Microsession: Controlled Environment Agriculture Growing in Northeast

BY CHRISTOPHER BURT, Produce Business

Miguel Gomez

Miguel Gomez

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) might never become a produce industry standard, but it is gaining momentum in the Northeast, Miguel Gomez, Cornell University associate professor, told attendees.

Gomez lauded CEA’s ability to control so many growing factors — protecting crops, regulating both temperature and light, and efficient use of space — as a potential game-changer for growers in cold climates in the United States.

“There is growing interest in this concept,” said Gomez. “Investment is happening. But I think we need to do a lot of research to understand not only the economics of costs and consumers, but also the supply chains that will make this industry viable.”

Although the number of CEAs has increased dramatically in the past decade — tomatoes account for about half of commodities produced — the United States still lags behind Mexico and Canada in terms of total output. Cost of production and finding skilled labor are two of the biggest hurdles facing U.S. investors, according to Gomez. Securing financing for small businesses also can be a major obstacle.

Once up and running, Gomez said the benefits of CEA can be substantial, especially in areas such as New York and New England, where growing seasons are short:

  1. Fresh, quality produce free of pesticides.
  2. Locally grown, year-round production of consistent quality.
  3. Water usage that can be 20 times more efficient than in the field.
  4. Space efficiency. Gomez cited vertical farms in the Netherlands that can have 20 to 50 times the amount of production per unit of land compared with field-grown.“I think it has a bright future,” said Gomez. “I think it’s going to be important for certain types of retailers, having the greenhouses located close to the farm.”