Controlled Environment Facility (CEF)

CEF, situated on the Agriculture campus of UKZN in Pietermaritzburg, celebrated its 50th anniversary on 10 July 2018.

Photo supplied by the ACCI

The world-class facility including greenhouse tunnels, shade houses, glasshouses, fields, propagation facilities and post-harvest storage facilities was established in the late 1960s. The late Professor Peter Allan of Horticultural Sciences had the first tunnel erected for his renowned research in vegetative propagation, floriculture, deciduous fruits and vegetable production.

Renowned maize breeder Professor Hans Gevers conducted much of his high-protein maize work in the facility.

Other notable staff members who contributed to and made use of the facility include Professor Irwin Smith, who added a number of tunnels, including one for hydroponics. Professor of Plant Pathology Mark Laing, also Director of the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), has been involved in the construction of a number of tunnels.

Laing has also modified a number of tunnels designed for European environments to be more suitable to South African conditions, for example adjusting the height of the tunnel to facilitate better layering of different air temperatures. Another modified tunnel is based upon a design used by the Flower Growers Association of Zimbabwe, with increased height, more stability, better air escape mechanisms and improved cost-effectiveness.

 

While the Ukulinga Research Farm is also a vital facility for agricultural and ecological research at UKZN, CEF operates on a smaller scale in terms of labour and equipment costs, and is on campus, making it easier for students to access the facility.

 

A number of disciplines and centres at UKZN make use of CEF, including Crop and Horticultural Sciences, Plant Pathology, Plant Breeding, Soil Science and the ACCI. The staff of Agricultural Engineering made use of the facility for postgraduate students training and  research.

  The facility is vital for undergraduate and postgraduate student practical training through demonstration and conduct of mini-projects. Staff and postgraduate students research are conducted in diverse disciplines of agricultural plant sciences at UKZN. The facility is vital where the academic year is ’upside-down’ when planning crops season, since the summer rainfall season falls towards the end of the academic year and over the summer vacation. In order to meet academic deadlines, crops often need to be grown outside of the summer rainfall season. This is where CEF comes in, allowing researchers to undertake controlled experiments and breed crops out of season using a controlled environment.

‘It is transformational,’ said Laing. ‘We can do two crops a year for postgraduate students, which would be impossible without the greenhouses.’

Undergraduate practicals take place at CEF, introducing students, some for the very first time, to growing live plants.

CEF has enabled researchers to conduct internationally renowned research and to pursue research contracts. Research collaborations on the propagation of tree cuttings with the Institute for Commercial Forestry Research (ICFR) conducted using the facility greatly improved the success of the cuttings.

The facility boasts 16 greenhouses (or tunnels, four of which are multi-span), two multi-span shade houses and 10 glasshouses. There are five large walk-in growth rooms, two small growth rooms, two convirons, four drying ovens, five laboratories, one post-harvest laboratory, eight potting media holding bays, a potting storage cage, three cold rooms, one milling room, lecture rooms, a media steamer, two fertigation units that serve the greenhouses, the Horticultural garden and the Plant Pathology disease garden.

   
On the technical side, the facility makes use of fertigation systems, combining irrigation with fertilisation. Numerous pot trials are conducted in the facility, making it easier to screen for abiotic and biotic stress tolerance and for multiplication of small quantity of seeds acquired form national international research collaborators. Heat pumps are used to ensure efficient use of electricity, and a system of water tanks, heat pumps and water pipes that run beneath the greenhouses keep plant roots at the optimum temperature.

Behind the facility, an automatic weather station run by the discipline of Agrometeorology that records current and recent weather, as well as a number of other parameters. This real-time data can be viewed and downloaded from a website run by UKZN. It is also possible to install loggers in tunnels to measure agrometeorological conditions as and when needed, and it is anticipated that future tunnels will be equipped with loggers to record these conditions.

Many of the tunnels are known by fond nicknames, including the ‘Jolly Roger’, so named by Laing after the greenhouse was given to Plant Pathology by local farmer Mr Roger Evans, and the ‘Pat’ tunnel named for Dr Patricia Caldwell.

Three technicians manage the facility: Ms Susan van der Merwe for the ACCI and Plant Pathology, Mr Matt Erasmus for Horticultural Sciences and Agricultural Production Sciences (AGPS) and Mr Brian Karlsen in electronics.

 

Around 80 students currently make use of this facility, and numerous alumni of the University have successfully conducted their research at CEF. 117 ACCI PhD graduates have used the facility for their mini-projects, numerous students in the Plant Breeding MSc Program for Africa conduct their trials in the facility, and CEF provides facilities essential for horticultural research into postharvest handling of fruit. CEF has been essential for more than 50 postgraduate students who have conducted biocontrol research, and the fields have been the location of numerous research projects, including Laing’s PhD on cabbages.

Current crops under research in CEF include maize, sorghum, beans, strawberries, wheat, cowpea, pawpaws and tomatoes, to name a few.

 

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