A battle against world hunger is under way in Kent.
At the campus for the Smithers-Oasis North America division quietly nestled off Marvin Street not far from downtown, researchers experiment with various materials and conditions to enhance products used by commercial plant growers.
And with a new, state-of-the-art, $500,000 greenhouse at its disposal that opened in July, the local company can conduct research better than ever on products like its patented foam technology, which stands to help battle global food shortages.
With their advanced Horticubes, Oasis Grower Solutions is growing vegetation better, stronger and faster than ever.
Nathan Keil, product and marketing manager for Smithers-Oasis, said such foam and greenhouse-based technology is the "way of the future" for growing the food needed for hungry bellies.
"We know the population is going to be 9 billion by 2040," Keil said. "There's very little land left you can still farm, and water is a precious resource. So one of the best ways we can look to farm in the future is this hydroponic method where the water is recycled its done in a controlled environment inside greenhouses or in warehouses fitted with lights."
The company's first invention is the green-foam floral cubes ornamental plants are grown in. Anyone picking up a poinsettia around Christmas anywhere across the country will likely find the material in their plant.
The brown Horticubes are different because they have calculated compositions that include ideal mixtures of air and water. The breakthrough technology was developed about two and a half years ago.
"Ant it's very difficult technology to reproduce, so we're one of just a few companies worldwide that do it," Keil said.
In contrast, the floral cubes are designed to only hold water, which isn't good for seeds because too much moisture will cause them to rot.
With the new 3,000-square-foot, three-bay greenhouse, researchers can optimize studies of their latest product.
Grower Research Manager Vijay Rapaka noted he's currently testing the growth of poppy seeds in the foam per the request of a company based in the United Kingdom.
"Our old greenhouse was 25 years old," he said. "But now we can change the light levels in this house and we can change the temperature to study the affects of all those. This is much more sophisticated."
The greenhouse is bright white, but sees no direct sunlight -- as evidenced by the lack of shadows anywhere inside. The special glazed walls diffuse all the light.
In one room, researchers study seed growth in their foam materials. The second room is for growing clones. The final room will soon house plants growing to full maturation.
Everything from lettuce and tomatoes to ornamental flowers and other leafy vegetables are subjects of experimentation.
"This just gives us so many more opportunities to develop things," Rapaka said.
The research Oasis Growers Solutions is working on could soon be the preferred harvesting method of the future as farmland could be replaced by ultra-controlled warehouse and greenhouses filled with young plants stacked on top of each other. Keil said such conditions with controlled light and temperatures can help create six times the average yield.
"We're real excited about the future and the opportunity to be part of feeding the world," Keil said. "You look at third-world countries like Kenya that don't have enough food and water, and we might be able to help them create their own future by making them be able to grow their own plants. It's really exciting stuff."
Smithers-Oasis was founded in Kent in 1954. Today, Keil said the company has facilities in 25 countries across the world.
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