What are the Most Popular Controlled Environment Agriculture Crops?
In the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry, people fuse modern technology with biological systems to produce crops in new and unique ways. From sophisticated crop management software to massive greenhouse operations, growers use diverse technologies to produce the most popular controlled environment agriculture crops.
Whether it be food crops like leafy greens or those with medicinal properties like cannabis, each type of crop has its own nutritional and environmental needs. For these reasons, the most popular controlled environment crops are often those that can most easily be grown. Nonetheless, some CEA producers are looking at specialty crops like saffron in the hopes of driving bigger profits with more valuable harvests.
In recent years, leafy greens have risen to the top of the CEA industry as the most frequently grown type of crop. According to the Agritecture website, “in our 2021 Global CEA Census, we found that the most significant percentage of respondents (CEA growers) grow leafy greens – 58% reported growing salad greens like lettuce and arugula, while 40% reported growing other leafy greens like chard, kale, and cabbage.”
A big reason that leafy greens are one of the most popular controlled environment agriculture crops is that they are easy to grow in tight spaces. Since plants like lettuce and arugula are short in stature and grow quickly, they work great in the tight confines of vertical farms. As Agrictechture again explains, “vertical farms produce more than 35x times as many leafy greens [in the same amount of space] as traditional soil-based farms.”
Since leafy greens tend to spoil quickly, growing them locally in CEA farms helps lessen spoilage by reducing shipping times.
Vine plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers are immensely popular controlled environment agriculture crops. In fact, about 25% of all CEA farms in 2022 grow vine plant crops of some sort. In fact, in the earlier days of the CEA industry, tomatoes were the #1 crop – with 46% of all producers in 2014 growing tomatoes of some sort.
As the CEA business continues to expand, hydroponic tomatoes are slowly replacing soil-grown tomatoes as the new standard in supermarkets and restaurants. While this is doubtlessly exciting for CEA producers, Cobank explains, it should be noted that “a few large companies dominate this very competitive high-volume, low-margin market. Although the exact current hydroponic tomato acreage is unknown, it is estimated that the five largest growers hold about two-thirds of U.S. tomato acres.” As seen in most industries, efficiency is key in edging out the competition in the hydroponic tomato market.
In recent years, strawberries have become increasingly popular controlled environment agriculture crops. This is due largely to the fact that there is massive market demand for strawberries with an increasingly health-conscious public. To this end, Kroptek explains, “global strawberry production has grown by over 5% every year” in the past 10 years. This figure includes both CEA and traditional farming.
In certain regions like Alaska with short growing seasons, grocers are forced to import their entire strawberry supply. Due to poor cultivation practices in other countries as well as shipping times, the quality of imported strawberries is often quite poor. This situation, as explained by Greenhouse Canada, “leaves more opportunity for local greenhouse strawberry production” where CEA crops only take “24 hours to reach store shelves.”
Fresh herbs are another important new crop for CEA growers. Whether it be oregano, mint, thyme, or basil, experts estimate about 53% of all CEA operations grow some type of fresh herbs. A big reason that herbs are such popular controlled environment agriculture crops is due to their short stature and quick growing season. To illustrate, small basil plants are easy to grow with shelving systems in verticals and greenhouses.
According to the Michigan State University website, “growing fresh culinary herbs in controlled environments offers a multitude of benefits, including less environmental impact by reducing inputs, the ability for year-round production, and offering high-quality, flavorful and nutritious foods.” Not only is growing fresh herbs in CEA farms more environmentally responsible, but the farm-to-table movement has created a huge demand for these fresh ingredients.
While in a slightly different league than other CEA crops, cannabis has always been important to the industry. In fact, much of the technology in use for CEA food production today was originally designed for cannabis growers. From high-powered grow lights to complex atmospheric controllers, you can trace most of this technology back to the early days of cannabis.
As cannabis legalization spreads across the globe, its value as a CEA crop simply cannot be ignored. According to the industry news source MJ Biz Daily, the “combined U.S. medical and recreational cannabis sales could reach $33 billion by the end of 2022, largely driven by the opening of new adult-use markets.” Yet, the cannabis market has proven quite volatile thus far, and only a few select producers have figured out how to turn a profit in this challenging industry.
It’s interesting to see the amount of change the CEA industry has undergone over the past decade. While tomatoes were originally the “go-to” crop for CEA producers, things have quickly shifted towards leafy greens. Primarily because leafy greens are easy to grow and have a massive market demand. Not to mention, the short shelf life of crops like lettuce and chard put local CEA growers at an advantage over industrial operations that must import harvests.
While you can’t deny the incredible opportunities in cannabis, it seems that most cultivation companies still have a ways to go in figuring out exactly how to be profitable. Nonetheless, cannabis will certainly remain an important CEA crop, with much innovation surrounding technical developments for indoor and greenhouse growing.
As we again look back at the CEA space 10 years from now, there is no doubt that things will again look much different than they once did.
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