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What Is Controlled Environment Agriculture?

Advances in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) have revolutionized how we grow crops, allowing for more efficient, sustainable and year-round production. As a system, traditional agriculture is wasteful and chaotic. It leaves farmers with no choice but to plant more than they will harvest because losses are baked into the current way of doing things. But it doesn’t have to stay that way forever.

CEA involves growing plants in a climate-controlled space, such as a greenhouse, where you can precisely control factors such as temperature, humidity, lighting and nutrients to optimize plant growth. This method of agriculture has gained popularity in recent years due to its ability to produce higher yields with fewer resources, give farmers greater control over their operations, and provide fresh produce in areas where traditional agriculture may not be challenging. This blog explores the benefits and challenges of Controlled Environment Agriculture and how it could shape the future of food production.

What is CEA?

CEA allows farmers to control many different parts of the growing environment. Farms use sensors and machines that can measure and regulate climate factors. CEA uses complex high-tech systems and simple low-tech systems to manage growing conditions. For example, a simple system uses a hygrometer to measure the humidity of the growing space. That tool gives the farmer information that they can use to adjust their production plan and make alterations to increase or decrease humidity levels as needed.

The system also uses a humidifier to help the farmer maintain or adjust the humidity levels. A complex system uses equipment that monitors all variables and regulates them automatically. Controlled Environment Agriculture is commonly used with unconventional growing methods. This includes methods like hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics. While these methods can be used outdoors, they work better when used with CEA indoors.

Benefits of CEA

CEA has so many benefits it’d be hard to list them all. But there are five core benefits that should be highlighted.

1. It allows farmers to create favorable growing conditions for their crops.
2. Allows farmers to grow year-round.
3. Prevents damage from weather, pests and diseases.
4. Uses less water, fertilizer and pesticides.
5. Allows farmers to grow anywhere, regardless of local conditions.

Another significant benefit of CEA is higher yields. Higher yields result from the first three benefits from the list above. Since farmers can create ideal growing conditions, their crops are healthier and grow faster. This can help some crops yield more than they would have without the higher control offered by CEA. Since farmers can grow year-round, their growing season is extended. As a result, the farmer can produce more food in one year than they would have been able to before.

Someone carrying two baskets of fresh, green produce.
Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) can help farmers in managing the farming ecosystem. From information about humidity to measurements that track the pH level of water, CEA can make some of farming’s most tedious tasks easier.

Types of CEA

There are various types of Controlled Environment Agriculture systems. The practice of hydroponics grows plants in water, while aeroponics involves growing plants by misting their roots with nutrients. Aquaponics combines hydroponics with fish farming, where fish waste provides nutrients for the plants. Different CEA systems utilize varying techniques to control climate factors.

Indoor Growing/Container Farms

This farming technique involves growing crops inside a controlled environment, such as a warehouse or a shipping container. The environment is designed to provide the crops with optimal growing conditions, including temperature, humidity, light and nutrient levels. CEA enables farmers to grow crops year-round, regardless of external weather conditions. Indoor growing can be done using various hydroponic or aeroponic systems, where plants are grown in nutrient-rich solutions without soil.

Vertical Farming

Vertical farming is a technique that involves stacking layers of plants on top of each other in a vertical space using shelves, racks or towers. This technique reduces the need for land and water resources, making it an efficient way to grow crops in urban areas.

Greenhouses

A greenhouse is an enclosed structure made of glass or plastic, providing plants with a controlled growing environment. It traps heat and humidity, creating a warmer and more humid climate than outside air. This allows farmers to grow crops year-round, regardless of outside weather conditions. Using CEA enables farmers to optimize the greenhouse environment for different crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

Preventing Crop Loss

Because Controlled Environment Agriculture protects crops from weather, pests and diseases, farmers lose fewer crops. Droughts, floods, extreme temperatures, changing seasons, tornadoes and other storms destroy outdoor crops. In conventional farming, farmers lose 40% to 80% of their crops to insects, weeds, diseases and animals. Without those losses, farmers can produce more food to sell. That means that farmers have more money to invest back into their operations.

But that’s not the only way Controlled Environment Agriculture helps farmers increase their revenue. Because CEA farmers grow year-round, they can produce food during seasons that conventional farmers in the area can’t. This means a farmer can corner the locally grown food market during freezing winters. Additionally, farmers can grow anywhere, allowing them to grow luxury or exotic crops unsuitable for their climate. This enables them to offer products unique to their market, even during winter.

Summary

Controlled Environment Agriculture can be a helpful tool in controlling the growing conditions, ensuring that yields are consistent. It cuts out some of the risks that farmers often face from external factors mostly out of their control. This helps farmers have a more stable production. However, there are a couple of challenges that CEA farmers must understand. First, it’s usually more expensive to start and operate than outdoor growing. Traditional methods of agriculture are common and at the core of our food system. For some, it’s hard to imagine farming taking place indoors under controlled conditions. But most CEA experts and researchers don’t see it as a replacement for traditional agriculture. Instead, it’s an innovative complement to traditional agriculture, opening up opportunities to solve many of the problems our current food system faces.

To learn more about how you can grow with Controlled Environment Agriculture, visit our website.

Related Blogs

Want to learn more? Our blog is regularly updated with news and notes from the vertical farming industry. Here are three relevant blogs to keep you going!

  1. How Container Farms Reduce Food Waste
  2. What Are Modular Farms?
  3. Prefabricated Greenhouses or Container Farms: Which is Right for You?