Improving plant production

Improving plant production in the UK

Chemists and polymer scientists at the University of Sheffield have joined forces with a leading private sector soil moisture monitoring company, to help develop a novel technology that could improve plant production in the UK’s £600 million soft fruit industry, while at the same time significantly reducing the amount of water needed to irrigate crops.

Scientists at University of Sheffield’s spin out company, Farapack Polymers Ltd, have provided Cambridge based high-tech, monitoring equipment manufacturer, Delta-T Devices Ltd. (Delta-T), with expertise and materials for prototypes that has enabled them to develop moisture sensors suitable for use in the soil-free growing substrates found in the soft fruit sector.

This technical advance should significantly improve on-demand water dosing for plant irrigation which, in turn, should lead to a significant reduction in water usage and improved yields for crops that can be grown in soil free environments, such as high-value soft fruits.

Chris Saywell, Operations Manager, Farapack Polymers

Following the collaboration with Farapack Polymers Ltd, Delta-T won a small collaborative research and development TSB grant to further prove the concept in a substrate growing trial with Dr. Mark Else at East Malling Research (EMR). In addition to the technical successes of this project, further TSB support has been secured for a much more significant grant as part of a larger consortium in partnership with a commercial growing company.

Dr. Martin Goodchild of Delta T said: “There is no doubt that our early-stage involvement with Farapack has been critical to our success in developing an innovative sensor technology, securing substantial third-party funding and raising our profile within the commercial grower equipment industry.”

Dr Mark Else (EMR) added that ‘The lack of suitable crop management tools and monitoring systems is hindering progress in reducing water and fertiliser inputs to intensive soilless cropping systems in the soft fruit sector. The new sensors will be integrated into a precision ‘closed loop’ fertigation scheduling tool that will help to improve resource use efficiency, increase marketable yields, extend shelf life and reduce wastage in store and deliver better fruit quality for consumers.’

More efficient use of inputs including water, fertilisers and pesticides is vital to the future success of all UK agri-businesses and the new technology is readily transferable to many other irrigated horticultural crops where improvements in both environmental and economic sustainability are needed.

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