Thursday, December 7, 2023

Endless strawberry season project ripe for the picking

A hi-tech pilot project to produce spray-free strawberries all year round is set to receive a Government funding boost, Agriculture Minister, Damien O’Connor, announced today.

Minister O’Connor said the Government was focussed on innovations that lift the sustainability and productivity of New Zealand’s food and fibre sector.

“This project moves us along that path,” the Minister said.

“Strawberries are a staple in the Kiwi diet in summer, but many would agree that our strawberry season is all too short.

“We’re partnering with 26 Seasons Ltd through Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures to identify the most cost-effective method to grow high yielding, out of season strawberries using a controlled environment growing system.”

The Government is committing more than $920,000 over two years to the Foxton-based project through the Ministry for Primary Industries administered fund. It will enable research to help in scaling up production using 26 Seasons’ proprietary growing system, which the company has tested successfully in a preliminary trial, the Minister said.

“26 Seasons’ indoor hydroponic system recycles water, and uses mobile vertical racks and pulsing light, so it doesn’t require the pesticides or herbicides that are usually an essential part of large-scale strawberry production,” he said.

“26 Seasons is currently using this method to produce microgreens, and while controlled environment growing systems are already being used around the world, this is the first of its kind in New Zealand. We also believe it’s one of the first examples globally of growing strawberries this way.”

Mr O’Connor said 26 Seasons had already successfully conducted a pre-pilot small-scale trial of 1,000 strawberry plants in inner city Wellington, with the help of funding from Callaghan Innovation.

“The time is ripe to scale up, and this new pilot project has just undergone a trial of growing up to 8,000 plants in a larger building in Foxton,” he said.

“This will be a stepping-stone to 26 Seasons’ aim of full commercialisation, which would require between 60,000 and 200,000 plants per site.” 

Mr O’Connor said the project will aim to produce fruit with an equivalent taste, look, and size to peak-season strawberries grown locally and conventionally.

“The business is aiming to grow plants that will produce fruit for at least eight months of the year at a commercially viable yield per plant.”

“This project has the potential to benefit the horticulture industry in New Zealand, both environmentally and economically.

“The controlled environment farming technology uses 90 percent less water and 90 percent less land than traditional horticulture – plus the strawberries can be grown fairly consistently without spraying them with pesticides or herbicides, so the environmental benefits are enormous.  

“If successful, 26 Seasons will share its technology with growers of other high-value crops by licensing the intellectual property.”

Mr O’Connor said successful adoption of the technology could also create more skilled technical jobs that are not season dependent.

“This ties in nicely with many of the goals set out in Fit for a Better World, the Government and food and fibre sector roadmap aimed at lifting productivity, sustainability, and creating jobs to drive New Zealand’s economy,” he said.

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