By Emilio Godoy
This liquid, which contains calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and vitamins, must be kept around 21 degrees, to facilitate the growth of this vegetable.
Pérez is the zealous watchdog of the set of lettuces that grow in the vertical farm in a controlled environment of the Urban Farms company, in this town of Río Hato, with 15,700 inhabitants, in the province of Coclé, about 125 kilometers north of Ciudad de Panama.
This facility, the only one of its kind in Latin America, is one of the variants of controlled agriculture, an alternative to the onslaught of climate change on that activity.
“Climate change has affected agricultural production. That is why we saw the need to see what changes we were making by applying technology ”, explained David Proenza, founder of the Urban Farms company, owner of the project.
In 2010, Proenza learned of the advancement of this modality in Southeast Asia, traveled to Japan and contacted researchers and entrepreneurs.
He returned to Panama with the fundamentals of the technique and with his new partners decided to send an agronomist to train in Japan.
Until then it had been a conventional producer of watermelon and other varieties.
“The producer has control from seed to harvest. The idea is to produce and consume locally, ”the producer explained to IPS, partnering with two other people and consulting with an outside group. In addition, it employs two permanent workers and two temporary ones.
In its four-hectare property, Proenza allocated a space of 17 by 12 square meters to install 60 trays with a capacity of 30 and 36 plants each.
The basis is hydroponics. The process begins with the placement of the seed, which germinates for three days. Subsequently, it is transplanted to its growing position in the trays for three weeks, to be collected, cut and packed for distribution in supermarkets.
The venture produces about 2,000 lettuces of five varieties per month, without pesticides, preservatives or large areas of land.
A computer program, controlled from a smartphone, manages the temperature of the room and the water, as well as the lamps and irrigation.
Low-light bulbs, which stay on for 18 hours and cost about $ 120 individually, emit red, yellow or blue beams, each of which has a particular effect on its target. The trays need 25 to 100 liters of water, depending on their size.
Controlled agriculture encompasses modalities such as vertical farms, urban farms and gardens, and hydroponic crops.
Panama is a country highly vulnerable to climate change, exposed to intense storms, floods, landslides and droughts. The climate of this tropical nation of about four million inhabitants was divided into two seasons: dry and rainy, but that differentiation is now less marked.
Río Hato is on the threshold of the so-called Arco Seco, where an important food source for the country begins, both for export and for domestic consumption. Panama mainly harvests corn, rice, beans, melon, watermelon, orange, banana, and coffee. Livestock activity is also a vital economic engine.
The agricultural sector of this Central American country contributes about four percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).
Official data indicate that in 2014 and 2015 grain harvests have been declining, except in the case of corn, due to factors that specialists link with climatic changes.
The report “Panama. Effects of climate change on agriculture ”, prepared in 2010 by several international organizations, anticipates that climatic variations would cost this isthmic nation agricultural losses of between four and seven percent of GDP by 2050 and between eight and nine percent by 2100 .
For Gustavo Ramírez, an academic at the Cuautitlán Faculty of Higher Studies, of the state National Autonomous University of Mexico, the vertical agriculture scheme is viable in Latin America, but suitable policies are lacking.
“This system makes it possible to make better use of space. In urban areas, there are abandoned buildings that could be used and in rural areas, there is much more space, ”he told IPS.
In Río Hato, Proenza, who has invested more than $ 70,000 in the farm, has tested the cultivation of strawberries, paprika, cucumber, melon and watermelon, with positive results.
Vertical farming is in vogue in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In fact, the Association for Vertical Farming already exists, which brings together companies, universities and individuals and has offices in Canada, China, India and several European countries.
There are about 180 vertical farms in Japan, about 100 in Taiwan and about 80 in South Korea.
This modality can be an alternative in cities of all kinds and in impoverished and hungry rural areas. In cities like Buenos Aires, Mexico City or Santiago, rooftops are already proliferating with gardens that provide vegetables and legumes to their producers.
To promote the exchange of knowledge, Proenza created the Foundation for the Development of Agriculture in a Controlled Environment, which in May organized in this country the International Congress of Agriculture in a Controlled Environment, in which more than 350 researchers, academics and agricultural producers from all over the world participated. the world. The next edition will take place in 2017.
“The producer earns three times more than in the field. The vertical farm is 30 percent cheaper than traditional agriculture and 15 percent cheaper than greenhouses. The risk is minimal, ”says Proenza, whose initiative won the second award of the National Prize for Business Innovation in 2014, awarded by the National Secretariat for Science and Technology.
The farmer's plan is to add 400 square meters to the vertical farm with species of parsley, basil, coriander, arugula and strawberries.
Ramírez recommended that governments reorient agricultural policies and reassess priorities. “Governments must show interest, guide policies to explore and exploit this modality. We have an ineffective planning exercise in production, distribution and logistics ”, he stated.
With vertical agriculture, he continued, local and regional markets would develop, with "an enormous impact", but "seed capital and adequate technological packages would be needed, based on a model of their own," he warned.
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez