The Controlled Environment Facility (CEF) at UKZN’s Agriculture campus in Pietermaritzburg celebrated its 50th anniversary on 10 July 2018.

The world-class facility is vital for undergraduate and postgraduate student practical training and enables researchers to undertake controlled experiments and breed crops out of season using a controlled environment.

Notable practical and research contributions include horticultural research by the late Professor Peter Allan who erected the first tunnel, high protein maize research by Professor Hans Gevers, hydroponics work by Professor Irwin Smith; and research by Professor of Plant Pathology and Director of the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), Mark Laing.

Laing, Chairperson of the CEF management committee, has also modified a number of tunnels designed for European environments to better suit South African conditions.

The Disciplines of Crop and Horticultural Sciences, Plant Pathology, Plant Breeding, Soil Science and the ACCI make use of CEF, and staff from Agricultural Engineering utilise it for postgraduate training and research.

Undergraduate practicals take place at CEF and it has enabled researchers to conduct internationally renowned and collaborative research.

‘It is transformational,’ said Laing. ‘We can do two crops a year for postgraduate students which would otherwise be impossible.’

The facility boasts 16 greenhouses (or tunnels), 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 (combining irrigation with fertilisation) serving the greenhouses, the Horticultural garden and the Plant Pathology disease garden.

Numerous pot trials enable screening for abiotic and biotic stress tolerance and for multiplication of small quantities of seeds acquired from research collaborators. Heat pumps ensure efficient use of electricity and a system of water tanks, heat pumps and water pipes keeps plant roots at the optimum temperature.

Behind the facility, Agrometeorology’s automatic weather station records current and recent weather in real-time. It is anticipated that planned future tunnels will be equipped with loggers to record agrometeorological conditions.

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 utilise CEF, and numerous alumni of the University have conducted their research here, including 117 ACCI PhD graduates. 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 conducting biocontrol research, and several research projects have been conducted in its fields.

Current crops under research include maize, sorghum, beans, strawberries, wheat, cowpea, pawpaws and tomatoes.

Challenges facing the facility include costs of preventative maintenance and efficiency upgrades, as well as staff constraints and repair of damage from extreme weather events like 2015’s severe hailstorms.

Words and photograph: Christine Cuénod