Green Thumbs

May 2023

Researchers reflect on lessons learned from local Smart Garden

Bob Hochmuth has been a regional extension agent at the University of Florida’s North Florida Research and Education Center-Suwannee Valley for more than 30 years. For much of that time, he found that farmers across the state had very little interest in what he calls protected agriculture. Up until 2000, there were fewer than 100 acres of greenhouses across the entire state. Then things began to change.

“A lot of that was driven by smaller growers who didn’t necessarily have the land for a full-blown farm, but did have enough for a greenhouse or two,” he says. “It kind of coincided with the increase in demand for local produce. So there were a lot of folks who wanted to get into agriculture and found greenhouses were the way they could do it.”

As a result, the Research and Education Center began offering increasingly popular training courses in hydroponics, production systems, fertilizer injection and greenhouse structures. That made the center the ideal place to start testing an indoor garden facility in January 2022 with the support of SVEC, Seminole Electric Cooperative and the Electric Power Research Institute.

In the almost 18 months since, the Smart Garden has been home to an indoor kale growing operation that has been a success in terms of both production and education.

“We have had thousands of people at various events who have been able to get a look at this research project,” says Hochmuth. “I think it’s enhanced our ability to do extension work here with some of the most advanced technology available. So it’s been pretty cool to feel like we’re on the cutting edge.”

A Different World

Agricultural Assistant Supervisor Wanda Laughlin oversees the day-to-day operations of the Smart Garden and learned a great deal about the process in recent months. Even with 30 years of experience as a greenhouse grower, managing a completely controlled environment has turned out to be its own challenge.

“It’s a very different world. Very small changes in a controlled atmosphere can make large impacts on plant growth and quality in a short period of time,” she says. “We are learning how significant the impacts of blue and red light and the availability of carbon dioxide are to the growth, visual appearance and quality of the crop.”

While protected agriculture won’t replace conventional farming anytime soon, Hochmuth does believe the results of the Smart Garden show that indoor agriculture has the potential to help farmers produce certain crops year-round.

“In the greenhouse, we can extend the season compared to what we could do in the field,” he says. “So, with an indoor garden system one of the main advantages is you can be a consistent provider of product year round.”

Not just any product, though. One of Hochmuth’s other takeaways from the last 18 months is that the overhead costs required to start up a facility like the Smart Garden would demand a high-end crop, like specialty lettuces, to make the investment worthwhile.

For this particular experiment, researchers have gone with kale in place of one of those high-value options. Laughlin has been surprised at the durability of the leafy green but, more importantly, it’s the same crop being grown in 19 other similar containers across the country. Once all of their crops are complete, researchers will be able to compare each site to see how electricity and water usage varied in different climates.

Regardless of the findings, the Smart Garden has already had one unquestionably positive impact. As the kale produced at the site has been harvested, more than 1,250 pounds of the greens have been donated to the Florida Gateway Food Bank in Lake City.

Room To Grow

With just a couple of months left in the garden’s experimental run, Hochmuth and Laughlin are already eagerly looking ahead to ways the space could be used in the future. The University of Florida already has one specialist breeding a variety of lettuces, some of which haven’t even been named yet.

“We could take 20, 30, 50 different breeding lines, each one a different background, a different germ plasm and a different type of lettuce,” says Hochmuth. “We’d put those in the container in an experimental design and evaluate which ones could potentially be good fits for indoor agriculture.”

Other options could include replacing kale with some of those high-value crops, such as edible flowers or leafy herbs, and determining how well they work in an indoor environment. Until then, Hochmuth is happy to see out the current crop and enjoy the support of partners like SVEC.

“The cooperation and collaboration with SVEC to make this whole thing happen has been great,” he says. “It’s no small thing to implement something this intensive. So the opportunity for us to have something here that’s meaningful to the community and to SVEC makes it that much more meaningful to us.”