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BASF Vegetable Seeds invests in autonomous growing

The goal is to provide a "growing recipe" that will optimize the growing conditions for the vegetable variety so it reaches the top of its yield potential.


September 29, 2020
By Fruit and Vegetable

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Anne Jancic and Martin Voorberg are part of the team at BASF Vegetable Seeds investigating data-driven vegetable production. Photo courtesy of BASF.

BASF Vegetable Seeds, together with its corporate and academic partners in The Netherlands, announced that it is making progress in the application of autonomous growing concepts.

According to the company, they have already applied the concept to seed production, cultivation of a tomato variety and the screening of hydroponic lettuce varieties. A new project for cucumber is under way.

In autonomous growing, sensors, cameras, data collection and analysis are used to predefine growing settings with the help of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI). These integrated technologies can optimize inputs such as energy, water and the balance of nutritional elements to create the most optimal conditions for growth. They can recognize environmental conditions which will impact yield, the predictability of yield, better handling of crop diseases as well as future fruit quality, flavour or nutritional content of vegetables and take actions in real time.

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“Computers can make complex decisions much faster and learn based on outcomes much faster than we can,” adds Anne Jancic, business development high tech at BASF Vegetable Seeds. “That does not mean that specialized growers are not needed anymore. It simply means that they will be able to do a better job using the opportunities offered by this technology.”

The goal is to provide a growing recipe for each variety BASF commercializes, Anne explains. “The grower can visualize the performance of the variety during growth from a simple dashboard and get real time digital feedback, enhancing the performance of our genetics and thus the profit of our customers.”

“The grower can visualize the performance of the variety during growth from a simple dashboard and get real time digital feedback, enhancing the performance of our genetics and thus the profit of our customers.”

BASF says the system has many benefits, such as being more reliable due to less human intervention. The system also reduced the need to gain experience over several growing cycles or hiring specialists when growers start with a new crop. In addition, according to the company, less resources such as water and energy and a higher and more reliable production come with significant sustainability effects.

Sensor setup for autonomous growing at the BASF location ‘s Gravenzande, the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of BASF.

The autonomous growing program

Since May 2020, BASF Vegetable Seeds has been part of the AGROS program, a collaboration between Wageningen University and Research and 26 private partners, looking into autonomous growing. The program focuses on optimized growing methods based on sensors, plant physiology and artificial intelligence for cucumbers.

“By better understanding how plants react to their environment we will develop genetics that are fully adapted to new growing systems. In our new high-tech greenhouses at Nunhem [in The Netherlands] we digitally collect data on each individual fruit harvested. The ultimate goal is to develop better varieties,” explains Peter Kraan, R&D crop coordinator for cucumbers at BASF.

“By better understanding how plants react to their environment we will develop genetics that are fully adapted to new growing systems. In our new high-tech greenhouses at Nunhem [in The Netherlands] we digitally collect data on each individual fruit harvested. The ultimate goal is to develop better varieties,” explains Peter Kraan, R&D crop coordinator for cucumbers at BASF.

Last year, BASF partnered with Hoogendoorn Growth Management to gain experiences with various autonomous growing software and hardware for hydroponic lettuce and tomato. The modular software ensures that the available resources such as natural gas, fertilizers and water are used as efficiently as possible, helping to minimize costs and CO² emissions and to maximize crop profitability.

“Next to the extremely huge learnings we made in modern climate management we’ve seen massive opportunities to improve our own processes and to add value to our genetics. Using the principles of Growing by Plant Empowerment (GPE) to control the plant balances and optimize photosynthetic activity, we were able to significantly increase the growth speed of hydroponic lettuce while improving crop quality at the same time,” explains Martin Voorberg, R&D Capital Investment Venture Manager at BASF Vegetable Seeds.

“We had the same experience with high-tech tomatoes when production was higher during the winter months compared to references from professional growers. As a consequence, we will increase our investments in the facilities at ‘s-Gravenzande to make all greenhouse compartments ready for autonomous growing.”