Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) allows Northeast farmers to increase yields and annual profits using hydroponic systems for year-round production. Outdoor strawberry production in the Northeast is currently season-limited to late spring through early fall. With the adoption of hydroponic greenhouse production using day-neutral cultivars producing fruit year-round, farmers can achieve significant increases in yields using the same amount of space. Strawberries’ general resilience in colder temperatures greatly reduces the burden of heating costs typically seen with specialty greenhouse crops such as tomatoes and peppers. This makes strawberry an ideal fruiting crop for Northeast year-round production. This year-round, local production will supply the existing Northeast berry market, currently supplied by Florida and California. Yet Northeast producers need a competitive edge to sustain economically, and organic hydroponic production guidelines will allow local producers to compete in the regional market. The proposed research will develop CEA guidelines for potential certification of organic hydroponic strawberry production in the Northeast, filling a large gap in the regional berry market. Through the development of production guidelines and the use of naturally-derived nutrient solutions developed from treated aquaculture effluents, these protocols will provide farmers with a new production model allowing them to sustain economically through increased yields and margins, capitalizing on local consumer preferences. Specifically, these guidelines will address Northeast supplemental lighting requirements, temporal plant-nutrient uptake needs, and cultivar selection for improved performance. The outcome from this research will result in farmers producing crops to the highest efficiency by optimizing year-round production costs.
Project objectives from proposal:
The overarching goal for this proposed research is to develop and disseminate the protocols necessary to provide Northeast farmers a competitive edge to successfully supply locally-grown strawberries year-round to the regional berry market. Utilizing the newly-constructed, replicated farm-scale research facilities at the UNH Kingman Farm, this research will develop a foundational understanding and practical solutions for the integration of hydroponic strawberry production with a naturally-derived nutrient source.
The following is a list and description of the specific objectives for the proposed research:
1. Compare three day-neutral cultivars using a standard hydroponic nutrient solution to evaluate performance under hydroponic conditions using soilless substrate. To best determine the most appropriate cultivar for use in CEA hydroponic systems, three or four recently-developed varieties will be evaluated under controlled conditions. Research will focus on cultivars at the forefront of organic hydroponic strawberry production, including up-and-coming Dutch cultivars. Data collected quantifying fruit yields, plant vigor and overall fruit quality (size, flavor, color) will be used to identify which cultivars exhibit superlative performance.
2.Establish the hydroponic nutrient requirements of the selected day-neutral strawberry cultivar, and develop a nutrient solution using a naturally-derived nutrient source. Once a cultivar is selected from Objective #1, a nutrient mass balance will be conducted to determine the temporal nutrient uptake requirements during the vegetative, flowering, and fruiting stages of development. The resulting nutrient requirements will then be used to develop a naturally-sourced nutrient solution through characterization and augmentation of the available macro- and micro-nutrients, and testing of the solution will quantify yield.
3. Evaluate the effect of daily light integral (DLI) on the selected day-neutral cultivar grown in CEA hydroponic systems. To determine the ideal amount of light from an economic and productivity perspective, four different lighting treatments (target DLIs) will be evaluated under controlled conditions. Research will focus on promoting flowering. Data collected will include environmental variables, plant quality (size, growth, health, etc.), PAR (light intensity), and DLI.
4. Host two annual hands-on, technology transfer workshops for organic Northeast fruit and vegetable growers. In conjunction with annual aquaponic technology transfer workshops for farmers supported by funding from the USDA and New Hampshire Sea Grant, two annual workshops for CEA strawberry will be hosted for regional farmers. Workshops will provide hands-on training in the arm-scale hydroponic/aquaponic systems on propagation, substrates, drip irrigation, fertilization, runner production and general maintenance. A written guide will be provided for growers to take home for reference.