As the indoor farming industry continues to expand so too does the demand for educational programs supporting the development of an educated and skilled labor force. While such resources are more available for the more mature greenhouse industry, the young indoor farming within Vertical Farms is currently challenged by a lack of transparency, knowledge sharing and training resources.
The University of Arizona is looking to change that narrative by continuously developing its expertise in controlled environment agriculture (CEA) and including new production scenarios into its educational and training programs. As CEA Extension Specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dr. Gene Giacomelli is one of the renowned professors leading this charge, with his colleagues, Dr. Murat Kacira, Dr. Stacy Tollefson and Dr. Barry Pryor at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (UA-CEAC).
Dr. Gene Giacomelli is a professor in Biosystems Engineering and an adjunct professor in the Plant Sciences department. His research at Arizona has focused on CEA system design for climate control and for crop production systems within the UA-CEAC for 20 years. In 2001, he organized and implemented the first Greenhouse Engineering and Crop Production Short Course in Arizona, as the premier component of the CEA Extension program which targets growers of all levels of controlled environments, producing in Vertical Farms, grow rooms, and greenhouses.
Gene Giacomelli (Photo credits: BIO5 Institute)
Dr. Murat Kacira, current Director of UA-CEAC continues to support and promote the CEA Extension and Outreach programs at UA-CEAC, which include intensive production workshops, targeting specific crops such as lettuce or tomato, and short courses, offering critical technical aspects of CEA for new growers.
But there is more, as the CEAC demonstration/teaching greenhouse operates 12-months a year for students, visitors and tour groups to experience year round production of tomato, cucumber and sweet pepper, while the Mars-Lunar greenhouse prototype demonstrates the breadth of CEA applications even beyond Earth, but within a laboratory at the CEAC campus. Through these and other resources, the CEAC bridges the knowledge gaps in CEA among future growers. And according to Gene, this knowledge is key to all CEA and especially vertical farming’s success.
“There are many people that need more experience growing in vertical farms, grow rooms and greenhouses. The beauty of where we are right now is that there are many opportunities for anyone to begin growing. Because of that, they should get some fundamental education in advance and not simply be learning on the job.”
According to Gene, the need for trained growers is particularly pronounced in the vertical farming industry as a large amount of capital is being invested in building advanced facilities which can only meet their full potential when operated by people who understand the intersection between CEA technology and crop production.
“You need to understand plant biology and recognize how to modify the environment to meet the crop’s needs. We really need people who may not have every single detail in biology or in engineering but who can still bring the two fields together to produce a good crop,” explains Gene.
Nevertheless, some people would say that automation and artificial intelligence are making the grower obsolete as more operations claim that decision-making is being delegated to computer decision-making technology. According to Gene, the industry is still far from replacing the grower altogether. The grower remains the primary decision-maker in the CEA facility and uses his/her expertise to monitor growth and implement any environmental changes.
While the University of Arizona’s CEA Center is committed to gaining and sharing knowledge pertaining to controlled environment agriculture, Gene maintains that knowledge sharing within the industry would also foster growth.
“I don’t disrespect anyone for wanting to protect their personal information. There is a fear among companies that sharing data will only make their competitors more competitive. My response to that is to keep developing; don’t stop your system design or production operation improvements because you had initial success. You stay ahead by continuing to research and develop,” says Gene.