On the front page of its website, The University of Arizona’s (UA) Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) notes that half of the world’s population now lives in cities. With populations centers moving to more crowded urban environments, maintaining a local, fresh food supply is a challenge because of the difficulty of growing crops in these areas. A lack of growing space and natural sunlight are contributing factors.
This is the problem CEAC is working to solve through various controlled environment research projects. Through university research that involves a leading vertical farming company and the next generation of growers, CEAC wants to move the industry, and the world, forward through its work.
“This is another platform where you are trying to produce food in indoor settings and ask questions like ‘What are the capabilities?’ ‘What are the limitations?’ and ‘How can the system be perfected?’” says Dr. Murat Kacira, a UA professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. “‘And how can this system be provided as a technology alternative to feed people on earth or maybe beyond?’”
Vertical farming innovation
In mid-April, CEAC announced an agreement with Civic Farms, a vertical farming technology company founded in 2009 by vertical farming pioneer Paul Hardej. According to an article in the Arizona Daily Star, Civic Farms is leasing a 20,000-square foot space at UA’s Biosphere 2 site in Oracle, Arizona, in order to grow leafy greens, lettuce and various herbs. The products will then be sold to customers in Tucson and Phoenix. Additionally, half of the space will be used for research and education.
For the university, the deal is a boon on two fronts. The lease agreement calls for Civic Farms to pay a nominal fee of $15,000 per year. Additionally, the company will invest $1 million into the facility and donate $250,000 to hire student researchers in conjunction with CEAC.
The Biosphere site, which also is home to a three-acre greenhouse, features three “lungs” that keep the Biosphere’s glass windows from exploding when sealed. The “lung” on the west side of facility will be home to the new vertical farm, which will utilize LED lighting. Kacira is working to develop a sensor that will detect a plant’s nutritional needs throughout the growing process to be used in the Civic Farms project and in other locations.
“The interest for growing indoors and with LED lighting stems from the idea that you can grow anywhere,” Kacira says. “With indoor growing, with artificial lighting, since you have so much more control over the variables, there is more consistency and with the yield’s expected quality.”
In addition to the partnership with Civic Farms, Kacira is leading a research and development project at the CEAC’s main facility in Tucson. In a collaboration with UA’s Soil, Water and Environmental Science program, CEAC converted an older prefabricated structure into what is essentially a vertical farming lab.
Kacira says that not all the plants are doing well, but that’s part of the process. To maximize potential, and have the technology make the most impact, Kacira and his team have to learn what works and what does not. And like part of Biosphere, the R&D facility has the added bonus of training a group of UA students in the growing technology of the future.
Kacira notes that while vertical farming and other innovative indoor methods are becoming more viable and popular, the majority of indoor growing is still done in a traditional greenhouse setting. Instead, it’s another tool for the industry to use to solve problems.
“I don’t think growing indoors under artificial light will replace [traditional] greenhouse growing,” he says. “But it could be considered as an additional technology to help address some of the challenges we face, particularly with feeding people in urban settings and in harsher climates.”
On the ornamental side of the business — a side, Kacira says, where some growers are trialing and utilizing LEDs but have not utilized new technologies as extensively as produce growers have — there are potential benefits as well.
“There’s so much interest in determining the effects of artificial lighting. This technology could be seen as a platform to help on the ornamental side,” Kacira says. “There is interest with ornamentals for flowers and some edible ornamentals.” Kacira also says that a vertical farm could grow ornamentals as long as the physical structure of the plant can handle it and the environment is suitable.
“I don’t see [the system] being a problem in terms of delivering plant needs,” he says. “It’s all going to depend on how efficiently we can provide the environment for the plant, whether that’s for vegetable crops or ornamental crops.”