Boosting Caribbean food security through climate-resilient greenhouse systems

Caribbean islands import plenty of fresh produce, some even up to 100% with no local farming at all. Islands are obliged to import nearly everything in terms of food and fresh produce. “The import dependency has become acute because of COVID-19. It’s a complex economy here, as it’s normally based on tourism but that’s not very active right now. Food demand has decreased somewhat, as most resorts and restaurants are closed, but the issue of food security has increased.”

“Most of our imported food comes from the USA. Understandably, producing countries are starting to hoard their food supplies due to the pandemic”, Ralph Birkhoff, a Dutch-Canadian and Co-Founder and CCO of Alquimi Renewables says. “When Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas last year, we weren’t affected at first, but then the port of Miami closed for ten days, thus most of the shipping to the region was closed off. It’s all interconnected. That’s why we have to create more food security here. Solving the problem of growing more food locally across all Caribbean islands”, he states.

Ralph Birkhoff, Co-Founder and CCO of Alquimi Renewables

‘Expensive energy’
The technique is relatively new, using its greenhouse hydroponic production system which is tailored for the sub-tropical climate. High temperatures, a high sun load, a considerable amount of humidity, and a very valuable resource, water, must all be taken into consideration. The Island Agtech system is extremely water and energy-efficient, as both are very expensive. “We pay 3 to 4 times more on energy, (0.38US$ per kWh), than on average in the Netherlands. Almost all electricity here is generated by diesel or gas fuel, so we are slowly starting to bring in renewables like wind, solar and geothermal”, Birkhoff states.

The company is introducing its new hurricane resistant greenhouses to help solve the problem. These are the first greenhouses that are engineer certified up to 280 kph sustained wind load and 325 kph gusts which comply with the ASCE international building codes. Made from solid aluminum, they are also corrosion and earthquake resistant. The proprietary membrane used, which is as close to glass in terms of performance, is resistant to impacts such as mass hail storms and floods. As the membrane allows the full grow light spectrum to access the crops, it makes the growing process very productive. 

The climate-resilient greenhouse

Food security in a nutshell
The greenhouses will grow heavily imported and high demand cold-weather crops such as lettuces, leafy greens, herbs, microgreens, and berry fruits – all USDA Organic and GlobalGAP certified. “In a nutshell, our farms will begin to build island food security in a sustainable way.” The IAT greenhouses are helping to deal with a critical situation as the islands cannot grow enough food to survive, and are continually trying to explore new ways to produce more food locally. “Decreasing the import supply chain will take some time, but as our greenhouse farms come online across the islands, we hope to help solve part of the problem.. The pandemic has affected every sector within agriculture so we seem to be busier than ever. We have had a lot of attention from investors and island governments. We expect our first farms to be fully operational this year.”

The company also aims to train and recruit younger people to farm on the islands as the region’s farmers’ average age is over 55 years. “By training young men and women in high tech farming versus traditional soil-based farming, we hope to continue the tradition of agriculture as a career. “ 

Natural aspiration
The first phase of the greenhouse farms is used as a sales center, bringing in all the interested customers looking for new sources of organic quality produce. They can deliver on new orders usually within 90 days which mitigates investor risk by building on demand. “We can react very quickly to customer demand. Our greenhouses can be erected extremely quickly and are adaptable to any environment really. Our production costs are very cost competitive compared to imported produce cost.”, Birkhoff states. Island AgTech’s production system is based on a customized SAEF hydroponic system, using table height growing benches of 1.2 x 6 meters. Because there are no columns in the greenhouse, they can maximize production space efficiency.

Saving energy in tropical conditions is managed through natural aspiration by controlled air intake louvers, suspended fans, shading systems, and a rooftop wind turbine air extraction system. In this way, ambient air temperature is maintained inside the greenhouse. Using chilled water in the production system makes the crops react positively and keeps the yields high with excellent consistency of quality.

Sustainable energy
When scaling up, a solar energy system is integrated that includes battery storage, used to drive the production system. “We’ve tested a flex solar panel which is adhered to the exterior of the greenhouse or we can add a ground mount solar array. The solar system generates all energy needed for the production system. Overnight, the system switches to a battery system. In most islands, this will reduce our energy costs by 50-65%. Gas standby generators are added as a redundancy system.” Birkhoff affirms. The company can also expand the solar generation system to sell clean energy to the local utility.

Birkhoff adds: “As the farms begin to expand, we will start producing a significant amount of biomass. Many islands don’t have adequate waste management systems and simply collect everything at a dumpsite. We want to stimulate a biomass recycling system, using the biomass from our farms and combining with local sources. By combining the island’s total biomass feedstock with our own, we can start looking at creating other products including syngas fuels and fertilizer products. Hopefully, this will encourage the waste authorities with looking at other ways to create energy from waste.”

For more information:
Alquimi Renewables / Island Agtech / Island Growers
Ralph Birkhoff, Co-founder and CCO /    


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