Students at Stellenbosch University (SU) will soon have access to a state-of-the-art Horti Demo Centre, which is under construction at the University's Welgevallen Experimental Farm.
In May this year, the cornerstone for the 3 000 m2 large and six metre-high Horti Demo Centre was laid with the symbolic handing over of a tomato plant and cutting of a ribbon by Mr Guido Landheer, director-general at the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, alongside SU's Profs Nick Kotze and Eugene Cloete, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies.
A consortium comprising six Dutch companies (Delphy, Koppert, Rijk Zwaan, De Ridder, ControlUnion and Swenson), a South African company (Greener Solutions) and SU received over 900 000 euros (R16 million) to build this showcase of what's best and most cutting-edge in Dutch horticultural technology today. The partners are going Dutch in the agreement with half provided by the Dutch government and the other half by the consortium.
Prof Nick Kotze, who holds the WinField United South Africa chair in plant health in the Department of Agronomy at the SU, says the planned Horti Demo Centre will be more advanced than the University's current horticultural facilities for greenhouse management and vegetable production.
Principles of circularity
The Horti Demo Centre follows the principles of circularity: recirculation of water (it will run predominantly on rainwater) and nutrients within the system, resulting, he says, in a 30% saving in both and moreover, it eliminates the risk of environmental contamination.
Inside, pest pressure and the concomitant use of chemical pesticides will be dramatically reduced by the insect netting at all openings.
“For students, both undergraduate but especially for postgraduate students, to rub shoulders with international technology places them in another league. I always tell my students: future industry experts have to come from among us, and you can't really become an expert if you don't have access to relevant first-world technology."
'I'm certain we could easily double production'
While Kotze is very excited about the impact it will have on the quality of their teaching, the project is intended to go beyond the campus to become a locus for farmer training taking place inside the fully automated, wholly climate-controlled greenhouse.
“We would like to show especially new or small-scale farmers the very best production techniques that are currently available in the world. I'm dead certain we could very easily double the average production of small-scale farmers. We have set ourselves the target of doubling their production and I think we can achieve that."
Seeing the technology within the greenhouse perform under South African conditions, where the focus is much more on cooling down than on heating up as it would be in a Dutch greenhouse, will be an immense learning opportunity for the members of the consortium too, he adds.
Potential site for independent trials
The commercial vegetable sector of South Africa, traditionally a fairly fragmented sector, can also expect to see the benefit through, for example, independent vegetable trials to generate local and nonpartisan data on vegetable varieties on behalf of commercial seed companies and administered by SU.
“We can add great value to the local vegetable industry," Kotze puts forward, “and we will be able to guarantee the independence of our trials."
Furthermore, he observes, a close working relationship between academia and the commercial sector creates a platform for postgraduate students to address the research needs of industry and provides useful contact between students and their future employers.