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A growing opportunity
April 10, 2023 in News
How dynamic LED fixtures can maximize flexibility and ROI for greenhouse growers.
Many Canadian greenhouse growers aspire to grow a high-quality and high-yielding winter crop, but it’s no easy feat. Environmental controls – including humidity levels and the right combination of heat and light – make all the difference when it comes to greenhouse cultivation.
Supplementary lighting is especially crucial for growers looking to produce through the winter months, as it allows the plants to continue to photosynthesize and grow as if they were in a higher light environment.
High-pressure sodium (HPS) fixtures, LED fixtures or a hybrid system are commonplace in many greenhouses, and this past winter, the benefits of a lighting system were especially evident in some regions of Canada.
“If you weren’t using lights this year [and you want to produce through the winter months], you were not producing at your maximum,” says Dr. Jason Lanoue, referring to the exceptionally low levels of sunlight Ontario experienced, in what’s been called the province’s darkest winter in more than 70 years.
Lanoue is a greenhouse research biologist at the Harrow Research and Development Centre in Ontario, who specializes in greenhouse lighting and the effects of lighting on major physiological pathways inside of a plant. He says, beyond the necessity of light for a successful crop, growers are also recognizing how a truly dynamic lighting system can provide maximum profitability.
LEDs have become more popular in recent years, with growers installing new systems, or switching (either partially or fully) from their conventional HPS to an LED system. With incentives from both federal and provincial governments, as well as the advanced customization options that LEDs can offer, Lanoue says many growers are recognizing how a dynamic LED system offers more flexibility to boost product quality and yield and increase energy savings.
Bringing flexibility to light
Gene Ingratta, owner/operator of Allegro Acres in Ruthven, Ont., installed LED lighting at his operation in 2020. Ingratta worked with Sollum Technologies, a Montréal-based lighting company that has designed and commercialized a comprehensive smart and fully dynamic LED grow light solution for greenhouses, as well as other applications for agriculture and other industries. Sollum’s dynamic solution was designed to recreate and modulate the spectrum and intensity of the sun’s natural light. Ingratta found the increased flexibility from a dynamic lighting system invaluable, in terms of both plant growth and energy savings.
“We started with four acres, then expanded to 12 acres using LEDs,” Ingratta says, adding that each fixture could be controlled individually if needed, as each has its own IP address. While a research station may conduct trials with each individual fixture, Ingratta says Allegro opts for a more practical approach by grouping greenhouses into lighting zones depending on which variety is being grown.
“We can play with different [light] spectrums within that zone and see what effect that has over the variety in the zone,” he says, noting Sollum’s service dashboard means there’s no extra wiring needing, and allows the user to configure the zones based on their needs from crop to crop.
“The other part of that flexibility is that we can dynamically change the intensity of light,” he adds. “As the sun comes up, the par sensors are reading that more light is coming from an external source . . . so the software turns down the intensity of our fixtures. This way we’re not over-lighting our crop or overusing electricity.”
Though Allegro Acres once grew tomatoes too, the operation now exclusively grows peppers and Ingratta says the LED lighting system is necessary to successfully produce a crop through Ontario’s winter climate. “Timing is everything,” he says. “In order to avoid excess delivery charges for our electrical usage and to meet market demand, we strategically plant in mid-September to avoid turning our fixtures on until October, and to start producing just as our non-lit range has come to an end,” he says.
Should Allegro Acres decide to grow another crop, Ingratta says the flexibility of the solution would allow the operation to customize lighting recipes to cater to different cultivars. This goes hand-in-hand with Sollum’s agronomic approach, notes Rose Séguin, an agronomist with the company.
“When we have a new project underway, I work with growers beforehand to get the lighting strategy set and [make recommendations],” Séguin says. “We collect their crop registration data, climate data and whatever else they’re comfortable sharing, and pull it all into a dashboard. If we start seeing trends, we’ll create a new zone [with new recommendations],” she adds, noting follow-up happens during and post-season.
Growing potential and measuring ROI
Robert Thérien, president of Les Serres Point du Jour, a tomato greenhouse operation in L’Assomption, Que., echoes Lanoue’s comments about the need for light. Launched in 2020, Thérien’s greenhouses run LED fixtures from Sollum Technologies 17 hours per day, from 1:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. Similar to Ontario, Québec experienced extremely low levels of sunlight in December 2022 and January 2023. “We had five days of sunlight in December and January,” Thérien says. “To grow in the wintertime [in Québec], we don’t have a choice but to use lights.”
He also says that while his operation favours natural predators for pest management, he’s interested in using LEDs for pesticide control in the future – something the Sollum team is keeping a close eye on. Séguin says there have been lots of studies on how light impacts an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy, including research on photoreceptor sensitivity and sticky traps, for example.
“On our end, there is some indication that lighting does have an effect on insect movement within the greenhouse, so from here, we’re asking how far we can push that,” Séguin says, noting it’s a delicate balance between controlling the insects and impacting the plant’s health. “And, we also need to make sure that whatever changes [to the light] we make aren’t hurting beneficial insects,” she adds. “But there is definitely a thoughtful interest in what impact that might have. For example, if I see there’s an outbreak of spider mite in an area, can I change the lighting parameters slightly to just reduce the spread? That’s a question we’re really interested in.”
Both Thérien and Ingratta note dynamic LEDs come with higher costs up-front, but the long-term benefits (and longer shelf-life) of the technology are a fair trade-off. As time goes on, Lanoue says growers are beginning to see the long-term return on investment potential for LEDs, making the technology more palatable.
“Growers are starting to understand that [profitability] is not just about producing as much fruit as possible. It’s also about reducing your input costs,” he says, noting a greenhouse’s electricity bill could see fee reductions of one third, or even more, by switching to dynamic LED system. “By reducing your input costs, you can significantly reduce your ROI time, making LEDs an attractive option.”
And for those still on the fence, Séguin adds that while yield increases are a significant benefit to using LEDs, the consistency in growing conditions – especially through unexpected weather conditions – speak for themselves.
“It really takes the hardest part of production away. We’ve had [growers] say, it’s like they have a perfect spring day, every day.”
For more information, visit sollumtechnologies.com.