Summer might be drawing to a close, but that doesn’t quite mean the end of this year’s UK strawberry crops. Hailed as the iconic culinary delicacy of Wimbledon Fortnight, this fruity red gem bursting with flavour deserves credit beyond its mere two weeks in the sun (and rain) every July. Now, thanks to the booming trend of indoor strawberries, Britain is now self-sufficient in them from May to October.
The British berry industry is now worth £1.69 billion, with the nation’s increasing appetite for fresh strawberries reflected in £772 million worth of sales over the last year, 10% up on the year before. And there’s even juicier news for strawberry lovers and the UK strawberry industry – around 70% of all UK-bought strawberries are now grown by British farmers, according to British Summer Fruits.
CEA opportunities in strawberry growing
Traditionally mainly grown in open fields and protected (plastic) agriculture, a surge in investment and advancement in software and technology means it is perfectly feasible for growers to profitably grow strawberries in their vertical farm or computerised greenhouse. What also makes strawberries an ideal candidate for CEA farming are the recent global challenges facing some growers in open field production, where climate change is exacerbating these issues. Prolonged drought periods in the field, are cutting annual acreage and dry weather is attracting more pests, making disease management harder to control.
Utilising CEA conditions means zero reliance on seasonality or climate and more control of the environment such as light, temperature, nutrient and humidity, giving indoor farmers a great advantage. Recent indoor strawberry growing successes include a greenhouse in Lincolnshire where six hectares of strawberries were planted to be among the first to deliver fruit to retailers. With Waitrose confirming its first sale of British strawberries in March, with the Lusa variety, grown in greenhouses. Other overseas developments in indoor strawberry growing are also bearing fruit, with New York-based indoor berry producer Oishhi boldly declaring itself ‘the Tesla of vertical farming.’
5 factors when growing indoor strawberries
As indoor strawberry growing shapes the future of fruit farming, we address the 5 key factors to consider when growing them indoors.
1. Hydroponics or aeroponics?
Indoor strawberries can be grown using either hydroponics and aeroponics, both of which drastically reduce water usage. Aeroponic and hydroponic farming systems save up to 95% and 80% water compared to the traditional farming system respectively.
The only difference between them is the medium which is used in the growth of the plants. Hydroponics uses a nutrient-rich solution fed by a watering system, whereas with aeroponics, a mist-filled with essential nutrients is regularly sprayed on plant roots.
Growing strawberries either way results in quicker growth times. According to botanists, hydroponics can actually have a 30-50 quicker growth rate and more substantial yield than using regular soil, equating to high yield. The plants also can deliver a longer growing season, removing the issue of a summer glut, stabilising prices for the grower and consumer. With good replacement plant planning strawberries can be grown all year round to a very high standard.
2. Choose the right place to grow
Polytunnels offer excellent weather protection and provide the optimum conditions for strawberry growing to generate uniform high quality crops. Without exposure to rain, there is little disease and rot to inflict damage. Growing strawberries using polytunnels also means fewer pesticides and chemicals are needed. Protection against frost encourages crops to come earlier and extends the heat hours the crops receive, therefore extending the British growing season.
Greenhouses also provide a pesticide-free growing environment to grow flavoursome strawberries, with an opportunity for increased yield and high-quality fruit. A hydroponic greenhouse maximises energy use from photosynthesis to increase crop yield. Another advantage of hydroponic greenhouse growing is shortened crop cycles and accelerated plant growth.
Vertical farming allows for easier harvesting and helps prevent damage to the fruit. Tesco strawberry supplier and West Sussex fruit grower Direct Produce Supplies Ltd (DPS) claims vertically-grown strawberries require 50% less water, leading to a 90% reduction in carbon footprint per kilo of fruit. It also observes that yields from vertically grown crops are significantly higher than via conventional production methods, yielding an estimated five times more fruit per square metre than existing methods.
3. Use supplementary LED grow lights
The use of LED grow lights to support indoor growing of strawberries can bring many benefits, not least increased yield and quality but also improved cost efficiency. LED grow lights have become the most popular type of grow lights over the past few years due to their energy efficiency, temperature and light spectrum functionality. These lights can be installed in a custom framework which has not only an optimised light spectrum for efficiency, but also overall growth cycle of strawberry plants, to offer all year-round production. They also last longer in the fridge, providing long-term value for money.
High-performance LED luminaires also offer growers the opportunity to alter and optimise the light recipe to increase the number of strawberry flowers. Partnering with an LED grow light expert will enable you to work with the most advanced LED technology combined with a custom light recipe to match your crop and environment.
4. Use LED lights to help prevent pathogens
Indoor farming can help protect against pests and diseases, which cause crop damage through pathogens. However, recent research concludes that although indoor farms do in principle control what organisms enter the system, total control is impossible. Using LED lights has an antibacterial effect and prevents these pathogens. The disinfection technology kills bacteria, fungus and mould, emitting proper blue-light wavelength of high-intensity visible light that excites certain molecules in harmful micro-organisms through photo-activation.
5. Allow bees to pollinate strawberry flowers
The relationship between bees and agriculture is mutually dependent – crops and agricultural land accounts for three-quarters of the UK where it homes much of our wildlife. It provides scavenger territory for bees and enables them to pollinate. Without bees to help pollinate plants in vertical farming setups, the process becomes difficult and costly. Considerable savings on labour costs can be made; depending on a greenhouse’s size, it can take up to 10 times the number of employees to hand-pollinate crops at the same rate as bees.
The biggest benefit of bee pollination is better fruit, according to Ryan Hill, Sales Manager at Koppert Biological Systems: “If someone is looking to increase their yield and grow more fruit, they should consider natural pollination,” he says. “Certain crops need to be pollinated to produce fruit. If not, the fruit will be misshapen, odd, or the plant won’t produce fruit at all.”
Find out more
With a global shift towards growing more sustainable produce with fewer food miles, the possibilities in indoor farming are only just being realised. Want to know how you can grow more with less while creating the right recipe for your environment, or just find out some more information? Contact us now on +44 (0)1332 410601 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and our team of experts will be on hand to help.