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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, April 16, 2012, 5:55 am

We have smart phones, so why not smart gardens?

By Loralee Stevens Special to the Business Journal

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    Professor Lieth of UC Davis testing General Hydroponics fertilizer on strawberries

    NORTH BAY – With its unique concentration of high-tech talent and growers it’s not surprising the North Bay region has sprouted a number of companies dedicated to better yields through technology.

    In the vineyards, on farms and in research labs innovation around food production is flourishing like poppies after a good Spring rain.

     In Petaluma Hydrofarm’s PAR Source division has been experimenting with high-intensity electronic grow lights rather than the traditional magnetically ballasted lighting.

    “They last longer, they’re more efficient and offer better yields,” said Hydrofarm President Peter Wardenburg. “They’re being used now to grow tomatoes and other hot-house vegetables in advanced greenhouses across the country and in Canada.”

    High intensity electronic ballast in a Hydrofarm research greenhouse

    Hydrofarm has been making and developing high-tech indoor growing systems since the disastrous drought of 1977-’78, when lawns and shrubs in the North Bay went brown and gardeners looked for alternative growing methods. The company now supplies large commercial enterprises as well as hobby gardeners.

    Hydrofarm and other developers of lighting systems have also been investigating LED grow lights, which hold a great deal of promise in delivering just the part of the spectrum required by certain plants.

     “But at this point LED lighting is not economically viable for commercial growers,” he said. “The lights will pay for themselves after long-term use; however, we see a stronger immediate future for HID (high intensity discharge) lamps delivering photo-synthetically active radiation (PAR), a fancy name for the light spectrum used by plants.”

    General Hydroponics tests FloraNova, an all-in-one liquid fertilizer

    In Sebastopol, pioneer hydroponics systems developer Lawrence Brooke of General Hydroponics has partnered with Cogenra Solar in Mountain View to develop solar-heated rooftop gardens.

    But he’s even more excited about a patent-pending liquid fertilizer called FloraNova, the first to combine in concentrated form all the elements needed to nurture plants grown in water.

    “Ingredients that work well together when diluted often fight in concentrated form, so traditionally you would add them from many different containers. One of my researchers came up with this product and we’re patenting it in the U.S., Holland, Israel and China, all the places where intensive gardening is developed,” said Mr. Brooke.

    FloraNova contains the 13 ingredients, in ultra pure form and calibrated ratios, that plants need,” he said.

    “It’ll grow anything from algae to sequoias. At UC Davis they’re testing it with strawberries. We expect it to be enormously successful.”

    Vineyard owners are planting again, after a glut of grapes and the high cost of vineyard development put new vines on hold for the last several years.

    Napa grower Andy Beckstoffer is putting in several hundred acres in Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties, using input from weather services to plan trellis systems in relation to sunlight.

    “You don’t want to burn the grapes. We gathered data on the direction of the sun during the hottest days of the growing season and we position the trellis so that the sun shines down the row instead of broadside,” he said.

    Planted alongside the vines are sophisticated sensors that record soil conditions such as moisture, temperature and soil components.

    “You walk down the avenue (of vines) and every three feet you’ve got data collectors. It’s amazing,” said Mr. Beckstoffer, admitting that the amount of data collected has outdistanced growers’ ability to process it.

    Trustee Kristee Rosendahl in garden

    Dealing with data collected by sensors is very much the concern of Kristee Rosendahl in Healdsburg. She’s a former Silicon Valley designer who developed a software system that modularizes food production.

    SmartGardener.com puts together a personalized growing guide for its subscribers using historical weather data, but Ms. Rosendahl is more interested in gathering current data through sensors and weather stations.

    “You have smart water heaters, smart phones, smart lighting systems inside the home, and sensors for agricultural use, and now the technology is making its way into the vegetable garden,” she said.

    The challenge is to present the data so that it empowers the individual gardener to plant the right crops at the right time and maintain them during that particular region’s growing season.

    “Once our subscribers have gathered data, including their own notes, we can match them into affinity groups and offer targeted, meaningful information. If your potatoes in Sonoma aren’t doing well, you don’t need input from someone in Vermont,” she said.

    In the future, the SmartGardener platform will be applied to any aspect of home food production: bee keeping, poultry raising, fruit growing.

     “We envision regional networks of home gardeners benefiting from a resource that is not available now,” she said.

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