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Plants growing in an indoor facility.

Bringing the outdoors indoors

How controlled environment agriculture is changing the industry

By: Patrick McKee

With the population of the world expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, there is growing concern surrounding how to feed everyone. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, farmers will need to increase food production by 70 percent to meet the need. Couple that with consumer demand for locally farmed foods that are fresher and more environmentally friendly, the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry is expected to grow in the coming decades.

Controlled environment agriculture is a technology-based approach to food production under targeted environmental conditions that aims to optimize plant growth and yield while minimizing resource use and environmental impacts. “It is sometimes defined as being everything from a high tunnel to, what is considered the highest technology level, vertical farms,” explained Kaylee South, an assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

The indoor environment shields crops from extreme weather by controlling conditions with heaters and coolers, ventilators, humidifiers and dehumidifiers, and CO2 enrichment. In vertical farming, LED growing lights are used with hydroponic or aquaponic systems providing water and nutrients. There is less need for pesticides and 70 to 90 percent less water is required.

Controlled environment agriculture is a solution to the rapid loss of arable and fertile agricultural land. According to Maximize Market Research, around 4 million hectares — 10 million acres — of land become unusable due to erosion and degradation of soil annually with another 4 to 5 million hectares — 10 to 12 million acres — converted to commercial use for highways, factories, and roads.

To bring researchers together to advance the industry, the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center was formed at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Danville, Virginia. The center is a partnership between IALR, the Virginia Tech School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, and the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center, and is part of the SmartFarm Innovation Network.

“I met with Mike Evans (director of the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and co-director of the center) to let him know what IALR does,” said Scott Lowman, vice president of applied research at IALR and co-director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center. “We are not academic research and we are not a business. We play in between.”

The Institute has a greenhouse complex along with resources in biology, technology, and chemistry. Pair that with the school’s experience and resources, and “It really made sense,” Lowman said.

South is one of several researchers at Virginia Tech and the Institute who is studying ways to advance the CEA industry by improving crops in both vertical farms and greenhouses. “One project is working with beneficial bacteria to improve plant growth within controlled environment systems, looking mainly at hydroponics, on crops that range in fruiting and also traditional leafy greens and herbs as well.”

Researchers in the center are also exploring beneficial bacteria to promote plant growth in greenhouse and indoor vertical farm hydroponic production systems, plant pathogen control, and applied research that is beneficial to farmers. In addition, they are researching best practices for using technology to monitor and improve crop production in controlled environments, such as tomato production in indoor vertical farm systems.

They recently finished a project that looked at different fertilizer concentrations and how those affect the plant yield and sugar content in strawberries.

Growing industry

In 2021, controlled environment agriculture in the United States was valued at $74 billion, according to Maximize Market Research. It is expected to more than double to $157 billion by the end of the decade.

Several companies have moved to Virginia due, in part, to the work at the CEA Innovation Center. “As Virginia continues to attract global CEA companies, the demand will increase for trained employees to fill these positions,” said Michael Evans, director of the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and co-director of the CEA Innovation Center.

“About the time we were discussing the creation of the center, we were also in talks, as part of economic development, with AeroFarms to locate to Virginia,” Lowman said.

AeroFarms built the world’s largest aeroponics farm in southern Virginia, just miles from the center. “Part of the reason they did that was they knew they could rely on us for support,” Lowman said.

Plenty, an indoor vertical farmer, also brought jobs to the commonwealth, building a $300 million complex outside of Richmond. “That caught the attention at the highest level in Richmond,” Lowman said.

In April, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin toured the CEA Innovation Center to learn about the research taking place, the collaboration with industry, and the steps being taken to train the workforce. His goal is for Virginia to be the number one destination for CEA companies in the country and the world. “We need to be driving industry innovation to continuously move the marker forward,” Youngkin said during a news conference in Raphine, Virginia. “One great example is the partnership between Virginia Tech and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. The work that is going on there is extraordinary.”

At that news conference at the Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center, the governor signed legislation to aid the Controlled Environment Agriculture industry. The new legislation expands the agricultural sales tax exemption to include items used to produce market-ready agricultural products.

The center and its growing influence in the region helped to attract a major conference to the east coast. Indoor Ag-Con has held a trade event for a decade in Las Vegas. Looking to expand to the east coast, the CEA Innovation Center and the Institute were a perfect fit. “This conference offers an exciting opportunity to bring people together for exchanging new and diverse ideas to help move the industry forward and into exciting directions,” South said.

Last year, more than 200 people from 28 states, Puerto Rico, and Canada attended the two-day event. “Both organizations see tremendous value in growing an event like this that brings business and academia audiences together at an incredible research facility setting that really fosters an environment for sharing ideas and new business opportunities,” said Indoor Ag-Con CEO Brian Sullivan.

Looking to the Future

“CEA offers a lot of really good opportunities,” South said. “For several reasons, the future looks really interesting.”

“The more immediate future is tomatoes, smaller, dwarf strawberries, things of that nature,” Lowman said. “In the more distant future, it could be plants with custom nutritional levels with certain vitamins. It could even be human pharmaceuticals, so imagine a plant producing something that humans need to live.”

“I think students, who may not have thought about agriculture, will be attracted to entering the field because of CEA,” South said. “I see CEA playing a major role in the future.”