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Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouse Solutions

We’ve been intrigued at the potential of greenhouses and controlled environment agriculture for a long time. So as soon as the spinach crisis broke, we asked if this wasn’t an opportunity for greenhouses. Then Lou Cooperhouse, Director, Rutgers Food Innovation Center, led us to look more intently at hydroponics.

Then Marvin N. Miller, Market Research Manager, Ball Horticulture Company, led us to Bob Langhans and Lou Albright and their fascinating work at Cornell on Controlled Environment Agriculture.

In writing about the Spinach Town Hall Meeting at the PMA Convention, we addressed our frustration with the FDA for not clearly defining how much safety, precisely, they wanted the industry to “procure,” acknowledging that more safety would cost more money.

We gave as our ultimate example that we could grow everything in greenhouses if we were willing to pay the price. This assumption, that growing everything in a controlled environment would cost more, was challenged by the following letter:

Lou Albright and I each noted the comment you made in your report of the ‘Town Hall Spinach Meeting’ and wanted to respond. The issue is the implied excessively high cost of greenhouse spinach production.

It is clearly the objective of CEA technologies to improve production efficiency, along with lowered costs, and be competitive with field-grown products, i.e., delivered cost per pound to be similar in each case. CEA does have high costs per acre but production is substantially higher. For example, a CEA production facility can produce 400 to 500 tons/acre/yr of Boston lettuce, even here in upstate New York. This is approximately twenty times the productivity of lettuce fields in Salinas, for example.

In our small-scale trials, it appears spinach will be even more productive. The technology uses a lot of energy, however, as does a product grown in California, shipped on refrigerated trucks, and sold on the East coast. We hope to complete a study this winter to examine that comparison in detail.

Our research is continuing to reduce energy use and increase production per acre. It is very impressive to see what can be done to reduce energy use, improve handling and still have plants grow at optimized rates. Optimized use of CO2, for example, can reduce supplemental lighting needs by half during the dark winter months of our NE winters.

Some intangible assets of CEA technologies are: 1) same amount of product is harvested every day of the year, which is a real benefit for growers and marketers, 2) HACCP protocols can be easily implemented during the growing phase, 3) production can be any place in the US, thereby, located close to the market reducing transportation costs and shortening the time from harvest to purchase by the consumer, 4) product does not have to be washed before packaging, thereby improving quality and life of the product, 5) no environmental discharges or potential groundwater pollution, 6) an ability to manipulate the root environment, leading to greens with no nitrates, for example, and reduced oxalate in the case of spinach, 7) more readily implemented biological controls for pests and insects, and 8) year-round employment stability for workers.

We truly feel CEA technology will be a major player in production of many perishable vegetable crops. The products are safer, can be fresher and grown without need for pesticides. The system uses water very efficiently, and facilities can be located close to markets.

If you are ever in the area we would love to show you our research program and you can visit a commercial CEA production facility.

— Robert Langhans
Professor Emeritus
Cornell University

This research is exciting, and I intend to take the good professors up on their offer to see their facility and learn more about their research. So far, however, spinach isn’t even established as a viable commercial crop in Controlled Environment Agriculture, much less established as a bargain.

Still, it is a very important area of research with the potential to change the world. This month, Bryan Silbermann of PMA and I had an exchange in PRODUCE BUSINESS based on the report issued by a PMA task force established to deal with the terrible problems the industry is experiencing with transportation. It is not uncommon for peak season loads to cost more in trucking than the fruit costs.

If we could raise things productively in greenhouses, we could put them in the South Bronx and save the trucking. In fact we tried it. Gary Waldron, an IBM executive on loan to a non-profit, started Glie Farms, which got praised by everyone, featured in a movie with Lynn Redgrave… and went broke.

The problem with this area is that, long term, it seems likely, if not inevitable but, short- and medium-term, the high cost of energy keeps killing projects unless they can get a premium in the marketplace.

That is why, though we were excited to point everyone to The Vertical Farm Project, we weren’t 100% sure if we are showing people the future or science fiction.

But the Pundit will go check out the facility for Finger Lakes Fresh in Ithaca and will report back on what we see.

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