Agri-tech students investigate potential soilless growing systems to aid food security

Students at Pershore College have been undertaking research to see if growing food both without soil and during the winter could make the UK more self-sufficient when it comes to feeding the nation.

Agri-Tech degree students Tom Genever and Nick Monkton have been conducting pea plant trials grown hydroponically at the college’s Agri-Tech Research Centre.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without using soil, whereby plants are grown with only their roots exposed to nutrient solutions, and may also be supported by inert material such as coconut coir or vermiculite.

The students have been monitoring the crop that was planted in the centre’s outdoor vertical farming facilities in November. The aim is to see if pea plants can be grown in a system where produce is stacked in vertical layers without the use of soil.

Tom, age 22 from Peopleton said: “We are investigating the potential for the UK’s food producers to cultivate overwintering vegetables in our outdoor hydroponic tunnel using a system of vertical farming. This has the potential to replace crops that would be flown into the UK from overseas from Kenya or Guatemala.”

“Normally, this plant can be overwintered in the UK but wouldn’t flower until the spring. We found that our protected unheated trial crop was already flowering by January or February and producing fruits in March.”

The UK is currently reliant on importing much of its fresh grown produce during the winter months. According to the British Growers Association it is only 40% self-sufficient in indigenous fruit supply and less than 60% self-sufficient in vegetable & salads.

Tom’s fellow student Nick Monkton, age 21, from Bewdley said: “The country’s self-sufficiency in food has been declining over the last 30 years and the government acknowledges that climate change will present significant risks to our food supply. The UK needs new food production technology that can provide sustainable food production systems.”

Roy Kennedy, Professor in Agri-Tech research and development at Pershore College said: “As part of the food production module of their Agri-Tech degree course, Tom and Nick are investigating the potential for the UK to grow sustainably-produced overwintered crops which would normally be imported into the UK during the winter months.  So far they are finding that peas would be a good candidate for substitution of imported fresh produce.

“Other vegetable and fruit crops are being investigated for their potential for import substitution during the off-season. Hydroponic production regimes appear to give advantages to some cultivars resulting in cropping under lower light and at lower day and night temperatures.”

The Agri-Tech foundation degree at Pershore College is a two-year course aimed at providing students with knowledge and skills needed to succeed in today’s horticultural industry. Modules include agri-tech mechatronics, global food security and soil science technology.

Nick and Tom both completed a Level 3 diploma in Horticulture at Pershore before progressing to the foundation degree. Nick said: “I like the variety of lectures on urban horticulture, community gardening and soil health as well as the practical outdoor activities. The course gives you gateways into other areas like agronomy or starting your own business. It’s a good choice for anyone who cares about our environmental problems and wants to be part of developing sustainable food production solutions.”

Tom is also really enjoying his studies and is currently weighing up whether to continue with research when he graduates or start his own vertical farming enterprise. He said: “I wasn’t really aware that this sort of course existed until I started doing the Level 3 Horticulture course when I left school. It lays a very good foundation for the problems you would face in the industry as well as providing you with the technical skills. It has definitely given me the confidence to think about starting my own growing business and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in farming, food production or sustainability.”

For further information about the Agri-Tech foundation degree go to the Warwickshire College Group website or contact their team by calling 0300 456 0049 or emailing info@wcg.ac.uk.