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New Laboratory Explores Vertical Farming

Erik Runkle, a professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture, developed new Controlled-Environment Lighting Laboratory (CELL) to:

  • Conduct research on controlled-environment production of high-value specialty food crops, such as leafy greens and herbs, along with ornamental plants, such as seedlings and cuttings.
  • Demonstrate indoor growing systems to inform growers and capture the interest of students and the public.
  • Provide teaching applications for undergraduates enrolled in relevant horticulture production courses.

The laboratory consists of two independently controlled and refrigerated growth rooms filled with stacked shelves of plants grown hydroponically – meaning recirculated water, no soil.

State-of-the-art light-emitting diodes (LEDs) developed in collaboration with OSRAM and OSRAM Opto Semiconductors allow for alterations of light quality and intensity. Runkle said research conducted in CELL focuses on lighting to produce crops with desired traits such as leaf size, texture, thickness, and color, as well as taste and nutritional content.

Since vertical farming is a relatively new way of growing food crops and other plants indoors, Runkle said the setup of the lab where those in the hallway can look in on the plants has helped spark interest in the subject matter.

“Vertical farming is potentially suitable for crops that are produced quickly, have high value, are perishable, are small and have a large harvestable index,” said Runkle. “This includes leafy greens (such as lettuce, arugula, and kale) and herbs (such as basil and mint), as well as ornamental transplants for the floriculture industry and field transplants for the vegetable industry.

“Indoor farming is not appropriate for agronomic crops, which are comparatively large, have long production cycles, have high light demands, and only a small part of the plant is typically harvested.”

CELL is a place where Qingwu (William) Meng, one of Runkle’s doctoral students, spends much time. A strong advocate for science communication, Meng said he believes that this lab layout – easily viewed and accessible – can help with the public’s acceptance of new technologies and scientific advancements, such as vertical farming.

“Vertical farming has only recently started to scale up,” he said. “It’s a small fraction of agriculture in the U.S. and globally. As a result, it hasn’t contributed a lot to the whole economy these days. But, we’ll have to feed 2 billion more people in the next 30 years. We really need to think about alternative ways of growing food and providing food to people in need.”

Vertical farming is a way to supplement food production, especially in large cities where land is limited and where some are willing to pay more for fresh, local produce all year round. The concept is not that new; it’s been around for a few decades in Japan, where indoor farms are referred to as “plant factories.” However, the industry is only beginning to emerge in the U.S., where people increasingly want locally sourced, healthy and fresh food.

“It’s difficult to get fresh lettuce in Michigan during the winter,” Meng said. “We’re reliant on lettuce produced in California and Arizona so by the time the plant gets to us, it may have already spent several days in trucks. It’s lost some of its visual appeal and nutritional value. It also doesn’t taste as good anymore.”

Runkle and Meng are researching the impact different LED colors and intensities have on plant growth, leaf shape and color, and nutritional benefits. Eventually, they will look at ways in which lighting can improve flavor.

  • Holly Whetstone via AgBioResearch News


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