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Ag-tech company eyes China

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-02-27 00:49

With just a few clicks, Seth Swanson, an agriculture-technology scientist in Silicon Valley, demonstrated how he monitored and operated an indoor planting system remotely with his smartphone.

“We have the ability of consolidating our managing of labor, so we can assign tasks for employees to do in a faster and more precise way,” said Swanson, plant cultivation and research manager at AEssenseGrows, a Sunnyvale, California-based company.

His company is trying to solve the needs for higher-growth yields, food safety and conservation of resources with its aeroponic (soil-free) systems.

The sensors-monitored and software-managed systems “allow us to make big improvements as growers and a company as well – we can constantly improve the user experience and precision as well”, said Swanson.

In the company’s grow room, vegetables, like tomato and kale, flowers and herbs are growing on vertical grow systems with roots sprayed at set periods by a precise spray mist of water and nutrients.

“The aeroponic technology has existed for a while. What we bring to the industry is the technologies to make it more manageable, so it can monitor the plants a lot better and easier,” said Robert Chen, president and CEO of AEssenseGrows.

According to the company, its self-developed software and the nutrient-dosing recipes can increase yields by 40 percent while reducing water and nutrient use by 90 percent and 70 percent, respectively.

“It’s totally under control and ensures safety, as it does not need pesticide at all,” said Chen.

Established in 2014 in Silicon Valley, the company has built a 100,000-square-foot farming facility for technology demonstration in the Jiading district of Shanghai, to tap into the huge Chinese market.

Vertical farming will play a key role in addressing the challenges facing the food and agriculture industry in China, where the millennial generation and a growing middle class increasingly demand fresh, safe and nutritious food, Chen said.

Last week, senior officials of Shanghai, including deputy Party chief and head of the municipal agricultural commission, visited AEssenseGrows’ facility to explore the opportunities of deploying the vertical farming technologies and upgrading the agricultural industry in Shanghai, according to Chen.

“We have seen increasing interest from the Chinese government to advance agriculture technologies, and we really hope the government can support the deployment of the technologies,” he said.

The Chinese government has pledged to continue deepening reforms of the agriculture sector in the No. 1 document released early this year, which is seen as a key indicator of policy priorities each year.

Innovation is highlighted in the document as a strategy to boost the agriculture industry, including building ag-tech innovation platforms and industrial parks and nurturing ag-tech innovative companies.

“I think the central government is aware of the importance of ag-tech innovation. But some governments at local levels are still preoccupied with ‘greenhouse farming’. I think the government needs to push harder for ag-tech innovation,” said Chen.

His company is currently partnering with Bright Food, a Shanghai-based food and beverage manufacturing company, to promote its aeroponic system.

“Taking Shanghai, for instance, the big population of the city consumes 16,000 tons of vegetables every day,” Chen said. “Transportation and delivery pose a big challenge.

“The aeroponic technology can retain vegetable freshness for up to two weeks, so when the vegetables are delivered to customers, they are still alive,” Chen said. “I think the future for food safety will be the integration of indoor farming and internet delivery.”

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