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Championing CEA and Community: A Conversation with Dr. Scott Lowman

Looking ahead to the October 1-2, 2024 CEA Summit East in Virginia, we had the chance to catch-up with Dr. Scott Lowman. Many of you may know Dr. Lowman as VP of Applied Research at the IALR and Co-Director of the VT-IALR Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center, co-host of the CEA Summit East with Indoor Ag-Con. But what you might not know is that Dr. Lowman is also the co-founder of Lynchburg Grows, a seven-acre urban farm dedicated to providing access to fresh, local produce for Lynchburg residents, restaurants, and organizations, while also providing purposeful jobs for individuals with disabilities.

The site that is now Lynchburg Grows has quite a storied past. The property was originally owned by the Doyle family, who operated a nursery growing all types of flowers from 1920 until the 1950s, when they transitioned the business into an East Coast distribution network that would become Wholesale Florist. The Schenkel family purchased the property in the early 1950s to grow long-stem roses exclusively until closing in the 1990s. During this time, the farm became one of the largest rose producers in Virginia – representing 23% of the state’s flower industry and harvesting up to 10,000 long stem roses a day in 70,000 square feet of greenhouses. Roses from the Schenkel Farm crowned Kentucky Derby winners and even decorated the White House. There is an endowment at Cornell named for the Schenkel family.

Lynchburg Grows History
The Doyle family owned the property from 1920 until 1950 when they sold it to the Schenkels. Growing only long-stem roses, the Schenkel Farm would become of the largest rose producers in Virginia. Roses from the Schenkel Farm decorated the White House and crowned Kentucky Derby winners.

In 2003, a man named Paul Lam, himself disabled, witnessed the destruction of a garden he had lovingly cared for, all due to a communication error. Volunteers rallied to his aid when his story was published in the newspaper. Inspired by the experience, some of the people who helped Paul decided to form an organization to help more people with disabilities to grow food. They purchased the old Schenkel Farm, with its nine abandoned greenhouses, and begin work on what would become Lynchburg Grows.

In addition to providing meaningful employment to individuals with disabilities, key aspects of the work Lynchburg Grows does today includes operation of the Veggie Box Community Service Agriculture (CSA); the Fresh Rx Program that allows doctors to prescribe fresh produce to patients with diet-related illnesses; countless food donations; a host of educational programs and much more.

Can you share the journey that led to the founding of Lynchburg Grows and how your personal experiences influenced its mission?

Growing up with a cousin who was my age but was born with cerebral palsy, it was hard for me to understand why he couldn’t do the same things I was doing as a kid. When the opportunity arose to help create a program focused on providing people with disabilities the chance to share their talents and skills through agriculture, I jumped in with both feet.

Lynchburg Grows Founders
(L-R): Surviving roses from the original farm that were replanted in greenhouse 3; Lynchburg Grows co-founders Michael Van Ness (far left) and Scott Lowman (far right) with their first group of employees; Lynchburg Grows first planting in greenhouse 1.

What challenges did you face when transforming the old Schenkel Farm into the thriving urban farm it is today, and how did the community contribute to overcoming these challenges?

The Schenkel Greenhouse Complex had been producing long-stem roses for nearly 50 years but closed in the mid-1990s due to the collapse of the rose industry in the U.S. Our team faced a couple of major challenges.

First, when the greenhouse closed, all the roses were allowed to die in place. Starting with nearly two acres of dead rose bushes was a significant challenge. The community came to the rescue and helped clear practically all the roses with thousands of volunteer labor hours. Groups of college students came by the hundreds from Lynchburg College and Randolph-Macon College, and the roses were cleared within a month or two.

(L-R): Lynchburg College freshman who cleared the first greenhouse of dead roses in one morning; More Lynchburg College students clearing trellising and irrigation; the restored packing shed where CSAs are processed and stored.
(L-R): Lynchburg College freshman who cleared the first greenhouse of dead roses in one morning; more Lynchburg College students clearing trellising and irrigation; the restored packing shed where CSAs are processed and stored.

The second challenge was addressing the environmental impacts of a nearly 100-year-old horticultural brownfield site. The city of Lynchburg came to the rescue, and we went through the proper site assessments from regulatory agencies. The clean-up took place over time, and the project itself became a model of how brownfields could be turned into greenspaces in the state of Virginia.

To transform the property into a functioning farm, the community came together to raise funds. Combined with a USDA grant, we were able to restore much of the packing shed, which became the community center and CSA pickup spot for members

Lynchburg Grows emphasizes providing purposeful jobs for individuals with disabilities. Can you talk about some of the initiatives or programs you have in place to support this mission and any success stories that stand out?

From the beginning, we had several people with special needs involved in the transformation of the project. Practically all of them are still there 20 years later, and they provide inspiration to everyone who comes through the farm.

To date, hundreds of people with special needs have participated in our programs. Together with staff, the farm feeds nearly 300 families per week through our community supported agriculture program.

(L-R) Summer camps with local school groups; high school special needs students visiting the farm; the learning classroom in greenhouse 7
(L-R) Summer camps with local school groups; high school special needs students visiting the farm; the learning classroom in greenhouse 7

As Co-Director of the CEA Innovation Center/Vice President of Applied Research at the IALR and co-founder of Lynchburg Grows, you have a unique perspective on both urban farming and advanced controlled environment agriculture. How do these experiences complement each other, and what synergies do you see between them?

What I learned quickly was that starting a non-profit urban farm is very similar to most farming operations: margins are slim, and developing a market is key to survival. We soon realized that you can only grow certain vegetables in 100-year-old greenhouses during the summer, so we turned to surrounding farmers to help fill our CSA needs. We put nearly $70,000 in farmers’ pockets in the first year.

I then learned that farmers will grow almost anything if there is a market for it. Through this, I developed an interest in food systems that I still work on today. In fact, IALR just launched a Value Chain Coordinator program to help create a market for vegetables in our region

View of 8 of the 9 greenhouses at Lynchburg Grows today. Other than the last 2 on the right, all are more than 100-year-old Cyprus wood and glass structures manufactured by Lord and Burnham of Ohio.
View of 8 of the 9 greenhouses at Lynchburg Grows today. Other than the last 2 on the right, all are more than 100-year-old Cyprus wood and glass structures manufactured by Lord and Burnham of Ohio.

With the CEA Summit East approaching, what key insights or innovations are you most excited to share with attendees, especially those related to urban farming and community engagement?

During the CEA Summit, I’m looking forward to welcoming CEA members from throughout the region to join us for two days of education and networking. Working with our partners at Indoor Ag-Con, we’re featuring a versatile group of tabletop exhibitors to showcase the latest industry innovations. We’re also offering an incredible line-up of keynote sessions, panels, and research showcase sessions. This Summit does a tremendous job of bringing the CEA business and academic sectors together to explore collaborative business growth and innovation opportunities.

In addition to all the exciting research and company support happening at our CEA center, I’m super excited to share our plans for expansion aimed at facilitating the success of current and future CEA entities in Virginia. The plan includes expanded development of a workforce pipeline for CEA companies, encompassing K-12, high school, community college, and university-level students.

We will also be expanding entrepreneurship opportunities and company support through the expansion of our facilities.

Finally, I’m excited to continue working with Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Matthew Lohr to promote Virginia as the best state in the U.S. for CEA companies to locate.

CEA Summit East October 1-2 2024

To learn more about Lynchburg Grows, visit www.lynchburggrows.org

Learn more about the upcoming CEA Summit East, including tabletop exhibitors, the full conference schedule, networking opportunities and more — www.ceasummit.com

 

Plenty

From Vertical Farm Daily: Joint Venture to Invest $130M in Regional Strawberry Growth Across GCC Region

Plenty® has built the most technologically advanced indoor farming platform aimed not only at meeting year-round consumer demand but making it possible to build a long-term food security infrastructure that can adapt to the needs of regions like the Middle East,” said Arama Kukutai, CEO of Plenty.

Plenty Unlimited Inc. and Mawarid Holding Investment have entered an exclusive, multi-year, region-wide partnership to bring locally grown fresh produce to countries across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The joint venture Plenty and Mawarid have formed will invest more than AED500 million (US$130 million) into the partnership’s first project in the GCC – a vertical farm in Abu Dhabi, designed to grow more than 2 million kilograms of strawberries annually.

The joint venture plans to develop up to five farms in the next five years, which would require investing up to AED2.5 billion (US$680 million) and bring thousands of direct and indirect employment opportunities to the region. Mawarid is a subsidiary of Alpha Dhabi Holding, a major publicly listed company on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange (ADX).

Read the full story from Vertical Farm Daily

Georgia Trend Article

Agriculture Moves Beyond The Earth — Georgia Trend Magazine

“[CEA] is definitely an agricultural opportunity for us to continue to grow our agricultural footprint,” says Commissioner Tyler Harper, Georgia Department of Agriculture “It is one those emerging markets folks are really looking into and could really be beneficial in getting more Georgia-grown products on the shelves.”

A feature  story in the July  issue of Georgia Trend puts spotlight on the controlled environment agriculture sector in the state of Georgia highlighting operations, including Local Bounti, Gotham Greens, Hardee Fresh Vertical Farms, Cox Farms | BrightFarms, and Better Fresh Farms. The story also spotlights Rhuanito Ferrarezi, associate professor of controlled environment horticulture at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and a survey of Georgia farmers he is conducting to better understand the scope of CEA in Georgia.

“The reason for me to create a survey is to really quantify how many people are out there, the size of their operations, which crops they are growing and what problems they are encountering, so we can really assist in different areas,” he says.

Read the full article from Georgia Trend here…

Beanstalk

Beanstalk Farms Demonstrates Commercial Viability with Flagship Facility in Prince William County

“We are excited to announce the launch of our next-generation farm in Manassas,” said Mike Ross, Beanstalk Co-Founder and CEO.” At a 10x lower cost per acre than any other vertical farm, this facility demonstrates a new generation for indoor farming. This facility will provide the Greater Washington, D.C. market with the highest quality fresh produce every week of the year – rain or shine. Strategically located with excellent access to the Mid-Atlantic, bolstered by robust infrastructure, Virginia is the definitive choice for our expansion. We look forward to growing together and furthering innovations that promote a healthy and local food system.”

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin recently announced Beanstalk Farms Inc.’s second indoor farm and distribution facility at the Freedom I-66 Industrial Business Park facility in Manassas as reported in Prince William Living and Vertical Farming Daily.  The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services worked with the Prince William County Department of Economic Development and Tourism (PWCDEDT) to secure this new 33,000 square foot expansion project for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Governor Youngkin approved a $100,000 grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) Fund, which Prince William County will match with local funds.

Read full article in Vertical Farm Daily and Prince William Living…

Urban Ag News AI article

From Urban Ag News: What is AI? How Will It Be Used In Greenhouses, Indoor Farms and Commercial Horticulture?

Whether you grow ornamental crops, cannabis or greenhouse vegetables there are numerous companies that are promising to optimize processes, increase efficiency, and improve overall crop yields. After having many conversations with growers in greenhouses, vertical farms and other indoor (and outdoor) growing facilities, Christopher Higgins & the Urban Ag News team put together a short article outlining the types of technologies being proposed and their capabilities at this stage in the product development process.

The way they see it, there are five types of “AI” terminologies/technologies being marketed, developed and used in some form or fashion: Digital Twins, Generative AI, Intelligent Algorithms, Sensing/Computing Vision and Robotic.

Based on the research the Urban Ag News team has access to, including websites of businesses targeting commercial horticulture and controlled environment agriculture, they see companies using these five types of AI to enhance the following functions…

Read the full article at Urban Ag News here.

Infinite Acres Field Lab

Infinite Acres Opens Agricultural Research Center In The Hague

Collaboration between Infinite Acres and partner companies promises to accelerate growth in the vertical farming industry

 

Infinite Acres, a technology-focused subsidiary of the American vertical farming company 80 Acres Farms, has  opened a first-of-its-kind research center at its Dutch headquarters.

For nearly a decade, 80 Acres Farms has been a global leader in the vertical farming industry, with facilities in the United States and Europe. Today, the company’s production farms supply fresh produce and grab-and-go meals to more than 1,500 retail locations across the eastern United States.

Working with best-in-class technology partners to design, build, and maintain those farms, the Infinite Acres team recognized an opportunity for closer collaboration. The Infinite Acres Field Lab and Experience Center, located near the Dutch greenhouses that have led the world in high-tech agriculture for decades, is a hub for industrial innovation and sustainable solutions.

“Innovation requires collaboration,” says Tisha Livingston, CEO of Infinite Acres and co-founder of 80 Acres Farms. “By bringing partners into our research center, we’re closing a feedback loop and accelerating our learnings, for the benefit of farmers everywhere. This is a collaborative space where we can innovate to solve global problems.” By shortening supply chains, reducing food waste, and producing more food with fewer resources, vertical farming promises a healthier and more sustainable future.

At the Field Lab and Experience Center, researchers and experts from Infinite Acres will work side-by-side with partner companies, including Siemens, Signify, SICK, and TTA, which are directly supporting the project. The facility will also be open to student researchers. Infinite Acres is a member of Wageningen University’s Club of 100, and the company hopes to further its collaboration with Wageningen while engaging TU Delft and other Dutch and American universities.

“With challenges like a growing population and climate change, which, amongst many other severe consequences leads to soil degradation, we must rethink traditional food production. Digitalization and cutting-edge technologies such as AI are key to scale the sustainability impact in food production and vertical farming industry, and it is people who develop this technology to positively impact others,” stated Dirk De Bilde, CEO of Siemens Nederland. “The opening of the Field Lab and Experience Center is an important milestone and sets a new standard for collaboration in vertical farming. It shows our shared commitment to a more sustainable future.”

About Infinite Acres
Infinite Acres is a Dutch-American technology company with a green thumb. A subsidiary of 80 Acres Farms founded in 2019, Infinite Acres combines Dutch horticultural technology with American manufacturing and processing technology for industry-leading innovation in hardware, software, and plant genetics.

About 80 Acres Farms
80 Acres Farms is a vertical farming leader based in Hamilton, Ohio. Founded by Mike Zelkind and Tisha Livingston in 2015, the company operates indoor farms built with world-class technology and analytics by its Dutch-American technology subsidiary, Infinite Acres. Using 100% renewable electricity and 95% less water per pound of produce, the company’s farms provide consumers with a range of pesticide-free harvests that last longer at home, reducing food waste and exceeding the highest standards in food safety. Consumers can find the company’s branded salads, salad kits, herbs, microgreens, and tomatoes at more than 1,500 retailers and restaurants across the eastern United States.

Fast Company and G Star Jeans

From Fast Company: Someday Your Jeans Could Be Grown In A Greenhouse Down The Street

Fast Company recently featured an interesting story on Dutch denim label G-Star Raw and its partnership  with researchers to grow cotton for denim in a greenhouse. It might be the future of fashion.   As reported by Elizabeth Segran at Fast Company:

Over the past few years, Patagonia, Citizens of Humanity, and Christy Dawn have started sourcing cotton from farms that use regenerative agriculture methods. But soon, sustainable fashion brands might also consider cotton from another source: a greenhouse. Dutch brand G-Star Raw wants to turn this into a reality.

The brand partnered with a Dutch university on a small pilot project to grow cotton in a greenhouse, then use it to create denim. The end result was five pairs of jeans, made from end-to-end entirely in the Netherlands. Now, G-Star Raw is exploring how to scale this production so that denim brands around the world can create locally made jeans that have a far smaller environmental footprint.

THE LOCAL JEANS CHALLENGE

Cotton grows best in very hot, humid conditions, which is why most of the world’s crops are grown in China, India, Brazil, and the American South. Northern Europe? Not so much.

This presents some complications for European brands like G-Star Raw, a denim brand founded in the Netherlands in 1986. Given the current global supply chain, it must source its cotton from far away, which means shipping cotton long distances, generating extensive carbon emissions. “It also makes traceability more complicated,” says Rebecka Sancho, G-Star’s head of sustainability. “And the first step to sustainability is traceability.” She also points out that new regulations are rolling out in the European Union that demand brands track the entire supply chain of their products.

So it was intriguing to Sancho when Wageningen University, which is globally recognized for its agricultural research, reached out to the brand. Researchers were interested in collaborating on an experiment to see whether it was possible to grow cotton in the Netherlands by using a greenhouse. And they wanted to quantify the environmental footprint of this cotton, as compared to traditionally grown cotton.

Read full story at Fast Company...

Second Bloom

Whites Nursery & Greenhouses, Inc. to Liquidate All Assets After Decades of Successful Operation with SecondBloom Auctions

The assets, located at 3133 Old Mill Road, Chesapeake, VA, will be available through an online auction running until July 1, 2024.

Whites Nursery & Greenhouses, Inc., a well-established commercial greenhouse and wholesale nursery in Chesapeake, VA, has announced that it will be liquidating its assets after many years of serving the mid-Atlantic region.  The company has entered into an agreement with SecondBloom Auctions to facilitate the sale of its greenhouse structures, equipment, and nursery supplies.

Founded in 1956 by Norm and Hetty White, White’s Nursery has been a cornerstone of Chesapeake, VA, for over six decades.  Known for producing high-quality potted flowering plants and annuals, White’s recently decided to wind down its wholesale greenhouse operations due to economic challenges.

“The decision to sell our assets was not an easy one, but we believe it creates an exciting opportunity for a new owner to build upon our legacy and take the business to new heights,” said Norm White, founder of White’s Nursery & Greenhouses, Inc.  “We are confident that SecondBloom Auctions will find the right buyers who share our passion for quality and customer service.”

For over six decades, Whites Nursery & Greenhouses, Inc. has been a leading producer of premium potted flowering plants and annuals, servicing a loyal customer base throughout the mid-Atlantic region.  The company has consistently invested in state-of-the-art technology and infrastructure, positioning it as a top choice for wholesale buyers and garden centers.

The assets, located at 3133 Old Mill Road, Chesapeake, VA, will be available through an online auction running until July 1, 2024.

The auction will feature a diverse range of greenhouse structures, equipment, and garden center items, with starting bids at $1.  Potential buyers can view the full catalog and register for the auction at www.secondbloomauctions.com.

Key Assets to be Auctioned:

  • Greenhouse Structures: Multiple structures for diverse growing needs including doubly-poly X.S. Smith Criterion Quonset Hoop Houses, double-poly X.S. Smith Arched-Roof Gutter-connected greenhouses, and double-poly X.S. Smith Gutter-connected Sun Roof greenhouses (Venlo Style)
  • Equipment: Equipment includes Bouldin & Lawson Hopper, Pot/Flat Fillers, Planting Robots, Watering Tunnels and Conveyors. Cherry Creek Watering Booms and Echo Hanging Baskets systems can be found throughout the greenhouses as well as expanded metal benches, HVAC systems, and other horticultural equipment.
  • Vehicles: Including on and off road trailers, tractors
  • Delivery Carts: Multiple styles of delivery racks including sliders, 40’ x 48’ pallet style, and new “CC-Racks” style
  • Garden Center Items: Display benches and other garden center infrastructure elements.

Potential buyers should note that the sale includes assets only, and all purchased items will need to be removed from the current location.  The land and permanent structures are not part of the offering.

This is a unique opportunity for anyone looking to enter or expand their presence in the horticulture industry,” said Christian Lange, CEO at SecondBloom Auctions.  “This is a chance to acquire well-maintained assets from a long-standing operation.  With the right strategy, these assets can be leveraged to establish or expand a profitable horticulture business.”

“The assets available through this auction represent a turnkey opportunity for buyers looking to quickly establish or expand their presence in the horticulture industry,” added Lange.  “With the strong foundation built by Whites Nursery & Greenhouses, Inc., a new owner can hit the ground running and capitalize on the growing demand for high-quality plants and flowers.”

Key Dates:

  • June 4 – June 30: Marketing and promotion of the auction event.
  • July 1: Auction concludes.
  • July 8 – August 2: On-site logistics, including pickup and post-auction activities.
  • August 5 – November 1: Greenhouse structure removal.

Click here to more about the Whites Nursery & Greenhouses, Inc. asset auction and to register as a bidder,

MicroClimates

Integration, Efficiency, and the Future of CEA: Q&A With Microclimates Founder Neda Vaseghi

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is experiencing rapid growth, driven by technological advancements. At the forefront of this innovation is Microclimates, a platform that unifies various CEA systems, offering a holistic view of operations. By integrating data and controls from different sources, Microclimates helps growers improve productivity, manage resources efficiently, and ensure high-quality yields. In our conversation, Microclimates Founder Neda Vaseghi shares how their solutions are paving the way for sustainable and scalable CEA practices, setting new industry standards in California and beyond.

Microclimates IntegrationQ: The MicroClimates  software platform integrates various aspects of controlled environment agriculture, such as lighting, climate control and irrigation.  Can you explain how this integration benefits greenhouse operators and vertical farm growers in terms of productivity, quality, and efficiency?

At Microclimates, our vision from the start has been to provide a hardware-agnostic and user-friendly interface. Over the years, we have partnered with numerous companies to offer both wired and wireless (LoRaWAN) solutions. Staying true to our hardware-agnostic approach, we have developed a robust technology platform that integrates with various systems and programming languages.

Integrating the various aspects, can significantly benefit greenhouse operator and vertical farm growers in the following ways:

  • Improve productivity & streamline operation: By unifying siloed systems onto a single platform, we are able to streamline data integration for continuous improvement. These controls monitor conditions, facilitate inter-system communication, and provide a comprehensive facility-level view. This allows everyone to observe how mission-critical systems respond. Greater efficiency is achieved through ongoing engagement with data from integrated controls and analysis platforms. Alerts and reports offer insights to help growers update Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and control sequences. As changes are implemented, benchmarking key performance indicators can verify improvements. Over time, more systems can be integrated and controlled from the unified platform, enabling remote control and automation for seamless decision-making across all systems. Like an orchestra, these systems work together harmoniously for optimal performance.
  • Resource Management: The Microclimates system offers sub-metering energy monitoring, enabling operators to track energy consumption of specific components like lighting and HVAC systems. This data, combined with local utility peak demand hours and fees, allows for operational adjustments to support energy savings. Optimizing lighting schedules and intensities reduces electricity consumption, while precise climate control minimizes the energy required for heating, cooling, and ventilation. Additionally, automated and precise irrigation systems reduce water waste and ensure that nutrients are delivered in the right amounts at the right time, enhancing resource use efficiency and reducing costs.
  • Data Today & Data Tomorrow: Data-Driven decisions are at the core of integrated software platforms, which not only collect and analyze data from various sensors and control systems but also empower growers to make insightful decisions for their operation today. By harnessing this data-driven approach, operators can identify trends and adjust strategies proactively to optimize growth conditions, enhancing productivity and quality. Moreover, the collected data serves as a valuable resource for future advancements, enabling machine learning and AI applications to further revolutionize CEA. Recognizing that data is power, the platform emphasizes the importance of collecting heterogeneous data from various sources, laying the foundation for the intelligent automation of the future, including machine learning & AI.
  • Scalable Growth With Cost Efficiency: The system is designed with scalability in mind, allowing it to grow alongside an operation. An operator can start their integration journey with one or two systems and expand as needed, ensuring that the system evolves with their business. This flexibility is crucial for keeping operational costs affordable, especially when competing with outdoor agriculture prices. By integrating various aspects of controlled environment agriculture, the system makes it easier to scale operations without a proportional increase in labor or operational expenses. As the operation grows, the software adeptly manages the increased complexity, facilitating a seamless expansion while maintaining a close watch on OPEX. This approach ensures that efficiency and cost-effectiveness are prioritized, supporting sustainable growth for greenhouse operators and vertical farm growers.
  • Quality: Quality is a key benefit of integrated systems, which provide uniform conditions that result in consistent plant quality. Each plant receives the same care, leading to uniform size, taste, and appearance, crucial for meeting market standards. By minimizing environmental stress through precise control, plants are less likely to develop diseases or pests, resulting in healthier crops with better nutritional profiles and longer shelf lives. Additionally, the ability to tailor the environment to specific crops or growth stages, such as vegetative or flowering, allows growers to maximize the quality of a diverse range of plants.

MicroclimatesYour collaboration with ERI for the CalNEXT study on the benefits of integrated control systems for greenhouses and indoor farms is an exciting initiative.  How do you envision these findings shaping the future of controlled environment agriculture in California and beyond?

The findings from our collaboration with ERI on the CalNEXT study have the potential to significantly transform the CEA industry in California and set a precedent for similar advancements globally. By focusing on the integration of smart controls for lighting, HVAC, and irrigation systems, we aim to demonstrate substantial energy savings and operational efficiencies in greenhouses and indoor farms.

Overall, the findings from the CalNEXT study will be instrumental in driving the future of controlled environment agriculture by promoting sustainable practices, reducing energy consumption, and improving crop productivity. This project represents a significant step towards achieving California’s climate goals and setting a benchmark for global agricultural practices.

Here is more detail in how we envision the study might shape the future of CEA. I certainly hope it’s the first of many studies on this topic.

Impact on California’s CEA Industry:

  1. Energy Efficiency and Cost Reduction: The implementation of smart environmental controls will enable growers to optimize their resource usage, thereby reducing energy consumption and operational costs. This is crucial in California, where energy prices are high, and there is a strong emphasis on sustainability and reducing carbon footprints. We must identify ways to reduce our energy consumption in CEA. A lot of emphasis has been placed on LED lights, including rebates. Very little on integrated controls.
  2. Enhanced Crop Yields and Quality: Intelligent control systems provide precise monitoring and adjustments to environmental conditions, ensuring optimal growth conditions for crops. This can lead to higher yields and improved quality of produce, benefiting both growers and consumers.
  3. New Utility Rebate Programs: The goal for the  study is to identify new rebate programs for utilities to support the adoption of these technologies. This financial incentive will encourage more growers to invest in smart control systems, accelerating the adoption rate and broadening the impact across the state.

Broader Implications:

  1. Scalability and Replicability: The technology roadmap and insights gained from this study will serve as a model for other regions and countries. The demonstrated benefits in California can be replicated in other areas facing similar challenges, promoting global advancements in CEA.
  2. Innovation and Industry Standards: By collaborating with leaders such as Cornell University GLASE consortium & ERI, we are setting new standards for energy efficiency and sustainability in CEA. This collaboration fosters innovation and encourages the development of next-generation technologies that can further enhance the industry.
  3. Equity and Inclusion: CalNEXT is committed to ensuring that all Californians benefit from clean and healthy environments. The insights from this study will help us identify ways to support equity and inclusion in delivering these technologies, ensuring that small and disadvantaged growers also have access to the benefits of smart environmental controls.

MicroclimatesWith an extensive background in food safety – and considering your upcoming speaking role at the CEA Summit in Virginia – what do you see as the most critical food safety challenges currently facing the indoor agriculture industry? And, how does MicroClimates’ technology contribute to enhancing food safety in CEA operations?

 

The most critical food safety challenges in indoor agriculture revolve around pathogen control, water quality, cross-contamination, and traceability.

Often, the challenge is exacerbated because food safety is not adequately addressed during the design or build-out phase of agricultural facilities. When buildings and irrigation systems are not designed with food safety in mind, it becomes a much larger challenge to implement effective monitoring & management protocols. As for traceability, effective traceability systems are crucial in indoor agriculture for quickly identifying and containing contamination incidents. By tracking produce from seed to sale, these systems ensure compliance with regulatory standards like Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and facilitate swift recall management when necessary. This capability enhances transparency across the supply chain, bolstering consumer confidence in product safety and quality. Robust traceability not only safeguards public health by enabling precise removal of affected batches but also preserves the industry’s reputation for reliability and responsibility in food safety practices.

In 2006, a spinach recall due to contamination with E. coli bacteria significantly impacted consumer confidence and sales. The outbreak, linked to spinach grown in California, resulted in over 200 reported illnesses across multiple states, with several cases of severe illness and even deaths. This incident led to a widespread recall of spinach products from grocery stores nationwide, causing financial losses for growers and distributors alike and prompting consumers to avoid spinach products for a period.

Similarly, in 2011, a cantaloupe recall was initiated due to a Listeria monocytogenes outbreak traced to a farm in Colorado. The contaminated cantaloupes were linked to numerous illnesses and deaths across multiple states. The outbreak had severe consequences for the cantaloupe industry, with consumers avoiding purchases due to concerns over food safety. This led to a decline in sales and financial losses for growers and distributors, highlighting the devastating impact of foodborne illness outbreaks on consumer trust and market demand.

These recalls underscore the critical importance of robust food safety practices, including traceability systems, to quickly identify and remove contaminated products from the market. Such incidents serve as reminders of the need for stringent adherence to food safety standards and continuous efforts to maintain consumer confidence in the safety and quality of agricultural products.

Microclimates’ technology focuses on environmental automation. We have developed an easy-to-deploy mapping application that allows companies to upload a map, blueprint, or any image of their facility into the platform. This application can overlay various types of data onto these maps. Currently, we specialize in displaying environmental data, such as temperature and humidity. However, our platform is designed for integration and we welcome partnerships with companies interested in overlaying food safety data onto their facility maps. Tracking food safety data alongside environmental metrics can provide a comprehensive view of facility conditions, enhancing the ability to monitor and manage both environmental and food safety parameters effectively.

Overall, currently, our platform’s impact on food safety in CEA is limited. However, I am optimistic that we can identify customers who are eager and have the capacity to delve into integrating and aligning food safety protocols with our environmental automation capabilities. This proactive approach will enable us to enhance our platform’s contribution to ensuring safe and secure agricultural practices in controlled environments.

Microclimates Energy SavingsGiven your years of experience across various facets of the industry, what do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the CEA sector today? How is MicroClimates positioning itself to address these?

Challenges:

  • Energy Consumption: One of the biggest challenges is energy consumption. CEA facilities often require significant energy for lighting, HVAC, and other systems. Lighting and HVAC alone consume about 70% of the energy. Managing and reducing energy consumption while maintaining optimal growing conditions is a major challenge. At Microclimates, we have launched a sub-metering energy monitoring wireless solution to address this issue. This allows operators to input their peak demand utility fees while measuring the energy consumption of their facility at a granular level. For example, our solution enables the differentiation of energy usage for specified periods of lighting versus HVAC or down to the equipment level—information that cannot be gathered simply from a utility bill. Understanding consumption and costs at such a granular level can be an eye-opener. This detailed information can be used to make modifications, resulting in significant cost savings.
  • Initial investments: Another challenge is the initial investment and ongoing costs associated with setting up advanced CEA systems, including infrastructure, technology, and automation. At Microclimates, we have stayed hardware agnostic, allowing our platform to integrate seamlessly with both existing environmental systems and new ones. As hardware prices continue to decline, our hardware-agnostic approach enables us to offer a very affordable entry fee for automation. This flexibility helps clients start with a cost-effective solution and scale their systems as needed over time, without being tied to specific hardware vendors. This approach not only reduces initial investment costs but also provides the adaptability required for long-term growth and efficiency.
  • Connectivity: To enable remote environmental monitoring and controls, operators rely heavily on solid internet connectivity. This model typically thrives in urban areas or developed regions where robust internet infrastructure is readily available. However, a significant challenge lies in ensuring that the benefits of advanced agricultural technology extend to underserved communities and bridging the digital divide. At Microclimates, we recognize this challenge and have partnered with edge computing hardware solutions to extend connectivity to areas with limited internet access. Through this partnership, we aim to first lay the foundation for connectivity and subsequently introduce automation solutions tailored for both indoor and outdoor farms. By addressing connectivity barriers, we can empower all farmers, regardless of their location, to leverage cutting-edge technology for enhanced efficiency and productivity.

 

Opportunities:

  1. Technological Advancements: A significant opportunity in the CEA sector lies in technological advancements, particularly in LED lighting, HVAC systems, automation, and AI. Innovations in LED lighting and HVAC systems can greatly enhance energy efficiency and boost crop yields, making production more sustainable and cost-effective. Additionally, the integration of automation and AI technologies can optimize growing conditions, reduce labor costs, and increase scalability, allowing for more consistent and higher quality outputs. Microclimates Inc. is capitalizing on this opportunity by not only integrating various technological silos into a common user interface but also collecting vast amounts of data to support ongoing intelligent automation. This comprehensive approach ensures the continuous improvement and sustainability of CEA operations, setting a new standard for the industry both today and in the future.
  2. Sustainability and environmental impact: Both are key advantages of CEA systems, which typically use significantly less water than traditional agriculture, addressing critical water scarcity issues. CEA also supports urban agriculture initiatives, reducing food miles and providing fresh produce to urban populations. Environmental automation plays a crucial role in these advancements by optimizing resource usage and minimizing waste, leading to more sustainable indoor farming practices. Additionally, Microclimates Inc. enhances these benefits by offering sub-metering energy monitoring, enabling continuous improvement in lowering energy consumption. This comprehensive approach not only boosts the sustainability of CEA operations but also sets a new standard for efficient and responsible indoor farming practices.
  3. Year-round production: CEA ensures a consistent supply of fresh produce, independent of seasonal changes. This is particularly crucial given my years in food safety and firsthand experience with the challenges posed by climate instability in Salinas, CA, which impacts all agricultural products, including almonds. With CEA, we have a real opportunity to make a difference by maintaining a stable supply chain despite external environmental fluctuations. Microclimates Inc. plays a pivotal role in this by offering scheduling for seasonal automation and data analytics, enabling the replication of successful production cycles. This capability not only supports continuous and reliable production but also enhances the overall sustainability and efficiency of indoor farming practices.

MicroclimatesYour passion for innovation and sustainability is evident.  What is your long-term vision for Microclimates, and how do you plan to continue driving innovation in the indoor growing sector to create value for customers, partners & stakeholders?

 

Thank you for recognizing our passion for innovation and sustainability. At Microclimates, our long-term vision revolves around pioneering advancements in the indoor growing sector that enhance productivity, efficiency, and sustainability. We are committed to driving innovation by expanding our integrations with as many companies as possible, fostering collaboration even with competitors to create a unified industry ecosystem rather than silos. Our goal is to broaden our integration portfolio to support the entire industry and facilitate seamless operations for our customers, partners, and stakeholders.

Data analytics will be pivotal in our strategy, leveraging big data and AI-driven insights to revolutionize crop forecasting, optimize yield management, and enable predictive maintenance. This approach empowers our customers to make informed, data-driven decisions that enhance operational efficiency and maximize profitability.

Additionally, we are deeply invested in two specific areas: academia and underserved communities. We plan to continue our close collaboration with academia to drive technological advancements in CEA, ensuring we remain at the forefront of innovation. Simultaneously, we are committed to partnering with companies that share our values in addressing the needs of underserved communities, using our technology to promote food security and sustainability.

By focusing on these initiatives, Microclimates aims to lead the way in sustainable indoor growing practices while fostering collaboration, innovation, and social responsibility across the industry. Together with our partners and stakeholders, we are dedicated to shaping the future of CEA through technology and inclusive community support.

Learn more about Microclimates here.

 

 

 

Campo Caribe Puerto Rico

Campo Caribe: Transforming Tropical Farming With High-Tech Innovation

Jonah Helmer Head Shot
Campo Caribe Head Grower Jonah Helmer

Located in the mountains of Barranquitas, Campo Caribe is officially on its way to providing fresh produce to Puerto Rican families, creating new jobs and reducing the island’s dependence on imports. Following last week’s press conference where Puerto Rico’s Governor Pedro R. Pierluisi announced the expansion of  the agricultural project’s state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse operation — the largest in the Caribbean – Indoor Ag-Con spoke with Campo Caribe’s Head Grower Jonah Helmer. Read on as he shares the cutting-edge technologies and innovative strategies the team is implementing to overcome tropical weather challenges, optimize growing conditions, and sustainably produce fresh, high-quality lettuce year-round.

Can you share how Campo Caribe will be leveraging its unique location in the central mountains of Puerto Rico to optimize growing conditions and mitigate the challenges posed by the tropical island environment, such as hurricanes and extreme weather fluctuations?

Campo Caribe
Campo Caribe commercial greenhouse in the mountains of Puerto Rico

With our location in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, Campo Caribe has climatic advantages, including high levels of sunlight and mostly moderate temperatures due to the higher elevation. However, there are some additional issues we face in our tropical island location, such as risk of hurricanes, periods of excessive sunlight, frequent rain events, periods of low humidity and of excessive humidity, and periods of extreme air and irrigation water temperatures.

To control these variables, Campo Caribe is building one of the most technologically advanced and sustainable lettuce greenhouses in the Caribbean. At 5.5 acres, this is the largest hydroponic greenhouse in the Caribbean and the largest of only 3 greenhouses in the world combining the Cravo retractable roof structure and Hydronov deep water culture growing system. The Cravo retractable roof and shading system allows us to passively cool our greenhouse throughout the day. We can open the roof to maximize our light levels during cloudy periods and close the roof and shade system to reduce peak light intensity. We grow our lettuce in deep water culture, which uses a greater water volume to buffer fluctuations in water and air temperature around the plant. We added a Vifra high pressure fogging system to maintain optimal humidity levels for our plants to help them transpire, photosynthesize, and maximize growth all day long without becoming water stressed under the strong tropical sun.

Campo Caribe Research Greenhouse
Prior to completion of its commercial greenhouse, Campo Caribe built research and development greenhouses.

Our unique combination of location, facility design, growing equipment, and controls systems allows us to overcome these issues and puts us on the cutting edge of the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry. This makes our facility more productive, energy efficient, and sustainable than those of our competitors, and makes our products tastier and healthier for our customers. Our greenhouse is built to withstand hurricane force winds up to 165 mph and will allow us to achieve a higher order fulfillment rate for Puerto Rican businesses.

The integration of the Cravo retractable roof structure and Hydronov deep water culture growing system are distinguishing features of Campo Caribe. Can you explain how this combination enhances plant growth and resource efficiency compared to traditional greenhouse setups?

Cravo Retractable Roof Campo Caribe
Cravo retractable roof

Conventional glass and plastic greenhouses are not designed to operate in tropical climates with high temperatures and humidities all year round. The Cravo greenhouse allows us to optimize the aerial environment around the leaves of the plants in our hot climate while the Hydronov deep water culture system provides deep, cool, and oxygenated reservoirs of recirculating nutrient solution that will support plant growth even with severe fluctuations in temperatures and interruptions in power supply that can occur in Puerto Rico.

The roof and sides of the Cravo greenhouse fully retract allowing us to combine the benefits of outdoor and CEA production systems to enhance plant growth. By maximizing natural sunlight and controlling the environment, Campo Caribe is able to exceed the average yields of lettuce grown in deep water culture without the use of any artificial lighting and with lower chemical inputs.

The retractable roof prevents the excess heat buildup that occurs in conventional greenhouses and ensures that we have uniform growing conditions throughout the 5.5 acre structure. Retractable cooling curtains help regulate the sunlight and air temperatures, while our high-pressure fogging system and horizontal airflow fans optimize the humidity levels around the leaf surface.

Campo Caribe uses minimal electricity since the retractable roofs and cooling curtains consume only 2-3 kw hours of electricity per day per hectare compared to over 1000 kw hours for conventional greenhouses cooled with cooling pads and fans. We are not using any supplemental lighting to grow our lettuce, which saves a significant amount of energy and expense compared to greenhouses in higher latitudes.

Tropical climates provide favorable conditions for foliar and root diseases due to consistently warm temperatures and high humidity and precipitation levels. Hydronov designed our growing system to reduce risk of crop loss from disease and improve productivity. Our growing system features 16 independent production ponds, each fed with ozone sterilized source water to prevent the introduction of water-borne pests and diseases into the ponds. We have precise control systems for the water temperature and oxygen concentration of our growing solution to further reduce disease risk and improve plant health to make our product top in quality and in safety.

The use of rainwater collection and high-pressure fogging systems reflects a commitment to resource efficiency and environmental sustainability. Could you elaborate on how these systems contribute to Campo Caribe’s overall sustainability goals and operational efficiency?

Campo Caribe Packaging
Campo Caribe’s lettuce will come in butterhead, romaine and spring mix varieties, and will be available in supermarkets and restaurants around the island, as well as at a direct sales stand at the farm’s facilities in Barranquitas.

Campo Caribe designed our production systems to improve the sustainability and reliability of produce available in Puerto Rico. By replacing imports with locally grown produce, Campo Caribe will help decrease Puerto Rico’s dependency on imported food, which currently stands at approximately 85%. The majority of lettuce available in Puerto Rico is grown in California or Arizona and shipped by truck and by boat to the island. It is not uncommon for some of this produce to go bad during this long journey and be wasted before it gets to consumers, contributing to higher carbon emissions.

To conserve resources, Campo Caribe utilizes collected rainwater from the roof of the greenhouse as the primary water source for the facility and saves 90% more water than conventional outdoor lettuce farms. By collecting and using our rainwater, Campo Caribe can support its production with less reliance on municipal or well water. This helps us to produce a reliable supply of lettuce for our customers all year round.

General Manager, Zuleyka Mendoza, and Farm Supervisor, Andrea Baez, in Research Greenhouse
Campo Caribe General Manager, Zuleyka Mendoza, and Farm Supervisor, Andrea Baez, in research greenhouse

The Cravo retractable roof structure significantly reduces the amount of energy used to vent and cool the greenhouse, but high solar radiation levels can cause severe spikes in air temperature and drops in humidity levels. To prevent our plants from getting water stressed, we have installed a Vifra high pressure fogging system to maintain optimal humidity levels and cool down peak air temperatures. Vifra’s high pressure fogging system produces water droplets 1 micron in size that evaporate immediately in the air, increasing humidity without wetting the leaf surface, which reduces risk of foliar disease.

The high pressure fogging system will work in combination with the retractable cooling curtains to reduce peak temperatures making our greenhouse more resistant to extreme temperatures caused by climate change. By maintaining optimal humidity levels during hot summer days, our crop will not become water stressed and instead can take full advantage of the sun’s energy to grow faster and yield more. The high pressure fogging system will only be required for several hours per day when the humidity levels drop below 60% which will reduce the amount of fresh water for cooling by over 95% compared to conventional pad and fan cooled greenhouses.

The Priva Control System will play a key role in maintaining optimal growing conditions. Can you discuss how this system improves operational efficiency and ensures consistent yields – particularly in a high-tech greenhouse environment like Campo Caribe?

Campo Caribe Commercial Greenhouse Pond Recirculation Corridor
Campo Caribe greenhouse pond recirculation corridor

Campo Caribe selected a Priva climate control system to monitor and control all climate variables and control the irrigation system in our greenhouse. Priva (based in De Lier, Holland) is a global leader in CEA control systems, developing software, hardware, and services for the horticulture industry worldwide. We collaborated with Priva partner, Borlaug, in designing, developing, manufacturing, shipping, installing, and commissioning our climate control system. Priva integrates with the Cravo greenhouse and production equipment so we can monitor and control the climate conditions in our greenhouse from anywhere with an internet connection via their online platform. We can monitor and control the air temperature, humidity level, light level, CO2 concentration, wind speed, and leaf temperature in the greenhouse. For each independent recirculating pond we can precisely add pH and nutrient adjusted solutions using a Priva Nutrifit system and monitor the pH, EC, water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and Oxidation Reduction Potential (ORP) in real time.

The Priva system notifies growing staff if climate variables are out of range so actions can be taken to resolve problems quickly and to return to optimal conditions. This high level of control and monitoring allows Campo Caribe to optimize the growing conditions at all times to produce high quality lettuce all year round, empowering the farm to hit 95% fulfillment for our customers.

Energy efficiency is a significant focus for Campo Caribe, as demonstrated by your energy management system and facility design. How do these systems contribute to reducing overall energy consumption while still meeting the demands of a large-scale lettuce operation – and what are the expected benefits in terms of cost savings and environmental impact?

Campo Caribe Team with Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi
Campo Caribe Team with Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi at press conference

To reduce our daily electrical usage, Campo Caribe is utilizing a Deep Sea Electronics generator controller to perform advanced electrical dispatching and integrate with Priva and the major loads of the facility. An easily programable load shed system turns off major electrical loads in the facility to save energy and to prevent overloading our electrical service and back-up generator. We prioritize the dispatching of power to equipment needed to maintain an optimal production climate for our plants including operations of the greenhouse roof and shade curtains, fogging system, and water recirculation pumps. We will only run some equipment at night, such as the Priva Nutrifit, to fill up the production ponds in order to reduce power consumption during the day when we are harvesting and packaging.

Other parts of our operation including the refrigerated warehouse were designed to maximize energy efficiency. Excess insulation in the warehouse and packing room coupled with fast acting roll-up doors will maintain cold food safe temperatures using less energy from the cycling of condensing units.

In case of electrical outages, we have a back-up generator that can support the entire facility. We are continuing our research to determine when our peak power demand occurs, and we are working with Ageto Energy to provide for a variety of power sources in the future. Ageto Energy’s ARC system will ultimately act as the single interface for the disparate energy resources and will optimize to provide the cheapest, cleanest, and most reliable power.

This unique power system and facility design allows us to be more reliable in the face of power outages and storms and provide a more sustainable product with less carbon emissions for our customers.

 

Learn more about Campo Caribe and keep up with its progress here — www.campocaribe.com 

Press Conference With Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi
Puerto Rico Governor and General Manager in Research Greenhouse
Puerto Rico Governor and General Manager in Campo Caribe Research Greenhouse

Campo Caribe hosted a press conference on Monday, May 13 where Puerto Rico Governor Pedro R. Pierluisi and other officials participated in the announcement of the company’s expansion plans. Check out some of the press coverage from outlets, including:

Sin Comillas.com, Ey Boricua, WIPR, WAPA