Vine Fresh Acres is a Canadian family-owned business that farms a total of 86 acres of greenhouse vegetables on a year-round basis. The company has two facilities that cover 34 acres of cucumbers and 52 acres of bell peppers.
Vine Fresh Acres focuses on sustainable and healthy food production in high-tech greenhouses. The company has experienced significant growth in recent years. At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult to find sufficiently qualified employees, says head grower Pete Neufeld.
“We needed to figure out how to utilize our current growers to their fullest potential and how to maximize their time. That is why we were introduced to Blue Radix by our partner Ridder. With Blue Radix and their focus on Autonomous Growing, we hoped that we would be able to manage a lot more acreage than we are now. And that was exactly what has happened.”
Growers Can Shift Their Focus
Crop Controller is a service offered by Blue Radix that autonomously optimizes and realizes the grower’s unique crop strategy. During the entire growth period, artificial intelligence (AI) continuously uses all available data from greenhouse sensors, climate boxes, and meteo-data providers to forecast and optimize the climate and irrigation according to the growers’ cultivation planning. Crop Controller integrates all the data and autonomously controls the greenhouse installations, e.g., the climate computer, to reach the targets defined by the grower. This means the grower no longer needs to analyze all the greenhouse data or manually set the climate computer. Growers can now shift their focus to increasing the quality of the crop strategy and devote more attention to scaling and innovation. An Autonomous Greenhouse Manager also helps growers to get started, continuously monitors the situation in the greenhouse and proactively discuss ideas, results, and improvements with the grower.
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Neufeld says he believes in the concept of autonomous growing and believes it is the only option to cope with the shortage of growers.
“In the past, we have tried to find new growers around here, but that has proven to be extremely difficult. We just don’t have that many young people who are interested in horticulture anymore. It’s a very demanding job, seven days a week. But it is not an option to have our current people do even more work. Autonomous growing helps us focus on the crop or on different aspects of growing.”
Two years ago Vine Fresh Acres first started a trial of six months with Blue Radix.
“When you start something new, there are always challenges that you have to overcome. But the support we got from the team of Blue Radix helped us with that,” says grower Jake Knelsen. “It’s a tool that supports me to control a larger area. It makes my job easier and helps me oversee it all, while I can focus on other important things. Autonomous growing tools like Crop Controller collect all the data from the greenhouse and integrate it to autonomously control our installations.”
During the trial, the company divided the greenhouse in two phases with eight zones.
“We allowed the system to control two zones at first and from there we kept a close eye on what was happening. When we saw good things, that gave us the confidence to go a step further, and now we all zones in both phases are controlled by Crop Controller.”
Better Yield and Product
When it comes to crop yield, Knelsen saw an increase since working with Crop Controller.
“Last year was record breaking for us with a 10% yield increase. There is still room for improvement, but I’d estimate 2.5% to 5% of the growth was due to autonomous growing,” Knelsen says. The quality of the product also improved.
Pete Neufeld hopes working with AI techniques will make horticulture more interesting again for young people.
“That would be a nice plus. Extra modules can contribute to that, because it will make the work of a grower even less difficult.”
Knelsen concludes with some advice to fellow growers.
“At first it will feel like you are letting go. But the reality is that you are letting go to something better. You can own a new sense of trust, knowing that your crop is in good hands. It’s worth it giving that some time.”