix developed the Community Garden Policy that allows us to build anything under 200square feet without electricity hookups and without a permit. Obviously, anything larger or, requiring an electrical hookup, requires a permit. Before we began this project, we had to get the language of the policy clarified, because without it we were going to have difficulty getting our greenhouse going–which we did.

Q: Tell us the genesis of your current project and how it came to fruition?
A: Right after getting hired by the IRC Phoenix, we signed a 10-year lease at a one-acre lot on 1616 Camelback Road. According to the City of Phoenix, any structure more than 200 square feet requires a permit. So, we needed to navigate through the process and make this happen without getting seriously delayed. We were moving a little faster than the City, so that’s where we encountered some problems. Long story short, we got our permit in January of this year, so I started working with local engineers to make it happen. It was pretty amazing. We started construction earlier this year and we just finished about a month ago.

Q: You ran into some obstacles along the way. Can you describe them?
A: Yes, it was definitely a learning process and I had to be a quick study on city politics as a result. First, I didn’t know how to formalize the language to represent the project appropriately. I had to define what I was building, which is a community garden greenhouse. When I called it a “teaching greenhouse” I think the city started looking at us as a school, which we are not. So, there was a period of time there where it looked daunting. But, with the help of a civil engineer, a local architect and a contractor–we eventually got it done.

Q: How is your community garden greenhouse doing currently?
A: It’s been great! The Agra Tech greenhouse looks beautiful and we already have so many people involved in the project. People in this area get limited access to fresh food and this project is going to change that. We’re receiving a ton of support from the community and people are volunteering right and left.

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Q: What are you growing?
A: Tomatoes, peppers and lettuce will be our main cash crops, but we will also be growing things like celery, turnip greens, Swiss chard and other items like that. The real important thing about our system is that we will be able to grow food year-round. We also plan to eventually raise tilapia here as well. The grant that we received for this project was to build a greenhouse and by the third year of funding we have to be 100% sustainable. We’re technically on our second year, so we have much to do.

Q: What was Agra Tech’s role in helping you with this project?
A: They were terrific. I guess I pretty much dealt with everyone there at Agra Tech at some point. Everyone was super friendly and really helpful. Jim Bergantz was a great proprietor on this project and he got back to us promptly every time. Anita Pound and James Roberts, their technical guy, was exceptional. They have so much knowledge and they’ve been doing this for so long that that working with them was a no-brainer.

Q: What do you think the future of 1616 Camelback Road will be like?
A: If we can grow food to feed the people of Phoenix and on top of that, sell much of it to make enough money for us to be sustainable, that will be very satisfying, to say the least. Now that we have a great greenhouse and are finally here growing food, I think we’ll achieve some impressive things here rather quickly.

Aquaponics tank
Aquaponics tank

Ed Attanasio Written by Edmund Attanasio