Following the construction of their facilities to produce fresh strawberries in Panama, Ag IncoTech are underway with their expansion in the country but this time for leafy greens and micro greens, under their Ag Berry Corp umbrella.
As the construction phase has begun, James Archer, CEO of Ag IncoTech Inc, shared the recent developments: “Following our successful construction of the most advanced CEA greenhouse in Central America for strawberries, the demand for further crop diversification to help local food security followed very quickly” he says. “Leafy greens and microgreens are new produce undertakings for us but one that we are excited to commence with. Once you have successfully engineered to fight temperatures above 35°C/95°F and up to 100 percent relative humidity for a delicate crop like strawberries, leafy greens just aren’t very daunting”.
Ag IncoTech Inc, through its local entity Ag Berry Corp, managed to construct its high-tech, fully climate-controlled, cooled facility for strawberries in the space of 12 months and produced its first strawberries in April this year. Since then, retailers have been pushing for them to produce more.
“We didn’t have any specific plans to build further greenhouses for leafy greens and microgreens in this region, but we knew one day we would probably expand in the country to help an undersupplied local market gain control of its food security. For certain crops, especially with a shorter shelf-life, importing food by air is very expensive, environmentally harmful, and inappropriate as we all try to build a better future for the planet.”
James is passionate about improving food accessibility in all areas and climates. “We strongly feel that food accessibility should be available everywhere, not just in more developed markets. That’s why we want to make local fresh produce easier to achieve, even in locations where growing it seems impossible. However, there is no denying that entering developing markets can be tricky. If you don’t appreciate and respect the local culture and understand the differences in doing business, then you can quickly become a fish out of water.”
Ag IncoTech’s experience most certainly helped them navigate a new market with their knowledge of designing, engineering, construction, and growing fresh produce having a long history: “My partners and I started as outdoor growers some 20 years ago, and we hold assets in various countries around the world. Around 10 years ago, we decided to get off the ground and start building new facilities to grow in a substrate and at a reasonable height for efficiency and health of our employees. Since then, it has just been constant learning and development while our outdoor farms have incorporated some of the improvements we learned indoors and remained an important part of our portfolios.”
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In Panama, building an advanced CEA indoor facility was a little out of the ordinary. “We couldn’t find a construction team that knew how to build a high-tech greenhouse facility, so in the end, we decided to construct ourselves with a hired labor force. What we saw with this structure was that we could truly control costs and build in the budget even with the changes in transportation costs and inflation. Once the construction was complete, we then began teaching an inexperienced team how to harvest and maintain plants in a greenhouse in substrates. There is no lack of desire to learn from the Panamanian people, so we felt it was our duty to train people from scratch rather than bring in an experienced team from overseas.”
However, Ag IncoTech was conscious of keeping as much of the greenhouse automated as possible: “It is difficult to teach a team with no experience how to produce strawberries in a CEA facility, overnight. Therefore, we knew we would potentially face this issue and designed our facility accordingly. We took as much as possible out of the hands of human error and created a system that was not only automated but one that my partners and I could control from anywhere in the world. The only thing we can’t automate just yet is harvesting the delicious berries. Everything else; nutrition, irrigation, cooling, dehumidifying, fans, opening and closing of vents, shading, and so forth are controlled by our computer system - which we can manipulate to adjust parameters or override from anywhere in the world”.
So why did Ag IncoTech decide to move into leafy greens and microgreens in Panama? James concludes: “when a market asks us to produce some completely different crops unless we feel it is something we can’t deliver commercially, then we undertake the request that has been put in front of us. This is really one of the key attributes that indoor growing can deliver when you have a very experienced Management Team, being able to produce good quality, diversified crops in areas that historically we couldn’t. Panama has access to the standard lettuce, but we plan to improve the transport time immensely, improve the nutrition and flavor, increase the shelf-life and importantly, help create a more sustainable future for farming, globally”.
The company’s construction of their leafy greens facility is well underway. Being just 1-hour outside of Panama City, the company will significantly reduce the food miles and control the cold chain themselves through their own delivery system. They project market supply to begin in around 6 months’ time.