With cutting edge design and unique features, a new, world-class greenhouse facility to be built at the University of Western Sydney will focus on research and development that is set to advance Australian horticulture.
By CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL
A new, state-of-the-art greenhouse facility to be built at the University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury Campus will equip the Australian horticulture industry with the technology required to meet the increasing constraints in water and energy supplies.
Construction of the greenhouse, which is part of a $3.5 million joint initiative between the University of Western Sydney (UWS) and Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL), will commence in December 2014 with the first plantings scheduled for September 2015.
While the initial focus will be on tomatoes, later research will look at other crops based on industry consultation such as capsicum, eggplant, lettuce, strawberry and cut-flowers.
Both modern precision hydroponics and conventional soil-grown systems will be used in the greenhouse.
Objectives of the initiative
Given that the nearest known equivalent greenhouse research facility is located in The Netherlands, with the Wageningen University Research Greenhouse Horticulture Research Institute, the new facility fills a significant research and education gap in Australian horticulture.
UWS Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Development) Professor Scott Holmes welcomed the investment and the partnership with a major industry organisation.
“Horticulture is a critical industry for Australia and I am pleased UWS will be working closely with Horticulture Australia Ltd on this exciting new initiative,” said Professor Holmes.
David Moore, HAL R&D General Manager said: “The new greenhouse is based on a model located in the Netherlands, with the ability to control carbon dioxide, light, temperature and greenhouse coverings.
“Previously, studies had to be conducted overseas and didn’t take in to account Australian conditions.
“The lack of human resources is a major issue for the sector as the number of students enrolling in horticulture falls and the number of universities offering programs of study or even individual subjects in horticulture continues to decline,” Mr Moore said.
“This project will help us to overcome this challenge, building clear synergies between research and education.
“The University of Western Sydney has shown a high level of foresight in investing in this project to bring it to fruition and should be congratulated for this,” he said.
Professor Bill Bellotti, the Vincent Fairfax Chair in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development at UWS said the high-tech greenhouse facility fits perfectly with the University’s new focus on peri-urban horticulture.
“Greenhouse crop production is expanding in Australia to meet the increased demand for fresh food that can be delivered quickly to markets. The new facilities at UWS will help growers tap into the latest research and practices to make their operations more efficient,” said Professor Bellotti.
“The project will combine the world-class plant science expertise at UWS with cutting-edge greenhouse technology from Wageningen University in The Netherlands.”
Professor Bellotti’s colleague on the project is Dr Zhong-Hua Chen, a lecturer and an ARC DECRA Fellow with expertise in plant physiology and molecular biology. Dr Chen worked as a University Research Associate at the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research (TIAR) and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Glasgow before joining the University of Western Sydney in 2011.
“Agriculture and Horticulture are two key areas of the UWS Hawkesbury Campus. Both the School of Science and Health and Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment have key research activities and strength in these two areas, receiving large external research funding each year. The initiative for this greenhouse project started in 2009 when Professor Bellotti applied for a UWS internal project on Energy and water efficient greenhouse design and operation,” Dr Chen says.
“Later, Professor Bellotti met two international greenhouse experts, Dr Sjaak Bakker and Dr Silke Hemming from the Netherlands. In 2011, I was appointed as a Research Lecturer in Plant Physiology to focus on Greenhouse Horticulture research.”
Professor Bellotti and Dr Chen have since been working on the establishment of the greenhouse project and have conducted some key research work to investigate the effects of light intensity and spectra on the photosynthesis, nutrition and yield of tomato in a conventional greenhouse.
Two research articles have been published in leading international peer-reviewed journals. However, there is an increasing need for a high-tech greenhouse for further research. Early this year, an improved proposal was approved by the Horticulture Australia Limited.
According to Professor Bellotti and Dr Chen, essentially, the objective of the project is to advance the teaching and research opportunities for protected cropping industries in Australia. The project seeks to achieve this objective by:
• The design, construction and operation of a state-of-the-art research greenhouse to conduct research into energy and water efficiency in greenhouse crop production under Australian conditions
• Planning and conducting an industry relevant research program for the major greenhouse crop species, such as strawberries, lettuce, eggplant, capsicum and cut flowers, with an initial focus on energy and water efficiency
• The design and availability of a range of educational and training programs to address current shortages in skilled and educated workforce for the protected cropping industries.
A special feature of the greenhouse will be the provision for interchangeable greenhouse covering materials, allowing manipulation of plant growth and energy balance. Completely closed greenhouse systems will facilitate research into the effects of high humidity and CO2 on plant growth, water and energy use.
“The difference between this facility and traditional greenhouses is the ability to manipulate humidity, C02, light, temperature, and the provision of interchangeable greenhouse coverings. That manipulation isn’t possible with traditional greenhouse production. This facility allows us to vary that automatically 24 hours a day,” said HAL’s David Moore.
“The greenhouse research facility will enable unprecedented control of temperature, humidity, CO2 and light to deliver higher productivity while lowering energy and water inputs.”
UWS’s Dr Chen says that two research greenhouse design options are being considered, one consisting of six compartments of 120-150 m2 plus a larger 500 m2 compartment for demonstration and teaching; the second option consisting of eight compartments of 100 m2.
“The second option provides greater flexibility for research while the first option provides greater potential for training,” Dr Chen said.
“Each compartment will have the capacity for individual control of growing conditions (temperature, humidity, CO2, light). Therefore, each compartment will have heating and cooling, humidification and dehumidification, CO2 supply, and exchangeable covering material (for manipulating light).
“Each compartment will be equipped with soilless cultivation infrastructure, and water and nutrient supply will be able to be varied in each compartment. In order to manipulate light levels, shading screens will be available in each compartment, and the design will facilitate the easy exchange of greenhouse covering material on an individual compartment basis,” he said.
The greenhouse project will include four unique features. These include: environmental control; covering materials; water and nutrient systems and; and closed conditions.
Dr Chen explained that energy, water, and nutrient inputs will be able to be monitored on an individual compartment basis. Each compartment will have a range of monitoring sensors (temperature, humidity, CO2, water use for irrigation and fogging, irrigation drainage, pH and EC of nutrient solutions, heat flow meter of heating system, electricity meter for cooling system, pumps, etc.) connected to a central control computer to maintain set points and monitor inputs.
“Specific performance criteria will be set in the design consultancy. For example; on an extreme western Sydney summer day (maximum temperature 44C, radiation load 32 MJm-2) capacity for internal temperature to be maintained in the range 15-30C and humidity in the range 70-95%. Internal light levels should be controllable within the range 800-2000 mol m-2 sec-1. Internal CO2 concentration should be controllable from ambient (around 400 ppm) to 1000 ppm,” Dr Chen said.
“A unique feature of the facility will be the ability to create combinations of environmental factors. For example, high radiation with high CO2 conditions, high radiation with high humidity; not currently possible with existing facilities.”
Each compartment in the greenhouse will have the capacity for installing interchangeable greenhouse covering materials. The initial focus will be on light diffusing materials, a later focus could include materials that can discriminate Near Infrared (NIR) from Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR). Greenhouse covering materials with different diffusion properties will be investigated for their potential impact on crop photosynthesis under Australian high radiation conditions.
“Novel photoselective materials could potentially result in better crop morphology and/or higher productivity. Here, the new facility could serve as a unique testing facility under Australian conditions. The exact choice of materials for experiments will be undertaken by UWS every year. During the design phase, Wageningen University will advise on a suitable choice for first years covering materials for benchmark experiments and specify required optical material properties,” Dr Chen said.
According to Dr Chen, each compartment will have the capability to be operated under ‘open’, ‘semi-closed’, or ‘closed’ configurations. ‘Closed’ growing conditions have the potential to increase productivity and decrease water use, but require additional capital investment and management skill.
“Closed greenhouses are greenhouses in which temperature, humidity and CO2 levels can be completely controlled,” Dr Chen said.
“Research in The Netherlands has shown that yield increases of 20% are possible under Dutch climatic conditions and water usage can be down to 41 litres per kg tomato compared to 601 litres per kg for field grown tomato. Therefore experiments with unique combinations of environmental factors will be carried out in order to explore the physiological boundaries of different crops and in order to find commercially attractive combinations.
“Closed conditions also create opportunities for CO2 enrichment, and have implications for the crop,” he said.
Water and nutrient systems
Another unique feature of the greenhouse will be that separate water and nutrient treatments will be able to be supplied to individual compartments. A central fertigation control unit will mix water and nutrients and supply to the different greenhouse compartments.
“Requirements will be set in the design consultancy,” Dr Chen said.
“Crop water use will be monitored, drainage water will be monitored and recycled, and the supply of water and nutrients optimised in individual compartments according to plant demand.
“Rainwater will be collected, stored and used in the irrigation system. Storage capacity will be included in the design phase,” he said.
Training for the future
While the research program will generate new management practices and technologies, a training and education centre to be established as part of the project, in conjunction with TAFE WSI, will assist the industry in building a future skilled workforce.
Talking with ABC Rural, HAL’s David Moore said there is a shortage of skilled workers in the horticulture industry and he hopes the Hawkesbury campus centre will increase student interest to become part of it.
“The greenhouse will provide a state-of-the-art, one-stop-shop for training and education, research and innovation in the protected cropping horticulture industries of Australia,” Mr Moore said.
“I talked with Professor Bill Bellotti some time ago about the present market failure to produce a facility like this in Australia and the gap that has left in research and education in bringing young school leavers and graduates into a horticultural career, so this will hopefully rectify this situation.
“In Australia there isn’t a facility of this magnitude. Currently, the University of Western Sydney is looking overseas to blend their horticultural expertise with the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands and there is a strong engagement between these two facilities. We want to replicate that facility in the Netherlands in Western Sydney,” he said.
“This new facility will really allow protected cropping companies and growers not only to involve themselves in relevant research programs, but also allows for students to be trained in the various aspects of protected cropping and enhance their skills and educate a workforce in that area.
“Horticulture is a fantastically innovative and dynamic industry. The challenge for us is to get the message out there that it’s growing at a phenomenal rate—in fact over 25% per annum over the past five years. I don’t think a lot of people know that, particularly graduates and school leavers and undergraduates, so it’s really important that we have state-of-the-art facilities to attract these high calibre young people.”
Dr Chen said that there will be a number of courses run at UWS, which will use the facility.
“The main undergraduate program is the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in UWS. There are a few existing and future UWS Units that will be utilising the greenhouse facility. These include: Crop Production; Land use and Environment; Plant Health and Biosecurity; Agriculture, Food and Health; Sustainable Food Production; Field Project Unit (1st and 2nd half); Advanced Science Project B and C; and Postharvest,” Dr Chen said.
“UWS is working with WSI TAFE to potentially host eight TAFE courses in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security. These courses will make good use of the state-of-the-art facility. In addition, many training courses will be taught to growers and managers in the protected cropping industry, using the facility during and after the course of this project.”
Dr Chen said that compliance testing for the facility will be successfully completed when UWS provides its own certification as well as certification from the builder and an appropriately qualified expert from Wageningen University that the greenhouse has been successfully completed and is able to be used to meet its objectives.
The date for the practical completion of works for the project is 1 August, 2015 with first plantings in the new greenhouse expected the following month. Ω
PH&G August 2014 / Issue 146