Friday, 16 June 2017 08:00

New greenhouse facility in Magrath under construction

Written by  J.W. Schnarr
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Starfield Centre Magrath broke ground on its 46-acre Next-Generation Greenhouse project recently Starfield Centre Magrath broke ground on its 46-acre Next-Generation Greenhouse project recently Photo contributed by Alastair Gregor/Starfield

A new greenhouse facility which broke ground in Magrath might seem like science fiction, but could soon be supplying Lethbridge with 20 per cent of the city’s daily fruit and vegetable requirement.

Starfield Centre Magrath is developing the first of what its management hopes will be many facilities in southern Alberta utilizing green energy and high-end technology to grow year-round polyculture crops with a minimal carbon footprint needed to get the food to market.
“We’re one of a kind,” said Leif Fossheim, the company’s chief of science officer.”There’s nothing out there like us.”
The facility is expected to be completed in the next two years and could provide about 100 jobs to Magrath.
According to their website, the plan for Starfield Centre Magrath is to be a flagship facility involving production in a state-of-the-art farm, a plant and water research facility, a K-12 education hub, a public ag-tourism visitor centre, and a demonstration project for the potential of the area.
In controlled environment greenhouses, a number of different technologies and growing strategies are to be implemented in order to allow for a year-round growing cycle.
The facility at Magrath will include eight 5,000-square-metre greenhouses.
“To translate that into Canadian terms, that’s slightly more than three ice hockey rinks per greenhouse,” said Alistair Gregor, president and CEO of Starfield Centre.
Magrath CAO Wade Alston said the community has a history of innovation in the agriculture sector, and this greenhouse project is another example of that history.
“We used to be known as the irrigation capital of Canada,” he said, noting Magrath has also long been known as the Garden City.
“When this project came along, it looked like an ideal fit. We used to have a large food processing plant here in Magrath, and we’re very much an agriculture-based community.”
Fossheim said while greenhouse technology has essentially remained unchanged for hundreds of years, the greenhouses at Starfield are a result of a ground-up redesign involving as many new technologies as possible.
“One of the main focuses on these next-generation greenhouses is reliance on renewable energy for both heating and cooling. With the potential of climate change and carbon taxes, the more you move away from fossil fuel energy, the better you can produce a more stable and efficient food system.”
Technology being used will include the use of geothermal and solar technology to provide energy, and special materials used as insulators to help regulate growing temperatures.
The area around Magrath has significant geothermal energy available.
“We’re measuring 250 feet down for a baseline temperature of 30 degrees Celsius,” Fossheim said. “That’s really unusual. We’ve got a geologist who is trying to figure out why, but we’ve basically hit gold for geothermal.”
Additional heat or cold will be stored in the ground using a type of “climate battery” to further regulate energy needs.
Gregor and Fossheim see their facilities growing in dozens of communities in the future — they have identified as many as 40 potential sites in southern Alberta alone.
The facilities could provide opportunities for tomorrow’s agriculture scientists and researchers to have a place close to home to work in their fields.
“We call this integration of all these technologies the next generation of greenhouse,” said Fossheim. “It’s really a redesign of what a greenhouse is.”
Another large component to the facility is the use of “Ag-IoT.”
IoT means “Internet of Things, the development of the internet to operate outside the world of computers and create a world of everyday items communicating digitally both with humanity and with itself. Many see this as the next level of automation.
“Every one of these greenhouses is basically one massive robot,” said Gregor. “Even though we have human inputs, we have sensors throughout the entire greenhouse.”
In essence, the greenhouses become large research and development facilities as new technology is added when it becomes available.
Gregor sees opportunities for working with Alberta’s technology leaders as well as researchers in other universities to provide opportunities to put their research and technology into a real-world application on an industrial scale.
“This really fits with the Magrath brand,” Alston said.
“It’s an ideal fit in terms of being consistent with our history. We try to promote Magrath as an oasis-like community and as a green community. All of these things are consistent with (Starfield’s) vision.”
“Around the world, we’ve taken best-case scenarios and best-use products and have brought them altogether to be used in one facility,” said Gregor.
“We have a multi-faceted approach to looking at best practices, best use, and best products, and really bringing them together.”

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