Vine Fresh Acres increases yield with Autonomous Growing

Vine Fresh Acres increases yield with Autonomous Growing

Vine Fresh Acres in Leamington, Ontario, grows high wire cucumbers and bell peppers. In 2021 the company took its first steps in the field of Autonomous Growing. Successfully, according to head grower Pete Neufeld and grower Jake Knelsen. They are enthusiastic about the use of Blue Radix's Crop Controller. The service saves them a lot of time and provides valuable insights. Knelsen: “It makes my job so much easier and helps me oversee it all.”

Vine Fresh Acres is a family-owned business that farms a total of 86 acres of greenhouse vegetables on a year-round basis. The company has two facilities in Canada, covering 34 acres of cucumbers and 52 acres of bell peppers. Vine Fresh Acres focuses on sustainable and healthy food production in high-tech greenhouses. The company has experienced significant growth and professionalization in recent years. At the same time, it became increasingly difficult to find sufficiently qualified employees, says head grower Pete Neufeld. “We needed to figure out how to utilize our current growers to their fullest potential and how to maximize their time. That is why we were introduced to Blue Radix by our partner Ridder. With Blue Radix and their specialism in Autonomous Growing, we hoped that somebody like our grower Jake would be able to manage a lot more acreage than just what he was doing at that time. And that was exactly what happened after we started to use Crop Controller.”

Growers can shift their focus
Crop Controller is a service offered by Blue Radix. It optimizes and realizes the grower’s unique crop strategy autonomously. During the entire growth period, AI continuously uses all available data from greenhouse sensors, climate boxes and meteo-data providers to forecast and optimize the climate and irrigation according to the growers’ cultivation planning. Crop Controller integrates all the data and autonomously controls the greenhouse installations, e.g., the climate computer, to reach the targets defined by the grower. This means the grower no longer needs to analyze all the greenhouse data or manually set the climate computer. Growers can now shift their focus to increasing the quality of the crop strategy and devote more attention to scaling and innovation. Crop Controller is not only software. An Autonomous Greenhouse Manager helps growers to get started with Autonomous Growing, continuously monitors the situation in the greenhouse and proactively discuss ideas, results, and improvements with the grower.

Neufeld says he believes in Autonomous Growing. “We experience ourselves that it offers us the support we need. In my eyes Blue Radix is the most advanced in this field. With Crop Controller they have a product that really works and we are excited to see where the future goes.” Neufeld believes Autonomous Growing is the only option to cope with the shortage of growers. “In the past we have tried to find new growers around here, but that has proven to be extremely difficult. We just don’t have that many young people who are interested in horticulture anymore. It’s a very demanding job, seven days a week. But it is not an option to have our current people do even more work. We can ask someone like Jake Knelsen to grow 34 acres extremely efficiently, but if you ask him to do a lot more, then all of the sudden mistakes start to happen and you’re overloading your grower. With Crop Controller Jake doesn’t have to think about all those small climate changes we make every single day. Blue Radix is basically controlling that and Jake can focus on the crop or on different aspects of growing.”

‘Makes my job easier’
Two years ago Vine Fresh Acres first started a trial of six months with Blue Radix. It was a good match from the start, says grower Jake Knelsen. “When you start something new, there are always challenges that you have to overcome. But the support we got from the team of Blue Radix helped us with that. They showed us we could trust them and we felt we were in good hands.” As a grower, Jake never got the feeling that Crop Controller would replace him. “It’s a tool that supports me to control a larger area. It makes my job easier and helps me oversee it all, while I can focus on other important things. Crop Controller collects all the data from the greenhouse and integrates it to autonomously control our installations.” During the trial the company divided the greenhouse in two phases with eight zones. “We allowed Blue Radix to control two zones at first and from there we kept a close eye on what was happening. When we saw good things, that gave us the confidence to go a step further and now we all zones in both phases are controlled by Crop Controller.”

As Neufeld already pointed out, there is less for human error since Crop Controller was introduced. “It’s a huge upside knowing that somebody is monitoring the climate 24/7. In the past we didn’t make changes when we should have at certain moments. Now Blue Radix makes those decisions for us every five minutes.” Knelsen agrees. “Working with Crop Controller saves a lot of time. If I had to do all the work that Crop Controller does, there would not be enough hours in a day. But it’s not only about saving time. It’s also important to get projections by the end of the day. That knowledge helps me making decisions in my daily work.”

Better yield and product
When it comes to crop yield, Knelsen saw an increase since working with Crop Controller. “Last year was record breaking for us with a 10 percent yield increase. Crop Controller definitely contributed to that, although it’s hard to actually put a value on that. There is still room for improvement, but I think 2,5 to 5 percent of the growth was due to Autonomous Growing.” Also, the quality of the product improved, believes Knelsen. “That’s because I had more time to focus on the crop and on pest control. In that way, Crop Controller helped me to produce a better product.”

Knelsen is 100 percent sure that everyone is able to work with Crop Controller. Even less experienced growers. “It’s a nice way to help new growers to understand the crop and how things in horticulture. I actually have an assistant myself who is fairly new in the industry and I am teaching him how Crop Controller works. That will take me less time than to teach him everything inside the greenhouse.” Pete Neufeld hopes working with AI techniques will make horticulture more interesting again for young people. “That would be a nice plus. Extra modules in Crop Controller can also contribute to that, because it will make the work of a grower even less difficult.”

Future endeavors
These new features will be introduced for sure, says Jake Knelsen. “This is just the beginning. There are much more aspects in the greenhouse that can be controlled. Right now, it’s mainly climate, but Blue Radix is ambitious and is working on a module for irrigation. And some energy modules will be added too. That would be very useful and helpful for us, so we look forward to those future endeavors of Blue Radix. And because we were already working together during the trial two years ago, we feel like we are part of this further development of Crop Controller. We share our ideas with them and they listen to that. Some adjustments were already done at our request. So that’s a good thing.”

Knelsen concludes with some advice to fellow growers. “At first it will feel like you are letting go. But the reality is that you are letting go to something better. You can own a new sense of trust, knowing that your crop is in good hands. It’s worth it giving that some time.” Neufeld adds: “From the perspective as a CEO it also has to make sense financially. My recommendation is therefor to do a trial and find out if it works for you. We did, and now we know it’s definitely worth the investment for our company.”



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