Why use fertilizers in controlled environment agriculture?
In controlled environment agriculture (CEA), fertilizers are utilized for various reasons that enhance plant growth, health, and yields. The primary benefits of using fertilizers in CEA include optimizing plant growth and increasing crop yields:
- One of the benefits of Controlled Environment Agriculture is that plant growth can be closely monitored and controlled, including the nutrients available to them. Fertilizers provide the necessary macro- and micronutrients for optimal growth, which can be delivered accurately and appropriately. For instance, Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), sulfur (S), zinc (Zn), and iron (Fe) are some of the vital nutrients required for optimum growth, development, and productivity of plants (Kumar, Kumar and Mohapatra, 2021).
- To ensure optimal growth and increased yields, growers can create customized nutrient solutions that match the specific nutrient requirements of different plant species and growth stages. This can be achieved through the use of fertilizers. A recent study by Jiang et al., 2018 showed the benefits of root-zone fertilization and the improvements it could have in productivity.
- In CEA, fertilizers can be directly applied to the plant’s root zone, improving nutrient uptake and reducing waste. This approach conserves resources and minimizes adverse environmental impacts caused by nutrient leaching and runoff.
- Proper use of fertilizers for nutrient management can enhance crop quality by improving taste, appearance, and nutritional value. This can increase the produce’s marketability and value.
- Fertilizers can give plants the essential nutrients they need for consistent growth and yields, even when external factors such as weather, pests, and diseases vary.
- When plants are well-fed, they are less likely to be affected by pests and diseases. In addition, fertilizers provide the essential nutrients that plants need to grow strong and healthy, leading to a more robust crop. This can help reduce the need for harmful chemicals like pesticides and fungicides.
- Sustainable farming practices often use CEA systems like hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics, which use fertilizers to provide the necessary nutrients for plant growth. These systems can help reduce water consumption, limit soil degradation, and increase land use efficiency, thus promoting sustainable agriculture.
What are the different types of fertilizers available in CEA?
Several fertilizers are available for use in controlled environment agriculture (CEA). These fertilizers can be broadly categorized into the following groups:
- Chemical or synthetic fertilizers: These are manufactured from mineral salts or other chemical processes and are specifically formulated to provide plants with essential nutrients in a highly soluble form. They can be further classified into:
- Macronutrient fertilizers: These provide the primary nutrients required by plants, including nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Examples include urea, ammonium nitrate, superphosphate, and potassium chloride.
- Micronutrient fertilizers: These supply essential trace elements, such as iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), boron (B), molybdenum (Mo), and chlorine (Cl). Examples include iron chelates, zinc sulfate, and copper sulfate.
- Organic fertilizers: Derived from natural sources like plant or animal residues, organic fertilizers release nutrients more slowly than synthetic fertilizers, making them less likely to cause nutrient imbalances. Examples include compost, manure, bone meal, fish emulsion, and worm castings.
- Biofertilizers: These are living microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, or algae, which enhance nutrient availability, uptake, or fixation in plants. They can help improve soil fertility and promote plant growth. Examples include nitrogen-fixing bacteria (e.g., Rhizobium), phosphate-solubilizing bacteria (e.g., Bacillus), and mycorrhizal fungi.
- Controlled-release fertilizers: Also known as slow-release or timed-release fertilizers, these fertilizers release nutrients over a more extended period, reducing the frequency of fertilizer application and the risk of nutrient leaching. They can be organic or inorganic and come in various formulations like polymer-coated granules or resin capsules.
- Liquid fertilizers are water-soluble fertilizers that can be applied directly to plant roots or foliage. They are often used in CEA systems like hydroponics, aeroponics, and fertigation, where nutrients are delivered through irrigation water. Liquid fertilizers enable rapid nutrient uptake and can be easily adjusted to meet specific plant needs.
- Water-soluble fertilizers dissolve in water, making them suitable for CEA systems where nutrients are delivered in a liquid form. They are typically composed of balanced formulations of macronutrients and micronutrients tailored to specific plant needs.
Why use plant-based fertilizers? – A Case Study With Manda Harvest
Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) represents a groundbreaking shift in modern agriculture, presenting remarkable advantages such as effective resource management and consistent, high-quality yield assurance. Manda USA and its partner, Better Fresh Farms, are at the forefront of innovative research aimed at refining and optimizing the potential of CEA. A focal point of their investigation has been the application of plant-based fertilizers. In 2022, Manda initiated an intriguing experiment: applying these organic fertilizers on Red Forest Romain lettuce to comprehend this novel approach’s potential benefits and hurdles.
Manda’s experimental trial encompassed using a plant-based organic fertilizer formulated by fermenting 41 botanical ingredients over three years. This fertilizer was judiciously applied in a spray format, offering controlled, slow-release nutrient dispersion to the Red Forest Romain lettuce. This precise mode of application allowed for a sustainable and consistent supply of nutrients to the plants.
The findings from the experiment were intriguing. Firstly, the plant-based fertilizer substantially positively impacted plant health and size. The Red Forest Romain lettuce exhibited significant growth when subjected to the fertilizer, indicating that the trace elements and beneficial compounds in the plant-based fertilizer effectively stimulated and supported plant health. Secondly, the plant-based fertilizer enhanced predictability and revenue stability. The steady supply of nutrients led to a more uniform growth pattern, reducing the risk of nutrient imbalances and minimizing nutrient leaching, decreasing variability in growth rates and total crop yield. The consistency of each crop allowed Better Fresh Farms to forecast its yield, which helped with managing orders and financial forecasting.
Areas For Improvement
Manda’s plant-based fertilizer has a low nutrient profile, so management of specific NPK nutrients and others, such as Calcium, is required. Those nutrients were added to the reservoir while Manda was applied as a foliar spray.
Overcrowding became a minor issue due to the increased size of the lettuce, emphasizing the need for a strategic farm layout when utilizing plant-based fertilizers. This brought the average weight per plant down slightly; however, amending the plant spacing or simply leaving space between plants may be a solution depending on the farmer’s goals. Despite the overcrowding setbacks, the total yield increased by approximately 20% over untreated plants.
Lastly, there were concerns about introducing organic materials into the system that might cause clogs or other flow issues. In this experiment, Manda’s fertilizer was applied as a foliar spray, so it did not cause an issue. It has since been used in the reservoir without issue as well.
The Manda Harvest experiment with plant-based fertilizers in CEA has offered valuable insights into this innovative approach’s potential benefits and challenges. While these fertilizers promise to improve plant health and stabilize revenue, they also present unique challenges that require thoughtful deliberation and further investigation. Thus, before recommending their widespread adoption in CEA, more comprehensive research is essential to ensure optimized results and overcome potential difficulties.
Are you interested in discovering more? You can contact Manda Harvest’s Business Development Manager, Clay Gilpin, here.
About Manda Harvest: Established over 300 years ago, MANDA FERMENTATION CO. LTD began its journey as a traditional sake distillery. Over time, the Matsuura family, driven by their deep understanding of the science of fermentation derived from generations of sake production, pivoted their focus towards creating exceptional health supplements.
After 23 years of rigorous and dedicated research, we have successfully harnessed our unique fermentation expertise to create one of Japan’s best-selling health supplements, along with a variety of products formulated from meticulously crafted fermentation cocktails.
At the heart of our products is MANDA, a robust blend of 53 different botanical raw natural ingredients, comprising ripe fruits, nutrient-rich vegetables (Kakokusousai), wholesome grains, and edible algae from the sea. Our ingredients undergo a long-term, natural fermentation and maturation process in our own factory, preserving the full spectrum of their nutrients. Each ingredient, including the nutrient-dense skins and seeds of the fruit that are often discarded, is condensed into our unique supplement sachets.
Our uncompromising commitment to quality is reflected in our rigorous selection of ingredients. The raw materials used in MANDA are mainly sourced from our own farm and trusted contracted farms. We believe in providing you with nothing but the best, nurturing new lives with the power of nature and our timeless tradition of fermentation.
Images provided by Manda Harvest