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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?

 Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is a rapidly growing industry, driven by the fast-paced advancements in technology. 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 controlled environment agriculture (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 rebate. 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 Controlled Environment Agriculture (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: Are key advantages of Controlled Environment Agriculture (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: Controlled Environment Agriculture (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 Controlled Environment Agriculture (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: 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

 

 

CEA Summit East 2024 Poster Competition Call For Entries

CEA Summit East 2024 is now accepting abstracts for the Graduate Student Research Poster Competition to be held as part of the October 1-2, 2024, edition at the Institute For Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) Conference Center in Danville, Virginia.

CEA Summit East is focused on bringing together the Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) industry and academia. Co-hosted by Indoor Ag-Con, the leading global gathering of the vertical farming | CEA sector, and the Virginia Tech-IALR Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center, a joint project between IALR and Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center, the summit aims to foster collaboration and innovation in the field of CEA.

“Returning for its second year as part of the CEA Summit East, the poster competition is designed to provide graduate students with an opportunity to showcase their high-quality CEA-related research. It also aims to facilitate networking between students and industry professionals,” says Kaylee South, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of CEA at Virginia Tech. “The CEA Summit East Partners are excited to invite graduate students to submit their abstracts for consideration.”

Competition Eligibility and Guidelines:

  • The competition is open to currently enrolled or recently graduated (Spring 2024 or later) graduate students, including M.S., Ph.D., and professional students.
  • Entrants must present posters on original CEA-related research they have conducted.
  • Abstract submissions must be received by August 16, 2024, for consideration.
  • All posters will be judged and scored at the conference, with winners announced during the breakfast gathering/keynote session on day 2, October 2, 2024.

For more information on abstract submission and competition guidelines, please visit https://indoor.ag/cea-summit-poster/ or contact Dr. Kaylee South at kasouth@vt.edu or +1.434.766.6628

ABOUT CEA SUMMIT EAST

Building on the success of its 2023 edition, which attracted attendees from 33 US states, Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden, the 3rd Annual CEA Summit East is set to unite professionals once again from academia, business, and technology within the CEA industry. Attendees include greenhouse growers, urban agriculture operations, vertical farms, outdoor growers seeking hybrid growing opportunities, educators, scientists, extension personnel and agents, suppliers, engineers, tech specialists, architects/developers, government officials, and other industry members. With a focus on facilitating meaningful connections and knowledge exchange, the summit will feature keynote presentations, panel discussions, networking/ breakout sessions, and tabletop exhibits highlighting the latest advancements in CEA technology and practices. Attendees can also look forward to research facility tours, providing firsthand insights into cutting-edge research and development initiatives. For more information, visit www.ceasummit.com

ABOUT INDOOR AG-CON

Founded in 2013, Indoor Ag-Con has emerged as the largest trade show and conference for vertical farming | greenhouse |controlled environment agriculture. Its events are crop-agnostic and touch all sectors of the business, covering produce, legal cannabis | hemp, alternate protein and non-food crops. For more information, visit www.indoor.ag.

ABOUT THE VIRGINIA TECH – IALR CEA INNOVATION CENTER

The Virginia Tech-IALR Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center is a joint project between IALR and Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center. By developing strategic partnerships with both industry and academia, the goal of the Innovation Center is to conduct research and educational programming to develop, promote and advance the CEA sector in the U.S. and internationally. For more information, visit www.ialr.org/cea

Produce Grower Magazine: Rooftop Empire

This full article by Mike Zawaki was published by Produce Grower in April 2024

Produce GrowerFor greenhouse growers, the siren song of growth and expansion is undeniable. It whispers increased yields, broader markets and greater financial stability. But like any seductive melody, it masks a treacherous undertow. While brimming with potential, challenges lurk unseen, ready to overwhelm with complexities, resource strains and logistical nightmares.

(Photo Above- Gotham Greens CEO Viraj Puri, copyright Gotham Greens) 

A fundamental entrepreneurial principle, especially relevant for greenhouse growers, is that expansion should be a deliberate strategic decision, not solely a reaction to opportunity. This principle rings true for Brooklyn, New York-based Gotham Greens, which has navigated numerous recent expansion projects with calculated precision. Led by the visionary leadership of co-founders Viraj Puri (CEO) and Eric Haley (CFO) and Chief Greenhouse Officer Jenn Frymark and supported by a dedicated internal team of horticulture pros, Gotham Greens carefully examined every expansion challenge and established effective best practices. This has empowered the grower to overcome the complexities of a revolutionary way of growing and providing fresh produce in the U.S.

Today, Gotham Greens is synonymous with urban agriculture and cutting-edge, sustainable growing practices, and its growth and expansion wouldn’t be done justice without highlighting its rapid ascent in the greenhouse grower market.

Its legacy is rooted in the heart of Brooklyn, New York, an urban, culturally diverse foodie paradise. In 2009, Puri and Haley collaborated on a shared dream to provide fresh, pesticide-free, sustainably grown produce directly to local communities. Two years later, the vision materialized on a Greenpoint neighborhood rooftop with Gotham Greens’ first 15,000-square-foot soilless hydroponic greenhouse, marking a milestone in traditional farming. At its heart, this revolutionary model addressed long-held agricultural challenges — how to overcome long distances, mitigate environmental impact and provide greater access to fresh, locally produced foods.

Continue Reading From Produce Grower…

Indoor Ag Con 2024 Boosts Worldwide Attendance At Largest Event To Date

16% Attendance Increase For Las Vegas March 11-12, 2024 Event That Drew CEA Industry Members from 49 U.S. States, 31 Countries

(MARCH 18, 2024) — Indoor Ag-Con marked its 11th edition with increases in attendee and exhibitor participation for its March 11-12, 2024 run at Caesars Forum Las Vegas. The exhibiting company roster grew by 54% with a sold-out show floor featuring 207 companies in 287 booths vs. 134 companies in 174 booths for 2023. Attendance saw a 16% increase over 2023 with 1584 attendees from 49 states, the District of Columbia and US territories, as well as 31 other countries. Attendees included C-level execs and other decision-makers involved with every sector of controlled environment agriculture — grower/operators, investors, tech providers, start-ups, academia, government, real estate developers, food service retail, suppliers and more.

For the third year, Indoor Ag-Con once again co-located with the National Grocers Association (NGA) Show, attracting 146 attendees from that event to the Indoor Ag-Con expo floor — taking the total attendance number over the 1700 mark.

“Every year our speakers, exhibitors and attendees from across the country and globe look forward to Indoor Ag-Con as it brings together our industry as a community to hold important discussions on timely topics and show off what’s new in indoor agriculture,” said Brian Sullivan, CEO, Indoor Ag-Con. “This year we experienced record exhibitor growth and attracted companies and attendees from 35 countries to our global event. Next year, we are moving to a new location providing more expo and meeting space as we continue to grow with this ever-evolving industry.”

Among the 11th Annual Edition highlights:

indoor ag-con 2025Keynote Sessions
Each year, Indoor Ag-Con features three inspiring Keynotes and this year’s all-star speakers included Paul Sellew, Founder and CEO of Little Leaf Farms. A mid-morning keynote on day one, “Leader Insights: Charting the Future Landscape of Controlled Environment Agriculture”, was  led by industry veterans Moderator, Daniel Malech, Board Chair, SVP CEA Alliance for Plenty, Jim DiMenna, President of Red Sun Farms, Viraj Puri, Co-Founder and CEO of Gotham Greens, and Matt Ryan, CEO of Soli Organic. Adam Bergman, Managing Director, Clean Energy Transition Group, Global Head of AgTech for Citi, delivered the day two morning keynote address.

Indoor Ag-Con 2025Educational Tracks & Expo Floor Theater Panel Discussions
The Conference features two jam-packed days of educational and insightful sessions from 90+ speakers in four tracks including Planning & Operations, Grower, Cultivating Possibilities and NEW this year, the Cannabis track.

Sold Out Expo Floor
In 2024, the Expo Hall grew and expanded boasting 207 world-class companies in 287 Booths that showcased the most cutting-edge technologies, products and services in the indoor agriculture industry from lighting and control systems to substrates, equipment, irrigation systems.

Networking Opportunities
Daily lunches and an afternoon cocktail reception on the expo floor expanded the show’s networking opportunities.

Indoor Ag-Con |Philips VIP Welcome Party
Back by popular demand, Philips Horticulture LED Solutions teamed up once again with Indoor Ag-Con to tee-up the 2024 edition with a VIP Welcome Par-tee on Sunday evening, March 10 at Topgolf Las Vegas.  Indoor Ag-Con conference speakers and other industry VIPs came together for an incredible evening of golf, networking, cocktails, food, music and fun – all compliments of Philips LED Horticultural Lighting.

Looking ahead, Indoor Ag-Con Las Vegas will move to the Westgate Las Vegas for its March 11-12, 2025 edition.  The new location provides additional expo floor and meeting room space to accommodate the event’s steady growth.

For more information, please visit www.indoor.ag.

ABOUT:

Founded in 2013, Indoor Ag-Con has emerged as the largest trade show and conference for vertical farming | greenhouse |controlled environment agriculture. Its events are crop-agnostic and touch all sectors of the business, covering produce, legal cannabis | hemp, alternate protein and non-food crops. More information, visit www.indoor.ag.

 

 

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GLASE Hosts Inaugural Vivid Canopy Program at Indoor Ag-Con

Business leaders share why diversity is critical to success in the 2024 market 

 Pictured (L-R):  Stacia Lewis, Eden Green Technology; Nikki Thompson, Vertical Harvest Farms ; Nona Yehia (left) and Caroline Croft Estay (right), Vertical Harvest Farms.

 

Cornell University’s Greenhouse Lighting and Systems Engineering (GLASE) consortium announced today the launch of its Vivid Canopy network to celebrate and foster diversity in the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry. The new professional network will kick off at Indoor Ag-Con with a session on Monday, March 11 from 3:00 – 5:00 pm PT. An interactive panel led by Women in CEA (WiCEA) will feature leaders from Vertical Harvest Farms, Dr. Greenhouse, and Skout Strategy. Participants will engage with panelists and other attendees at roundtable discussions led by Eden Green Technology and Re-Nuble.

The biggest challenge for today’s controlled environment agriculture industry is labor. According to the 2022 Greenhouse and Nursery Labor and Employment Survey by AmericanHort, employers are experiencing a shortage of about 20% in their workforce. Producers must change hiring practices to find and retain experienced staff to operate an efficient greenhouse or indoor farm. While today’s workforce is more diverse than ever before, professionals in the green industry have few ways to connect with individuals with similar lived experiences.

“Vivid Canopy is an opportunity to have an open and honest conversation regarding underrepresented communities in the industry. We want to create a space where connections can be made between people all working toward the same goal: a healthier and more sustainable future for everyone. This is necessary, especially now, as the indoor agriculture industry is growing and expanding. It will take everyone’s voices to reach our collective goal,” states Stacia Lewis, Grower, Eden Green.

Diversity and inclusion are strategies to adapt to the changing workforce. “Leaders of CEA companies have an opportunity to be transparent about the demographics of their workforce to attract more candidates and foster diversity in the industry,” shares Gretchen Schimelpfenig, Executive Director of GLASE.

“Like many industries being revolutionized by emergent technologies, women, minorities, and people with disabilities are often underrepresented.  Opportunities to network and hear from a wider range of industry voices helps diversify perspectives and expand the vision of what CEA can really accomplish – for everyone,” says Nona Yehia, CEO and co-founder of Vertical Harvest Farms.

“Women are natural collaborators and with WiCEA we are hoping to provide all women in CEA and their allies more opportunities to foster collaboration, support their professional development, and offer mentorship to those looking to advance within or enter the industry,” shares Erika Parente, initiator of the Women in CEA community.

“We’re excited to partner with GLASE to co-host ‘Vivid Canopy,'” says Suzanne Pruitt, Event Director, Indoor Ag-Con. “At Indoor Ag-Con, our core mission is to create a hub that fosters connections for all members of the controlled environment agriculture sector. Vivid Canopy embodies this mission by promoting diversity, inclusivity, and providing a platform for meaningful networking and job-sharing opportunities. Join us for a gathering where ideas will flow, new contacts will be forged, and the CEA community grows together.”

GLASE plans to host more Vivid Canopy networking events at green industry conferences in the future, like Cultivate and the GLASE Summit. Join the Vivid Canopy group on LinkedIn to stay in the know.

For more information:

Gretchen Schimelpfenig

ges252@cornell.edu

About GLASE

Guided by its Industry Advisory Board, GLASE and its partner academic institutions research the leading edge of LED systems engineering, plant photobiology and physiology, and greenhouse environmental controls and commercialize emerging technology to save growers money and reduce the carbon footprint of greenhouse operations. Since 2017, the GLASE consortium has delivered specialized short courses on high-tech greenhouse technology to provide credible continuing education for the CEA industry. Resources can be found at https://glase.org and @GLASEconsortium on YouTube.

About Women in CEA

Women in CEA (WiCEA) is a community open to all women (and allies) working in controlled environment agriculture. WiCEA’s purpose is to foster a collaborative and supportive environment through the power of networking, information and resource sharing. The WiCEA community endeavors to strengthen the overall industry of CEA, creating food stability in the face of climate change and geopolitical instability in a dynamic world. With a vision for 80% of CEA companies to have their female employees join WiCEA by 2025, the group is creating a space for women to innovate, connect and inspire.

Follow on LinkedIn.

 

Nourse Farms Continues to Lead the North American Berry Propagation Industry, Adopting New Tissue Culture Production Technology

John Place Nourse Farms
John Place, Nourse Farms CEO

For over 90 years, Nourse Farms (Indoor Ag-Con 2024 Booth 317) has remained steadfast in its commitment to providing growers with high-quality, virus-indexed, highly productive plants grown using the best possible practices. This commitment drives Nourse Farms to stay on the cutting edge of the latest developments in the industry.

To amplify Nourse Farms’ commitment to innovation, the North American berry plant propagator is embarking on an exciting journey in 2024. Later this year, Nourse Farms will open the 15-acre North Carolina greenhouse it acquired last year. Additionally, Nourse Farms expects to open a modern tissue culture lab and a seven-acre greenhouse for foundation material in Massachusetts.

Nourse Farms expects to open a modern tissue culture lab and a seven-acre greenhouse for foundation material in Massachusetts later this year.
Nourse Farms expects to open a modern tissue culture lab and a seven-acre greenhouse for foundation material in Massachusetts later this year.

Striving for a new era of excellence in tissue culture production, Nourse Farms’ modern tissue culture lab will include automated tissue culture planters developed and manufactured by Viscon, in close collaboration with ISO Group. The automated tissue culture planters are a tremendous breakthrough for growers, redefining and elevating production while operating in a sterile environment, resulting in increased quality products.

“Tissue culture has been the cornerstone of what we do for decades, so strategic investments in technology and advancements in this part of our operation are not only ideal but necessary,” said Nourse Farms CEO John Place. “With the exciting addition of Viscon’s automated tissue culture planters to our operation, we expect that we will see a significant increase in our production and efficiency.”

This innovative system meticulously transplants individual plants at a predetermined position and depth in the agar, ensuring higher explant quality and improved growth uniformity. The planter includes advanced gripper technology that prioritizes precision and certifies minimal physical plant damage. The automated planter features in-place tool sterilization and automatically sterilizes between transplant batches. Safeguarding sterility reduces the contamination risk seen in manual plant handling.

Nourse Farms’ modern tissue culture lab will include automated tissue culture planters developed and manufactured by Viscon, in close collaboration with ISO Group.
Nourse Farms’ modern tissue culture lab will include automated tissue culture planters developed and manufactured by Viscon, in close collaboration with ISO Group.

By adopting Viscon’s technology, Nourse Farms expects operational efficiency and control to strengthen due to enhanced traceability software that will capture data to help inform process decisions. The software uses barcoding technology that automatically tracks and traces plants in cups. This operation will allow Nourse Farms to monitor and accurately trace plants to the original plant material. By capturing this data, the growers can make informed plant production decisions based on production numbers, multiplication rates, material losses, and location status.

By utilizing this system, Nourse Farms’ skilled lab technicians can focus on preparing and cutting the plants for transplanting.

“This is a transformative time for growers and Nourse Farms is passionate about being at the forefront of implementing modern growing practices,” said Place. “We might be over 90 years old, but we’ve only just begun. We are proud to continue leading the North American berry propagation industry and look forward to what will come out of our new modern tissue culture lab.”

About Nourse Farms

For over 90 years, Nourse Farms has produced and sold premium quality small fruit plants to national and international commercial fruit growers, home gardeners, and resellers. Nourse Farms’ commitment to providing customers with virus-indexed, highly productive plants drives the organization to stay on the cutting edge of the latest developments in the industry. By identifying and testing new varieties and growing techniques, Nourse Farms stands behind its promise to deliver quality. What was once a strawberry nursery serving local growers has grown to be an internationally recognized soft fruit nursery selling strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, and blackberry plants. For more information about Nourse Farms, visit NourseFarms.com.

Navigating CEA Food Safety: Candid Q&A With Ceres Certifications, International President

Join us for a candid conversation with Dr. Karl Kolb, President of Ceres Certifications, International, and Ceres University, as he sheds light on the essentials of food safety in controlled environment agriculture (CEA). Ahead of his CEA Food Safety Workshop at the March 2024 edition of Indoor Ag-Con, Dr. Kolb delves into the practical aspects of GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) standards, addressing common misconceptions. From understanding the risk-based approach in CEA to incorporating technology into safety measures, this Q&A provides straightforward insights. Dr. Kolb also offers pragmatic advice on how CEA operators can balance sustainability with the need for robust food safety.

How does the application of GFSI standards benefit controlled environment agriculture (CEA) operations, and what specific challenges or considerations should CEA operators be aware of when seeking food safety certification for their facilities?

Let me start by saying GFSI food safety standards are largely misunderstood across the entire food industry.  From their development, what they represent and how they are applied. It may sound unusual but if the owners and operators of food operations understood them, they would place them as their top priority in their daily schedule.  The leaders would not go home at night nor would any of their employees until every item in their food safety plan was checked, doublechecked and rechecked.

Food Safety Certification and GFSI StandardsThere are so many unique ways a GFSI or any “certificated” (non-GFSI) food safety standard benefits the operator. Defining “Operator” is anyone directly involved in any aspect of the food operation. From those who sell inputs such as seed, to those who plant the seed, those who irrigate, control watering, clean and sanitize, pull maintenance, process or pack, sell and ship the finished product — they are all operators.

Literally the information on food safety programs and their attributes would fill the Library of Congress.  And the quality systems that are used to apply the “standard” as we say, would fill a second Library of Congress.  Let me be clear, the application of a GFSI or food safety standard is the same across the board, to any food safety operation, CEA or the larger food industry. That statement scares CEA operators. CEA operators, like organic growers or small farmers, spend their life differentiating themselves from their counterparts.  Each one, and rightfully so believes and feels in their heart that they are uniquely different and performing the most important service to the public.  I cannot disagree with any of this because each operator is doing a phenomenal service to the largely unknowing public.

CEA operators should not fear the application of the GFSI standard. If, and that is a big if to be discussed later, it is applied correctly the CEA operator would intuitively know how greatly it benefits them. In short, each standard in a food safety scheme (Schemes are GFSI programs such as SQF, PGFS and HACCP to name a few.) is based on one of three or all three tenants; science, regulatory codes, and industry norms.  While there are variations of the GFSI schemes to accommodate the differences in some farming activities such as greenhouse farming by example, largely all food safety schemes inherently possess the same core requirements.  It’s how they are applied that makes the difference in each different operation.

Are there specialized considerations for food safety in CEA that may differ from traditional agriculture, and if so, how can operators navigate these nuances?

Herein is the one of my favorite topics about the application of the standard.  It is risk based.  In other words, each standard is applied the same but differently, based on a risk analysis. No matter what part of the food industry the operation is working in, the standard is the same.  This fact alone is one of the particular strengths of the GFSI system. The “specialized considerations” mentioned in your question are invoked at the time the auditor asks the question from the standard. Navigating these nuances as you stated are not what most people believe – for sure it’s not fancy footwork during an audit or attractive paperwork.  By example, I write some of the most boring, grammatically incorrect, ugly looking programs and policies, reports and logs ever.  Pretty and poetic is great but it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a meaningful robust program, “under the hood”, so to speak.

CEA Food SafetyThe “navigation” begins at the beginning (There is a song by Artie Shaw with a similar name referring to a dance or relationship from the 1920s that may have some carryover when applying the standard?) and thrives throughout the program and over time. It is the analysis of the particular “clause” in a food safety standard – this analysis begins with a complete understanding of what the clause is asking specifically and how it is intended to be applied.  Remember I spoke earlier about how a standard or clause is built? Science, regulatory and industry norms? A short explanation of Risk Analysis is in order to understand the next piece.  A risk analysis is a process which entails identifying risk, defining uncertainty, completing analysis models and implementing solutions.

Now I must back up a bit.  Life is about backing up and moving forward.  Just like learning from an audit.  The risk analysis is where the CEA operator differs from the larger industry and even his co-operators down the street. There is a yin and yang relationship between the auditor and the operator.  The auditor applies a process involving the standard or clause.  The auditor understands the standard and clause. He looks to the operator as the expert on the ground to explain how the operator applied the principles of risk analysis to the standard and what the operator’s solution or program properly answers the clause.

I’m sure by now the questions of how CEA differs from the larger industry and its fellow brethren are becoming clear.

Two absolutes must be respected in this dance (somehow credit Artie) or the yin and yang relationship.  1) The auditor must know his job and understand his or her role in the audit, 2) The operator must know his or her job of performing a risk analysis and explaining it to the auditor. That is the strength and difference CEA operators are looking for in GFSI audits.  However, finding #1 and #2 is like finding “hen’s teeth”. So sadly, audits become a checklist affair,  almost worthless and get a bad rap.

As a leader of a food safety certifying body, you’ve likely encountered various compliance issues.  What are some common misconceptions or overlooked aspects related to food safety that you believe CEA operators should be more aware of to improve the safety of their produce?

Not sure if I’m a leader but more of a learner or supporter.  We are largely a body of awesome women who I absolutely (adore) believe are the strength of this organization.  I have chosen smart, educated, dedicated and loyal women who don’t need to be told what to do or how to do it.

Our challenge is many-fold. It involves resources.  Time, money, training, staff needs and lastly, but first, compliance.

cEA Food safety 3My academic background is about quality.  Quality is defined properly, partially by the ISO system and my experience, “Quality standards are sets of good manufacturing practices (“Best Practices”), methods, systems, requirements, and or specifications established by science, regulators and industry to help operators achieve and demonstrate consistent production and product qualities.” Do not confuse quality with quality.  We are not talking about quality like the organoleptic head of lettuce qualities, although quality systems do define this commodity standard.  Quality is all about consistency.

A great and successful example is McDonalds.  Sadly, my default menu on too many occasions. They grew fast and successfully by using a quality model. The bros McDonald correctly set their goal as fast, good, cheap and consistent burgers across the land.  It’s not that the burgers are the best ever (sorry bros however the fish sandwich is the best) but everything from the sandwich itself to the service is consistently the same.  Go anywhere and the McDonalds experience is not 100% every time, listen well, it’s the same experience every time. Manufacturing excellence is achieved through consistency. And to those who are manufacturers we know that it’s not 100% that is achieved every time but the 90% mark is where quality is achieved.

Compliance at the operator level is all about consistency.  A food safety program cannot run at 100%, but it can run properly at 90% and achieve science, regulatory and industry expectations. The challenge of both myself as a certification body and that of the operator is keeping up and applying the science, regulations and industry expectations in auditors and operators as they work though (think root cause analysis) risk analysis solutions.

The audit is not meant to be a checklist drill but the yin and yang of auditor and operator.

As technology continues to play a significant role in CEA, how do advancements in automation and data-driven systems impact food safety protocols, and what advice do you have for growers looking to integrate these technologies while maintaining a strong food safety program?

Automation should serve the food safety program, not drive, define or prescribe it.  I once asked a very wise and experienced individual with a very large certifying body how he conducted audits. This gentleman told me he would take a blank yellow pad and walk into a food plant and begin asking questions.  He had infinite knowledge of the standard. He went and asked questions until he got the answers that rang true.  This is the ultimate in determining the robustness of a food safety program. I’m sure the yellow pad had a lot to do with it too.

As I taught in the classroom, you define automation, don’t let it define you.  All too often we fall for the “sizzle” of what these systems are said to do and we find out the sizzle is not from a tenderloin but a burger. (My apologies to the bros McDonald.)

With the growing importance of sustainability in agriculture,  how can CEA operators balance the use of sustainable practices with the need for rigorous food safety measures.  Are there specific certifications or guidelines they should consider?  

CEA food safety 5As you can tell by now, my perspective on food safety is different from anything else – I learned as a manufacturing engineer that when things don’t work as they should (different from the standard) you go back to the basics and start over – in this case, the basics of quality.

I started this interview by saying GFSI food safety standards are largely misunderstood across the entire food industry. Here again, I must separate the norm from what I believe is important. We as an industry do not understand quality systems and their concepts or requirements.

Sustainability is all about quality systems.  Quality systems are not a point in time like an audit. Nor is sustainability.  The question is, “How do we sustain quality?” Sustainability has become defined as a social construct. Wrong. Sustainability is doing the same thing consistently and improving time after time for a sustained period of time. Not more or new twists of the standard.

I have tried in this interview to impress your readers that the GFSI system must be embraced in a quality fashion.  As a process and not in a one-time checklist inspection.  While we gloat that GFSI is the best food safety system in the world and the US leads the way, we all drank the kool-aid.

We have been lucky as a nation illness-wise, to date.  As the demand for food increases what we do now, what we call food safety of trying to pass a once-a-year chaotic intervention (annual audit) of our operations, is not sustainable.

A good friend (Bob Wright) sums it this way, “Does it make the food any safer?”

Thanks for listening and apologies to anyone offended, especially the bros McDonald.

 

Karl Kolb, Ph.D., is the founder and President of the High Sierra Group companies, which services more than 10,000 customers with Ceres Certifications, International (ISO 17065 food safety certifying body), HSG/AME Certified Laboratories (17025 food testing laboratories), Ceres University (Accredited, degree granting), High Sierra Chemicals and Epicure Farms.

 

 

Unlock the Secrets To A Safer, Higher Quality Harvest With March 2024 CEA Food Safety Workshop  Registration Fee Includes
Expo Floor Access & Up To 3 CEUs

LEARN MORE & REGISTER TODAY!

Internal auditing certification is a mandatory GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) requirement that demonstrates an individual’s ability to conduct internal assessments of any food safety program.  Indoor Ag-Con has partnered with Ceres University, a leading provider of IACET-accredited food safety training and certification, to offer a cost-effective, convenient way to build your career AND help fulfill GFSI scheme requirements. Workshop fee includes:

  • Admission to 4-hour workshop and course materials
  • Ability to earn up to 3 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) upon completion
  • Indoor Ag-Con Expo Hall Only Pass, which includes access to Expo Floor March 11-12, 2024;  admission to all Indoor Ag-Con Expo Theater presentations; Expo Floor Welcome Happy Hour; and access to expo floor of National Grocers Association (NGA) Show running concurrently at Caesars Forum.

LEARN MORE & REGISTER TODAY!

 

Industry Leaders From Gotham Greens, Plenty, Red Sun Farms, Soli Organic Join Keynote Line-Up For Indoor Ag-Con Las Vegas 2024

Top Execs Share Insights on  Future Landscape of Controlled Environment Agriculture

Indoor Ag-Con is excited to announce its third keynote address, “Leader Insights: Charting the Future Landscape of Controlled Environment Agriculture,” led by industry veterans on Monday, March 11 at 11am. The keynote will feature Moderator, Daniel Malech, Board Chair of the CEA Alliance and SVP, Plenty, Jim DiMenna, President of Red Sun Farms, Viraj Puri, Co-Founder and CEO of Gotham Greens, and Matt Ryan, CEO of Soli Organic.

In this compelling keynote presentation, attendees will discover the foresight from industry leaders as they share their predictions, strategies, and unique perspectives on the emerging trends that will shape the landscape of controlled environment agriculture. Attendees will gain valuable insights to stay ahead in this dynamic field and be part of the conversation that is charting the course for the future of sustainable and innovative food production.

This panel joins the Indoor Ag-Con 2024 headliner keynote line-up, which also includes the opening morning kick-off session with Paul Sellew, CEO, Little Leaf Farms and the day two morning keynote from Adam Bergman, Global Head of Agtech for Citi. These all-star leaders and keynotes will engage and inspire attendees.

“We are excited to bring this panel of CEA industry leaders to our keynote stage to offer insider tips and predictions shaped by real world experience. The keynote will provide key takeaways about the future of indoor agriculture, as it holds tremendous promise as a sustainable solution to the challenges posed by traditional farming methods,” said Brian Sullivan, CEO, Indoor Ag-Con.

In addition to Indoor Ag-Con’s Keynotes, the event will feature educational panels, sessions and other presentation formats aligned in several Conference tracks.  Attendees will also enjoy quality networking events and explore an expanded expo floor bringing together 200+ suppliers and service providers representing the top names and emerging leaders in the controlled environment agriculture sector. For more information on the full line-up of sessions, exhibitors and events, please visit www.indoor.ag.

Daniel Malech, Board Chair, CEA Alliance & SVP, Plenty

Dan chairs the Board of Directors of indoor agriculture trade association the CEA Alliance, with a focus on developing category-wide metrics and guidelines as well as policy advocacy.  Dan is also the SVP of Strategy & General Counsel at Plenty, where he oversees corporate strategy, legal, compliance, government affairs and sustainability. His work helps drive scale for the indoor vertical farming company, including structuring and closing on multiple industry-leading strategic partnerships and financing rounds.

Jim DiMenna, Red Sun Farms

Jim DiMenna is the President of Red Sun Farms, one of the largest vertically integrated high-tech greenhouse vegetable growers with ownership of each stage of the process; seed selection, to plant growth, to harvesting, packaging and distribution. Red Sun Farms has over 800 acres throughout Mexico, USA and Canada. Born and raised in Leamington Ontario, the produce business has always been a part of Jim’s  life. As a teen, he worked his way up from the packing room into sales and marketing before starting his own firm J-D Marketing in 1990. In 2001, Jim formed JEMD International along with Golden Jem Farms, to meet the industry call for better direct-line connections between the retailers, distributors and growers. In 2008, Jem D International merged with Agricola El Rosal, and was rebranded as Red Sun Farms.

Viraj Puri, Gotham Greens

Viraj Puri co-founded Gotham Greens, a pioneer in indoor agriculture and a leading fresh food company. A Certified B Corporation™, Gotham Greens farms with the future in mind, delivering long-lasting and delicious leafy greens, herbs, salad kits, salad dressings, dips and cooking sauces all year round to retail, restaurant and foodservice customers. Over the past decade under Viraj’s leadership, Gotham Greens has grown to be one of the largest and most commercially successful indoor farming companies in the world with more than 500 employees and 13 high-tech greenhouse facilities across nine U.S. states. Prior to Gotham Greens, Viraj led start-up enterprises in the United States, India and Malawi focused on sustainable agriculture, green building, renewable energy and environmental design.

Matt Ryan, CEO, Soli Organic

As CEO, Matt Ryan’s focus is on strengthening the company’s competitive advantages and achieving scaled topline growth. Prior to his role at Soli Organic, Ryan served as the chief marketing officer and chief strategy officer at Starbucks where he developed and executed marketing and strategy plans, managed the food and beverage portfolio and led all other marketing, product, brand, and consumer functions. As the head of brand management for The Walt Disney Company, he oversaw the company’s brand management, brand development, franchise management, customer data, and CRM. Ryan currently sits on the Board of Directors for Kaiser Permanente. He received a Bachelor of Arts in history from Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude.

About Indoor Ag-Con

Founded in 2013, Indoor Ag-Con has emerged as the largest trade show and conference for vertical farming | greenhouse |controlled environment agriculture. Its events are crop-agnostic and touch all sectors of the business, covering produce, legal cannabis | hemp, alternate protein and non-food crops. More information, visit www.indoor.ag.

Gotham Greens CEO Talks Sustainable Growth, Innovative Technologies and Exciting Milestones

In this month’s CEA Q&A, we speak with Gotham Greens‘ CEO Viraj Puri, who is joining our Indoor Ag-Con 2024 “Leader Insights” keynote panel in March! A true CEA leader, Gotham Greens has made a  remarkable journey from a single rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn to becoming one of the largest hydroponic leafy green producers in North America. From tackling the challenges of the South’s hot and humid climate with cutting-edge greenhouse technologies to introducing fresh salad kits and championing sustainability, Puri shares valuable insights into the company’s growth, initiatives, milestones and commitment to reshaping the future of agriculture.

Gotham Greens Georgia_4_Credit Gotham Greens

Gotham Greens has rapidly expanded across the U.S since its launch in 2011 – now operating in various states and climates. Can you share some insights into the innovative technologies and strategies employed by your latest greenhouse in the southeast, particularly addressing the challenges posed by the region’s hot and humid climate?

As we continue to grow our brand, we’re excited to expand in the South and Southeast with new greenhouses in Texas and Georgia. At Gotham Greens, we’re committed to growing more with less, especially as changing climates are creating less favorable growing conditions in these states and across the country. These new greenhouses use our most advanced technology to date, including enhanced automation, cooling and dehumidification systems specifically tailored to the regions, and data science capabilities in a fully closed system to help consistently and reliably grow food closer to where people live no matter the weather outside. We’re proud to bring fresh, sustainably grown leafy greens and herbs that meet the high-quality standard consumers everywhere have come to associate with and expect from the Gotham Greens brand.

The new, state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities in the Dallas Metro area (Seagoville, Texas) and in Monroe, Ga., located between Atlanta and Athens, are examples of what comes next as we face ongoing extreme weather events and increased risk of drought in the U.S. Gotham Greens’ indoor farms create the ideal conditions for plants to thrive and provide consumers throughout the southern U.S. with sustainable fresh produce all year-round.

Gotham Greens recently introduced a new line of salad kits, combining your high-quality greens and dressings.  Can you speak to the inspiration behind these salad kits and the response from consumers?

Gotham Greens is well known for our high quality, longer lasting, pesticide-free salad greens and our line of fresh, flavorful salad dressings, and this portfolio addition combines these ingredients for a quick and easy meal solution made with premium-quality salad greens and delicious flavors that consumers crave. The new salad kits are available in three popular flavor varieties (Green Goddess, Southwest Ranch and Caesar) and are packed with fresh ingredients, including Gotham Greens greenhouse-grown lettuce and fresh flavor-filled toppings and dressings, for convenient home-cooked meals or lunches on the go.

We want people to enjoy fresh greens throughout the day, and we remain committed to bringing consumers the best-tasting, most flavorful fresh foods in the category. What sets us apart from the competition is quality and flavor, from the greens that we grow to the ingredients that we use in all our products, and we hope that consumers can sense that commitment to taste, quality and sustainability in every bite. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback about the kits so far and are excited to bring them to more markets this winter.

 

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Gotham Greens has championed sustainability, using significantly less water and land compared to traditional farming methods.  How do you envision the future of sustainable agriculture, especially within the CEA industry?  Are there upcoming initiatives or partnerships that will further strengthen Gotham Greens’ commitment to sustainability?

As a Certified B Corporation™, Gotham Greens champions quality, efficiency, dedication and freshness in all forms, both inside its greenhouses and throughout the communities where it operates. In addition to creating year-round, full-time jobs with competitive wages and benefits, we are driving the industry toward a more sustainable food system through industry-leading social and environmental practices. Our hydroponic growing methods help us use up to 90% less water than conventional growing methods, which means that at our current footprint, Gotham Greens saves 300 million gallons of water every year compared to field-grown farming, or the equivalent to around 450 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Whole Foods Market’s ninth annual trend report recently recognized our greens for promoting water conservation, a growing interest point for consumers. Gotham Greens’ national network of greenhouses provides a consistent and reliable supply of fresh greens for customers while eliminating the need for long-distance transportation, allowing its produce to stay fresher longer, thus increasing shelf life and decreasing food waste. As we continue to expand across the country, we look forward to deepening our relationships with key educational partners, such as University of California-Davis, as we help shape the agricultural climate of the future.

 

Gotham Greens Georgia_4_Credit Gotham GreensFrom a single rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn to one of the largest hydroponic leafy green producers in North America, Gotham Greens has undergone remarkable growth.  Are there specific milestones or initiatives you’re particularly excited about in the next phase of Gotham Greens development?

We recently celebrated our twelfth birthday in addition to the tenth anniversary of our second greenhouse located in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood on the roof of Whole Foods Market. The country’s first rooftop commercial-scale greenhouse integrated into a supermarket has now blossomed into a global movement of urban and innovative farming projects. This anniversary feels extra special, as this pioneering project has served as an inspiration to urban farming projects around the world. We’re especially grateful to Whole Foods Market for over a decade of supporting our mission to bring fresh, local and sustainably grown produce to its stores. We have additional plans for expansion and look forward to sharing more about that later this year!

Learn more about Gotham Greens by visiting their website.

And, make plans now to attend the March 11-12, 2024 edition of Indoor Ag-Con as Viraj joins other CEA executives on our keynote stage for our midday keynote session on day one:  “Leader Insights: Charting the Future Landscape of Controlled Environment Agriculture”.  Learn more about our full conference schedule and join us!

All photos courtesy of Gotham Greens.