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Doctoral student Jonathan Allred, center, leads a tour of Cornell greenhouses in November.

Cornell group explores future of indoor farming

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Joe Schwartz

Hydroponic tomatoes growing in a Cornell greenhouse.

Indoor farming entrepreneurs and experts came to Cornell in early November with a goal: leverage the innovation at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to create viable businesses for local vegetables and produce grown indoors.

Known as controlled environment agriculture (CEA), the systems combine greenhouse environmental controls such as heating and lighting with hydroponic and soilless production, enabling year-round production of fresh vegetables. The process extends the growing season through a range of low-tech solutions – such as row covers and plastic-covered tunnels – to such high-tech solutions as fully automated glass greenhouses with computer controls and LED lights.

Led by Neil Mattson, director of Cornell CEA and associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell has become a world leader in CEA research. In early November, the Cornell CEA Advisory Council, which was formed in 2015 to expand the retail and food service markets for products grown using CEA, hosted on campus more than 80 entrepreneurs and stakeholders from across the Northeast to discuss the state of the indoor farming industry, urban agriculture, supermarket trends and new technology.

At the conference the group announced the formation of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Global Association, an organization to foster growth, understanding and sharing ideas related to controlled environment agriculture and associated industries.

Erico Mattos, executive director of the newly formed Greenhouse Lighting and Systems Engineering (GLASE) consortium, presented his vision to advance CEA by bringing together expertise from industry and academia to create solutions.

“The CEA Advisory Council meeting provided a great opportunity to connect with key players from the different segments of the CEA supply chain in New York. I was impressed with the quality and quantity of the ongoing initiatives in this area supported by Cornell University professors and staff members and the level of engagement from the industry members,” Mattos said.

Mattos said private companies and public research from Cornell offer collaborative opportunities that can advance the CEA industry.

Cornell graduates from the CEA program have been in high demand from companies who wish to leverage their skills and knowledge. Little Leaf Farms, a leader in indoor lettuce production founded by Paul Sellew ’79 and based in Devens, Massachusetts, has hired numerous graduates.

“These talented individuals have provided immediate contributions to our business,” said Tim Cunniff, Little Leaf Farms executive vice president of sales and marketing. “It is exciting to see how Cornell is expanding its commitment in controlled environment agriculture to include the business of running a CEA operation. Cornell is in an excellent position to advance a scalable local food movement, and all of us at Little Leaf Farms are excited to be part of the process.”

Paul Brentlinger, who served on the grower panel and is the second-generation owner of CropKing, said his business and Cornell “have similar outlooks on the future generations of farmers, and we support Cornell as much as we can with their goal of educating the next generation of CEA operators.”

Laura Biasillo, agricultural economic development specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Broome County, said: “CCE is the ‘boots on the ground,’ providing everything from technical assistance to the business planning, cost analysis and financing needed by startups and business that are expanding.”

The conference attracted participants from traditional agricultural businesses interested in adding CEA to existing operations, to individuals with significant business experience, to those not yet in agriculture.

“The diverse perspectives made the conversations highly engaging, and building a network for this emerging New York ag sector was one of the key benefits of the conference,” said Aileen Randolph, outreach and communications manager of the New York Farm Viability Institute. “Now it’s up to the participants to do the hard work of utilizing this information for their specific business planning process.”

Jill Monti is technical lead at the Cornell Institute for Food Systems Industry Partnership Program.


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