High-tech greenhouse grows on City of Surrey, University of Fraser Valley

A high-tech Surrey greenhouse will allow researchers to test vertical growing systems, self-watering machines and robotic fruit pickers.

  • Apr. 17, 2016 2:00 p.m.

Graehme Smith (right)

Susan Lazaruk, Vancouver Sun

NEWTON — A high-tech greenhouse opening Friday in Surrey will provide a lab for researchers to carry out tests on vertical growing systems, self-watering machines and robotic fruit pickers, all designed to improve the efficiency of year-round food production in Metro Vancouver.

And closer to its home on King George Boulevard near 68th Avenue, the BioPod Initiative also intends to provide training for addicts in recovery at the John Volken Academy next door.

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” said Volken, a former entrepreneur who sold his successful United Furniture Warehouse to work as a philanthropist.

His charitable foundation, which built a low-fee treatment centre that offers participants a chance to gain life and job skills while they recover, partnered with the City of Surrey and the University of the Fraser Valley to build and equally fund the $300,000 BioPod on land Volken donated.

Others, including Simon Fraser University, which will provide maintenance and automation support for the BioPod, have signed on to the project.

The students will get education and training at the BioPod, which consists of a double-roofed greenhouse staffed by UFW staff. They will eventually conduct research on “watergenics,” a method to capture water from the air to water plants, robots to harvest and scan for crop health, and automated greenhouse environmental control systems.

The first project is growing plants in space-saving vertical planters, said Garry Fehr, director of UFV’s Agriculture Centre of Excellence.

Manufacturers of the vertical planting systems are “claiming and we’re testing that they can grow 16 times the food per square metre than you can with regular soil,” he said. The planters are also designed to use less water and fewer nutrients than traditional farming, he said.

If successful and cost-effective, the BioPods would eventually be built closer to food markets to “reduce the transportation footprint” in the industry.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said the city backs the “push for ag-tech innovation” that would improve the production of local food, particularly in light of the limited amount of agriculture land reserve in metro and the expected growth in population of another one million residents.

Fehr said providing job skills to students who normally wouldn’t go to university is an important element of the project, calling it a “social enterprise.” Those who complete the training will receive a certificate that allows them to apply for jobs in greenhouses or in agriculture, he said.

slazaruk@postmedia.com

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