NEWTON — Walking into the twin high-tech BioPods next to Newton’s John Volken Academy is like stepping into the future. The future of food production, that is.
A silver robot holds strawberry plants on its dozens of spinning arms.
A second robot acts as an alarm system that’s activated the second a plant is in trouble (under stress from pests, diseases or deficiencies).
Another gadget pulls water from the air.
Even the structures themselves are innovative.
“It’s kind of like a big experiment,” explained Larry (pictured), a recovering addict in the Volken academy who led a group of other students in helping set up the project. It’s a partnership between the JVA, the University of the Fraser Valley and the City of Surrey.
Forget glass, said Larry during a tour, these greenhouses are covered in plastic.
“The whole BioPod is matted in a dual-poly cover. That means there’s two types of plastic, one on the outside, one on the inside, all around the BioPod.”
And it’s insulated by air.
Larry proudly explained the students did everything “from the tables to the beds to the gravel... We had a start in it from day one.”
But their work isn’t done.
While the BioPods will now be a testing area for new technologies, they will also serve as a training ground for these student farmers. Those in recovery at the neighbouring JVA are able to receive certification from UFV.
Larry said it’s empowering for all the students to “actually get credits to do something with their lives.”
And what better way than with plants?
“You’re taking care of something that’s alive,” he remarked. “In many recovery aspects they say you can’t have a relationship with anybody else if you can’t keep a plant alive for a year. Well here, you can say, ‘I did that so I’m ready to move on.”
The crops grown in the BioPods will be sold next door at the Price Pro supermarket or be used in dishes prepared at the academy just steps away, shortening farm-to-table time to just a few minutes, instead of days.
Then there’s the tech.
The robot holding the strawberries is called a vertical mechanical growing system, explained inventor Nick Brusatore with Affinor Growers.
The contraption uses 1/1,000th of the typical amount of required water, he explained. It does it all - catches the water, waters the plants, then recycles it.
And growing the soil indoors means no fumigation costs, he said, which can run up to $10,000 an acre for strawberries.
It also allows for self-pollination, he explained, “so in the event of bees... deceasing, we’re going to be OK for a lot of different types of species.”
Brusatore said consequences are inevitable as the world grapples with water depletion, global warming and cell mutation.
“The world is going to need people to grow this food because there’s a shortage of people capable of understanding what to grow. The people that are going to grow food will be driving the Lamborghinis in the next 10 years.”
Brustatore said if 5,000 people ate just $5 of produce for 30 days that translates to $75,000 a month.
“If you think about 10 billion people, we don’t have the ag space on the planet to deal with it and we certainly don’t have the water. I can guarantee you that,” said Brusatore.
Twenty four of his towers can produce $1.2 million in product a year, he noted.
Mayor Linda Hepner is delighted Surrey’s vision has come “to fruition,” noting “agri-innovation” is a focus for the city and is part of its Agricultural Protection and Enhancement Strategy.
The Investment Agriculture Foundation is the majority funder of the BioPod project with integral support from JVA, Affinor Growers, and the City of Surrey. The project is one element of the BC Agriculture Centre of Excellence (ACE) at UFV, a network of leaders in agriculture from BC post-secondary institutions.
“UFV is proud to partner in work that reflects our commitments to research, education and service that directly benefit the economic, social and sustainable development of our Valley. Agriculture is not only a major employer and economic driver of our region, it is an industry that contributes billions of dollars to the provincial economy,” said Mark Evered, UFV president.