5 Controlled Environment Ag Questions with Pieter de Smedt of Urban Crop Solutions

Belgian custom-made turnkey vertical farming equipment provider Urban Crop Solutions opened a US office in September 2016. It’s headed up by Pieter De Smedt and we caught up with him recently to find out more about their automated container and vertical farming systems and what their Euro approach brings to the burgeoning US indoor agriculture market.

1. What’s in a name? Urban Crops just became Urban Crop Solutions. Why the change?

We believe that the name Urban Crop Solutions allows us to better represent our business model, being an independent turnkey vertical farming solution provider with an extensive after sales model. Being categorized as a solution provider better aligns with our philosophy and core values of delivering reliable and qualitative products and services.

2. How do you think the European approach to creating grow systems differs from that in the US?

The high-tech greenhouses in Europe have been an indispensable part of the agriculture system for decades. As a result, major growers and buyers have become used to integrating technology into farming and seem to have an open disposition to the continued innovations. In the US farming has had a somewhat more conservative history focused on open field farming. Those that want to innovate and want to do so at scale therefore often look at the European technologies (especially for CEA) since they are state-of-the-art.

3. What role do robotics play in your systems? How do you expect this to change over the next five years?

Robotics are essential to our designs for several reasons:
– Labor costs: Automating e.g. tray handling in the grow out area means less FTEs, but also less labor related costs (training, scissor lifts, increased insurances, etc.).
– Food safety: By introducing robotics we can decrease the risk of pathogens and pests entering the grow areas.
– Space usage: Full use of a given space up to 24 layers high and without the need of having corridors in between the growing racks.
We expect robotics to become the general standard for a lot of projects due to increased demand for all of these advantages.

4. What’s next in your world domination plan? Any new markets on the horizon?

We are currently prospecting South-East Asia, analyzing the market, building a network, and preparing for the opening of a regional office in Japan in Q2 of this year.

5. You have a crop list of 180 flowers, vegetables & medicinal plants that you’ve proven in your systems. Which is the most unusual?

This is a great question to demonstrate the different value propositions our systems hold for our clients. The most unusual requests come from clients focused not on immediate returns on the sale of the crops produced, but on other benefits our systems can provide.

Crop science companies want to create better varieties of the crops they have in their portfolio and our systems allow them to do this faster and more efficiently by e.g. shortening the growth cycles (think beets, tropical plants, or banana tree plants). We have also validated a number of crops for this type of companies – and other research institutions – that cannot be disclosed as our research now forms part of their business models.

High end restaurant holders want to grow crops to their specifications and want us to modify the growth recipe accordingly to get the taste, texture, and size they want. They might also want to grow varieties that would otherwise be difficult to obtain (e.g. 38 different types of radishes).

The situation is typically different for a commercial grower. They want to either produce a range of crops in a way so as to maximize the return on investment. That means they are more inclined to go for the usual suspects of the leafy greens (e.g. bibb lettuce; romaine lettuce; etc.). For open field or greenhouse growers this applies as well, but they will want to implement the technology in a way that optimizes their production process (e.g. seedling production).

Meet Urban Crop Solutions at the 5th Annual Indoor Ag-Con on May 3-4, 2017 


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