Opportunities in Soil-free Growing

2 March 2016, Sheffield

Following on from our hugely successful glasshouse and poly-tunnel innovation workshop last year, the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) held this focused workshop on innovation in soil free growing. Through a visit to the University of Sheffield and their P3 (Plant, Production and Protection) facility, it was clear that an event delivered in partnership was the best way to deliver the academic and industrial objectives of the event. So, the event was held on the 2nd March at Inox, the University of Sheffield's conference facility, in the heart of the campus and city, whilst in close proximity to the P3 facility to enable tours at the end of the day.


Global agricultural challenges: Industry perspective of soil-free growing

Following housekeeping and KTN introductions the first session, focusing on the global agricultural challenges and industry perspective of the soil free growing, really kicked off with an inspirational and thought provoking talk by Professor Tony Ryan OBE, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at The University of Sheffield. With a backdrop of agricultural revolutions over the ages, Tony made the audience contemplate on "breaking the solar cycle" and how we "all eat oil & gas through nitrogen fertiliser production" his comments on the impact of the green revolution such as "70% of freshwater utilised for agriculture" and "the nation that destroys its soil destroys itself", effortlessly led into his discussion on the key role of microbes, genetic variability and harnessing none agricultural land-use, though soil free growing environments, will be part of the ‘solution' for future food production needs.

Neil Bragg, formerly with HDC and now Bulrush Consultants, gave a insightful, practical and humorous account of the industry, highlighting current crops benefitting from hydroponic innovations, such as strawberries and tomatoes, and highlighting future crop opportunities such as cut flowers and watercress. 

The final speaker in the morning session was Andrew Lee from Grodan, with the focus on closed irrigation with substrate and water system design, innovations which have already reduced water use from 60 L/Kg of tomatoes, for open field production, to 7 L/Kg in closed loop hydroponic environments.


Company pitches

Following refreshments and networking we opened the floor to eleven company pitches. Each pitch introduced the audience to companies and products, or aspects of innovation, and why they had chosen to attend the event. These pitches really help facilitate effective networking for the rest of the day.

New technologies and products with potential in soil free growing included; Technical Absorbents with super absorbent materials, Plantworks with biofertilisers, Plasmaclean using advanced oxidation technology, Biomation with Aquagrain a water retention additive and Irrisense for monitoring sensors and solutions.

Other pitches highlighted the strength of the capabilities that the soil free industry within the UK  can access, included; Stockbridge Technology Centre, Royal Horticultural Society, University of Sheffield work on green roof foams, and LRM Consulting highlighting deep pool hydroponic systems for cut flower production.

These were presented alongside urbanisation opportunities for soil free growing by Community by Design. The final pitch was a live demonstration by Jason Hawkins from Aponic Ltd with his novel aeroponic module for vertical soil free growing environment.  With the pitches wrapped up lunch and networking followed.


Case studies

The last session of speakers highlighted case studies covering all aspects of current soil free innovations. The first of these was a multimedia presentation live, via the web, from Detroit, Michigan USA, by Ron Reynolds of Green Collar Foods.  His presentation and video highlighted their ‘locally owned controlled environment agriculture business model', utilising a cloud controlled aeroponic system for growing, cilantro, kale and hot peppers, in under privileged urban areas.

Professor Duncan Cameron, followed this with a more detailed introduction to the P3 Facility and their approach to ‘translational plant biology', with specific case studies of engineering novel synthetic substrates which behave like soils.

Louisa Robinson Boyer, from NIAB EMR, followed highlighting the work, much of it Innovate UK funded, on using arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi to enhance plant nutrition and health.

The final industrial presentation of the day was by Tim Pettitt which brought together the challenges of closed irrigation systems and how to eliminate waterborne plant pathogens, though a variety of water treatment processes with a focus on the use of slow sand filtration and innovations to improve its effectiveness.


Funding opportunities

Tristan Eagling of the KTN, on behalf of Innovate UK presented some recent highlights of the Agri-tech strategy and support for the soil free industry. We also took the opportunity to highlight to the delegates the significant opportunities available to them through the  £735m Newton Fund. As the audience was a balance between industry and academic delegates, the interest in potential Newton Fund applications was high, and significant feedback was received, and that though this consultation, the feedback would be returned to Innovate UK so they can better understand specific industry requirements, in relation to Newton and other future funding strategies.


Tour of the P3 Facility

During the final networking session a coach full of delegates were able to take the opportunity to have a tour of part of the P3 Facility, hosted by Duncan Cameron, and all those that took part thoroughly enjoyed and valued the visit, and returned to the networking session with heightened enthusiasm for collaboration. Actually there was a great buzz throughout the day and there were many new connections made by delegates.


Watch this space....

We're already aware of some potential project ideas and Newton Fund concepts that have come together on the back of this workshop. The University of Sheffield were delighted with the event and the successful partnership with KTN is expected to become a regular occurrence, so watch this space for future events.


Morning session
Delegate pitches 
Afternoon Session

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