NZ Forestry is in smart hands
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NZ Forestry is in smart hands

Sep 19, 2022 - Category : Automation

Forestry in New Zealand has a proud history dating back to the late 1800s. Our nursery-based science is world class and continues today across nursery operations, propagation and mass production of a range of species to support sustainable forestry, while delivering economic and environmental benefits to all Kiwis.

To keep pace with the challenges and opportunities, Scion is a Crown Research Institute (CRI) who specialise in research, science and technology development for the NZ forestry sector. The head office is in Rotorua and employs around 320 staff who are leading the charge on projects designed to help nurseries reach their full potential.

In 2019, Scion sought the services of a partner to lead a comprehensive nursery redevelopment project – essentially, a pilot nursery with an ambitious goal of answering unique science and commercial challenges in exotic and indigenous forestry. With a project brief from Scion that tripped into the unknown, including a wish-list of highly spec’d mechanisation (not found in NZ), many industry contenders were nervous to get involved. Not so for PrimeHort! We have been the project manager since the beginning.

Phase 1.1 launched in March 2020 and included an automated, lean-flow, environmentally sustainable propagation facility. Designed to be modular, it upheld a vision of pioneering improvements in operations, hygiene, water, frost and heat management and better growing media and growing pot options (moving away from plastics). Some of the nursery machinery was new to NZ and carried techniques never deployed before.

The outcome for Scion has been greater control and uniformity of their growing efforts – which is vital for a research institute of this calibre. A fully automated DAROS Seeding Line to hugely increase their seeding production and the automated paper pot machine is one of the key pieces (set to replace plastic potting containers) and is a strong contender towards sustainable growing. The automatic tray washer cleans so efficiently it prevents the spread of approx. 90% of weed seed.

Phase 1.2 was the next exciting launch and is now ready for operation. In this phase, initiatives were explored for year-round propagation, automated climate control and efforts to move away from chemicals, plastics and a reliance on non-renewable energy for heating and lighting.

We installed a sophisticated irrigation and greenhouse climate control hub with a role of fast-tracking plant growth and providing full control over temperature, humidity, CO2, light, irrigation and nutrition. Endless features can be operated remotely via staff smart phones, with real time data and alarms to signal any anomalies. In a basic description, the controllers constantly measure signals coming from sensors installed inside (and outside) of each greenhouse and based on the info will operate the correct systems to optimise growing. The technology must be seen to fully comprehend – it’s an industry game-changer.

Newly installed sand beds are the hero of this phase too. The mother plants grow in the sand beds to provide cuttings for new plants and because this environment can be intricately controlled, the results are superior in uniformity, quality and output. These features, along with LED lighting mean the facility can operate all year round with optimum growing conditions.

Other developments include the ability to control sand bed irrigation through driplines and heated via hot water. EC and pH levels are measured, along with insight into the perfect fertiliser and nutrient requirements. Feedback from the Scion team suggest the mother plants growing in sand beds are doing considerably better than those grown in traditional pots.

Roll-top benches for cuttings have an electric blanket style heating system. Cuttings are put into paper pots and placed on this bench, giving them an excellent root base environment to speed up growth.

Over 100sqm of solar panels fixed to the roof structure will provide power to operate them. This initiative will offset power demand that would otherwise be taken from the grid.

Also included in this Phase 1.2 is evaporative cooling via wet walls and fan units for cooling, along with overhead misting and irrigation via sprinklers. All overspray and rainwater are collected and put through a sophisticated RO (reverse osmosis) water treatment system, bringing it back to drinking water quality.

There really is no stone left unturned in this state-of-the-art growing facility, with Matt Dunn of Scion Nursery Operations, adding; “We are really grateful to have such an excellent growing facility of this size with this level of crop control. The results we are seeing, and the level of plant health is a testament to how well we can control & manage our crops in this facility.”

For us, it has been an inspiring journey to be involved in a project dedicated to improving the livelihoods of NZ forestry growers. Aside from a four-week national lockdown, installation went smoothly over an 8-month period.

Our project lead, Joel Wearmouth has enjoyed the experience – “Scion is a frontrunner for R&D around the world and this project has been an incredible opportunity to explore cutting-edge automation and tech never seen before in NZ. Bringing a substantial amount of mechanisation into one facility against timeframe and budget was intense! We are grateful for the learnings and are in good stead to help NZ growers of all size and scope. It was also humbling to provide work for several local contractors over the past few months and we appreciate their dedication to a complex project.”

Scion has put the spotlight on nursery automation and greenhouse control for industry success, and this upgraded facility is a taonga for the entire NZ grower industry. Be sure to visit soon!


Please get in touch if automation and/or greenhouse solutions is of interest to you.

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