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Could Norfolk firm’s indoor ‘pods’ be a game-changer for vegetable growing?

Dan Hewitt, owner and founder of GroPod. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Dan Hewitt, owner and founder of GroPod. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

With pressure mounting on finite land supplies, a Norfolk firm is changing the game for potato production – speeding growth by giving growers complete environmental control inside aeroponic “pods”. BETHANY WHYMARK reports.

GroPod at Scottow Enterprise Park. Picture: ANTONY KELLYGroPod at Scottow Enterprise Park. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Enhancing the flavour of vegetables, speeding growth and optimising water and nutrient use are some of the possible benefits from a “pioneering” technique being practised by a Norfolk start-up.

Gropod, a designer and manufacturer of aeroponic growing pods based at Scottow Enterprise Park, is involved in a trial with a major regional food producer to see if its technology can be used to grow tropical crops in East Anglia.

With the successful project due to end next month, the company is already thinking of national applications for its products to help alleviate the pressures on arable land – and scientists involved in the project think it could open exciting opportunities in crop biology.

The company was founded in 2016 by agricultural sales veteran Dan Hewitt, who most recently worked as managing director of a potato supply group in north Norfolk, who calls the firm a “pioneer in aeroponic root production”.

GroPod at Scottow Enterprise Park.  Picture: ANTONY KELLYGroPod at Scottow Enterprise Park. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The key to its method are insulated pods over which farmers can have total environmental control. The aeroponic growing process, which sees the roots exposed to the air, uses a high-pressure device which mists the plants with water and nutrients at regular intervals.

The water is captured and reused – Gropod estimates its growing process uses 70-90pc less water than soil growing – and is also analysed to assess any nutrient deficiencies in the plants.

The company is currently using the technology to grow sweet potatoes in a trial for Kettle Foods, which challenged the John Innes Centre (JIC) to explore the possibility of growing such tropical crops for its products locally.

Gropod was put forward by JIC, and received an Eastern Agritech grant and a cash injection from Kettle to develop its pods.

They were, and continue to be, supported by Dr Jonathan Clarke, pictured below, head of business development at JIC, who had met a UK-based sweet potato grower working in Essex and Kent and had some ideas of the potential problems which Gropod’s technology could try to address.

After working for a year to design the 21sqm pods, which were planted with 320 sweet potato plants each, Gropod made its first harvest in December.

Another project, growing blue and red potatoes, has already finished and been deemed successful – in the pod’s “optimal” conditions, the plants were producing tubers within five weeks and were harvested in eight.

Mr Hewitt said: “We can grow tubers to harvesting in six weeks – that’s eight or nine crops a year. Take the environmental factors away, give the plant the food it needs 24 hours a day, and you have optimal conditions which will produce perfect crops.”

Mr Hewitt is keen to reduce the pods’ environmental footprint further by using solar power to run the pods’ lights – currently high-pressure sodium bulbs, but LEDs are being trialled.

Through their process Mr Hewitt and Mr Wright also made the “surprise” discovery about the air temperature needed for aeroponic growing. “When you plant a potato in a field you want soil temperature of nine degrees. When you don’t have soil the air temperature around the roots is critical, and it is a lot higher than I thought it would be,” Mr Hewitt said.

Dr Clarke said improvements were evident in the second generation of pod infrastructure, which was more efficient, and was helping the plants to grow more vigorously and produce better tubers more quickly.

The technology would start to “re-educate” people about crop growth, he said.

“You tend to leave it to Mother Nature, but with this you have a strict regime you can control. Suddenly the plant is growing differently and you realise you can influence it.

“Gropod has heralded a change in vegetable production strategies and I think it is going to offer producers and growers something exciting.”

JIC researchers will analyse the crops produced to see how the level of control enabled by aeroponic growing environments could be taken advantage of, for example to adjust the nutritional value or flavour of the tubers or bring back heritage or heirloom varieties which do not manage well in traditional soil growing.

PODS IN A LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM

With land for food crops likely to become a rarer commodity in the future, investors and producers are responding to the idea of pod growing.

Last month potato giant McCain announced an investment in an “urban farming” company in Canada, using similar techniques to Gropod, proving demand for less resource-hungry growing solutions.

“Commercially it works, and there are a lot of people out there who want to see it succeed,” said Mr Hewitt.

A major goal for Gropod is the development of “sustainable supply chains”, which can reduce the air and road miles on fresh produce. Mr Hewitt added: “Rather than importing sweet potatoes from all over the world, can we get our potato growers to put in pod infrastructure for them to carry on growing ingredient crops all through the year?

“Using clever technology, water and solar and making use of redundant spaces – which there are thousands of – the importing of food becomes less critical.”

RE-FOCUSING TRAINING

As soil-less growing systems like hydro- and aeroponics become more common, Dan Hewitt thinks it will be necessary for agricultural education to evolve too.

Alongside the commercial applications of its pods, the business has a vision to become a training centre focused on aeroponic growing, supported by specialist courses at the region’s colleges.

“We are quite hooked on getting this to a place where Gropod is a training centre to get the farmers of the future ready to go out on to the farm with pods,” Mr Hewitt said.

“A traditional farm manager is used to managing soil, which is very different. We think there will have to be investment in people as well as the technology.”

Mr Hewitt said Simon Coward, director of Hethel Engineering Centre, which supports Scottow Enterprise Park, is also keen to make Gropod a “centre of excellence” for training in aeroponics.


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