The future of agriculture is clear as glass, say experts in the field. The path to get there, however, may not be as smooth. First, there's the case of Tim Schartner. His construction of a 25-acre, 1-million-square-foot greenhouse on the family's Exeter farm to grow tomatoes year-round is yielding more criticism as the enormous project takes shape — all without town regulation, so far.
But Schartner's colossal greenhouse — equal in size to the Warwick Mall — isn't the only model of what's coming in Rhode Island food production. Eight miles south in Kingston, on the outskirts of the University of Rhode Island, another gargantuan greenhouse, which would first be of near-equal size and eventually much larger, is scheduled to rise next year from 59 acres of prime farmland.
Supporters say this other large-scale example of "controlled environment agriculture" (CEA) could someday be an important provider of the state's vegetable needs — with an adjacent new education center spinning off programs in agricultural research and jobs.
"CEA is more and more the future of agriculture across the country, and at URI, we hope to have our students trained and give them opportunities in this nascent industry," says Katharine Hazard Flynn, executive director of URI's Business Engagement Center.
Michael Sullivan, a former director of the state Department of Environmental Management, says the siting of the greenhouse and research center (the greenhouse will initially take up about 22 acres) "is both ridiculous and offensive." For decades, taxpayers have willingly answered the call of state officials and conservationists and spent millions of dollars to preserve Rhode Island's vanishing agricultural lands, says Sullivan.
"And here they want to drop this into the middle of the best soil we have in the state," Sullivan says. "What a fatally flawed example of practicing something other than what you preach and a bad example of public stewardship."
Asked for reaction to Sullivan's comments, Hazard Flynn and Peter Rumsey, URI's chief business development officer, said they were unaware of any opposition. URI spokesman Linda Acciardo said university officials "have not had conversations with Mike Sullivan about his personal concerns with regard to the siting of this project."
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