Planting Seeds of Sustainability

Some of the latest innovations in commercial crop production are happening in Boston, Massachusetts - a burgeoning innovation hub for seed development. Proximity to major learning institutions, such as Harvard and MIT, make the Bay State an attractive location for companies that develop agricultural production solutions. One of these companies is Indigo Ag. Indigo is aiming to help growers produce crops that are more resistant to stress, such as insufficient water, low nutrient levels and high temperatures.

The company’s technology holds promise as a solution for sustainable, high-yield crop production. But one challenge Indigo faced in the early years was the availability of space for its crop research. The Boston area offers ample access to knowledge but is tight on real estate. When Indigo began building its lab in 2015, the company decided to incorporate two Conviron plant growth chambers into its facility to accommodate its research needs, according to Brett Hilderman, an account manager with Conviron. Conviron worked closely with Indigo determine what type of chambers were appropriate for the company’s operations.

“Indigo brought Conviron in based on our reputation of being able to provide very high uniformity and high-quality plant-growth equipment customized to a client’s specific needs,” Hilderman says.

Indigo's goal is to help farmers feed the planet in a sustainable way by using drought resistant seeds coated with microbes. Source & photo credit: AgNews.

Putting it All Together

Hilderman and his team worked with Indigo to understand what the company was trying to accomplish, including performance specifications, scale and frequency of the research trials. Conviron engineers are able to meet unique size requirements, which is essential when working in multilevel buildings with height constraints.

“Having a lot of space for something like this is pretty scarce in the middle of Massachusetts,” Hilderman explains. “You can’t set up a massive greenhouse in an urban area, so we needed to make some pretty unique adjustments.”

The task took some creative thinking. They needed to shoehorn the chamber between a floor and a high-beam ceiling. The Conviron team addressed this challenge by using a crane to move a wall and ceiling panels through a second-story window. The installation crew also had to customize the exhaust, chilled water and irrigation connections so they were accessible.

In addition, the chamber was designed to function with a standalone chilled water system for cooling because the building’s environmental controls could not handle the unique needs of the chamber itself.

Indigo is working with several different types of crops, including cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and wheat. Source & photo credit: AgNews

Automation is another key feature that the Conviron team incorporated into the design using the Argus environmental control system. The Argus system allowed Indigo to make modifications as needed to its trials as they progress.

The flexibility and intelligence of the control system allowed Conviron to integrate Argus environmental controls with a robotic irrigation boom. The key benefit here is the Argus system’s ability to maintain optimal humidity levels during irrigation. The largest chamber occupies roughly 1,350 ft2 (125 m2) and the smaller unit covers 450 ft2 (42 m2) of floor space. The entire project took about a year and a half to complete.

Reliable Research

For several years now, the Conviron growth chambers and Argus controls solution have enabled Indigo to produce the repeatable, reliable experiments they require. The company is working with several different types of crops, including cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and wheat. Each crop has different growing requirements, and the Indigo team can’t rely on natural weather conditions to produce desired results.

Indigo researchers examine plants in a Conviron Growth House. Photo credit: PitchBook

“If you need to maintain a specific set of temperature and humidity conditions, you’re not always going to be able to do that in a greenhouse,” Hilderman explains. “In a greenhouse, there are systems we have that can compensate for changes in outdoor environments. But at the end of the day, if the sun is not shining and it’s 20 degrees colder than it should be, there could be some potential effects on your internal conditions.”