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Inside the Box: NC State Indoor Farming Research Gets Boost

Purple light in greenhouse with tomato plants.
Hernandez's indoor farming research focuses on the effect of light quality, light intensity, and the interaction of light and other environmental factors.

NC State’s Ricardo Hernandez is breaking new ground when it comes to controlled environment agriculture, the increasingly popular practice of producing crops indoors.

Hernandez’s goal is to make indoor farming more profitable and sustainable. His research focuses on improving production of high-value fruit and vegetable crops in greenhouses or in the shipping containers, plant factories and vertical farms of the future.

His program got a boost recently when Durham business owner Ben Greene gave the university an enclosed structure – essentially a modified shipping container – for its Horticultural Field Lab, behind the JC Raulston Arboretum.

Greene’s company, The Farmery, designs and sells indoor farms to restaurants and other entrepreneurs who want to grow local foods and sell them from the same site. That cuts transportation costs as well as the losses that occur during their journey from farm to table, he said.

While indoor farming is a fast-growing field, Greene said, there’s not much research-based information available to students and others who want to learn more about the practice.

Greene hopes his gift will change that.

[pullquote color=’red’ align=’right’]Once the indoor farm is up and running, Hernandez will use it to conduct research and teach students about growing high-value fruits and vegetables inside.[/pullquote]

By fall, Hernandez plans to begin growing specialty crops in the indoor farm for his research. Next spring, he plans to open the space to students in his Crop Physiology and Production in Controlled Systems class.

“My students will test the system, grow plants in it and provide (the Farmery) with feedback,” he said.

Hernandez will also provide information for NC State Extension to share with North Carolina growers. Right now, most indoor farming systems are expensive, he said. But the Farmery offers do-it-yourself kits that cut the costs in half.

For now, Hernandez uses existing NC State plant sciences facilities, including its Phytotron, for research on an array of indoor agriculture topics. He and his students are, for example, developing light recipes that improve lettuce quality and yield indoors, and they are also exploring increasing carbon dioxide concentrations to improve growth of grafted vegetables. (These vegetables have crowns fused to the rootstock of a different type of plant.)

Once the indoor farm is up and running at NC State, Hernandez plans to use it to conduct research related to high-value fruits and vegetables. He also sees potential for farmers to grow more seedlings indoors, then transplant them outdoors.

“More and more growers are moving to seedlings instead of seeding in the field,” Hernandez said. “A well-established seedling will have greater yield than a poorly established seedling. Using a controlled environment can be key, because we can grow plants in high density and manipulate the environment – the lighting, the temperature, air movement and carbon dioxide concentrations – to produce the best seedlings possible.

“The economics make complete sense,” he added.

And so does the partnership between NC State and The Farmery.

As Thomas Manshack, formerly a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ development officer, noted, “It’s a good example of how we can deliver value to an emerging industry and a testament to the value that the industry sees in Dr. Hernandez’s work.”

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