Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Gloucester County

Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Gloucester County

Consider the strawberry. Its skin, slightly glossy in a deep crimson hue, warmed by gentle light. A burst of sweet juice when first pierced by the teeth, giving way to tart flavors and a subtly gritty texture from dozens of tiny seeds. A survivor of climate conditions — drought or flood, cold snaps or intolerable heatwaves — and attacks by animals and insects. A warrior against fungal infestations and bacterial infections. 

Now imagine that strawberry was not grown in soil. Instead, it grew from seed to fruit in a long, gutter-shaped vessel in water that has been engineered with all the nutrients, airflow, and light it could need to become an exemplar of its breed. Instead of a field, it was grown in a facility as sterile as a neurosurgery operating room. Instead of overalls and flannels, these farm workers wear sanitary coveralls, hair nets, and shoe coverings. 

This strawberry is a product of controlled environment agriculture (CEA), the fastest-growing sector of agriculture in Virginia.

Most CEA facilities are indoor, completely enclosed buildings. Many rely on artificial light and vertical growing structures. Some are hybrid models, closer to greenhouses with glass roofs for natural light. In the case of aquaculture, shellfish are bred and raised to the larva stage in hatcheries that resemble laboratories, but the outcropping of shellfish to maturity happens in natural environments.

CEA tends to be more expensive than traditional agriculture, but has numerous benefits and advantages that make it worth the cost. It currently accounts for up to 2% of food production in Virginia.

Dr. Bill Walton, Acuff Professor of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), described CEA as “mimicking what nature does, but limiting what nature throws at you.” This means reducing natural disease, increasing crop yields, creating healthier food systems, growing food year-round in any part of the country, and growing crops as close to local markets as possible — an extension of the local food movement.

It also means augmenting the nutrient compounds introduced to growing practices for food that has greater health benefits for human consumption, shorter seed-to-harvest time, longer shelf life — because crops don't require as much washing and can be immediately picked at a predictable harvest time — and ideal flavors.

“You can set certain conditions to ensure you can get the prime sweetness conditions every single time. It’s almost like cheating,” said Dr. Scott Lowman, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Danville and co-director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center (CEAIC), a partnership between IALR and Virginia Tech. Beyond taste, his team is researching ways to grow crops with higher levels of essential nutrients and biological compounds that can reduce disease or lessen the effects of preexisting conditions. Key demonstration crops at the CEAIC include strawberries, blackberries, lettuce, herbs, and hemp.

With the CEA industry still in relative infancy, extensive research is required and will be ongoing. Stakeholders like VIMS, IALR, Virginia Tech, and others are leading the way on CEA research in Virginia. The research conducted on CEA is shared widely with individual growers and harvesters throughout the state and across the country to spur on CEA development in America’s vast agricultural industry.

You can set certain conditions to ensure you can get the prime sweetness conditions every single time. It’s almost like cheating.

Dr. Scott Lowman Co-Director, Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center

Maximizing Water Efficiency

Water is a critical element to all agriculture, but is especially important for controlled environment agriculture. Since most crop production currently occurs in a hydroponic or aquaponic setting with water as the primary growing medium, being able to recirculate water is critical to the success of CEA.

Recirculating water creates a closed-loop system that reuses water existing in the CEA facility. This water has already been filtered to remove outside contaminants and engineered to include vital nutrients and biological compounds for a better crop.

Water recirculation is a core component of aquaponics, which is the combined production of vegetal and animal crops. Plants and animals in CEA share similar technologies and needs. Recirculating water helps maintain beneficial bacterial levels in the water, accelerating how plants and marine life absorb and introduce these elements in a symbiotic relationship. 

Water reuse and recirculation is also critical to one of the main goals of CEA: growing food as near to local markets as possible. In drier locales, recirculation means less water is wasted than in traditional agriculture, and the growing process requires substantially less water overall. More food can be produced regardless of natural weather phenomena, closer to the intended market.

CEA researchers are looking for other ways to increase efficiency. Agriculture is a large consumer of energy, but an overall goal of CEA is to produce more food with less waste. Virginia researchers are investigating ways to incorporate alternative fuel sources, renewable energy, and sustainable building practices to improve CEA infrastructure.

There is a lot of sharing research information by talking over the back of a pickup truck.

DR. BILL WALTON Acuff Professor of Marine Science, Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center, Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, Danville

Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center, Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, Danville

Eliminating Diseases and Associated Issues

Moving agriculture indoors is a solution to disease issues, but researchers continue to focus on the impact of disease and how to mitigate its spread. Hydroponics is a large focus area in disease research because growing items in water reduces the introduction of soil-borne disease, but issues like wilt still affect hydroponic crops. Biocontrols are introduced to the water source, which can reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides and other biochemicals that serve as a “cure” rather than prevention. Michael Schwarz, associate director of the CEAIC and director of the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center (VSAREC) in Hampton, cited disease control as a key advantage for CEA operations and stated that proper use of CEA techniques can help create zero-pesticide crops.

Water recirculation research parlays into disease management because filtering water allows for the removal of disease and infection. This research is useful to other industries because cleaning solutions introduced into CEA practices can be utilized elsewhere, Lowman said. Disease management research in CEA has the potential to shed new light on epidemiology in a post-COVID world.

Fulfilling that potential requires intensive crop monitoring, and CEAIC researchers are working internally and with corporate partners like Canon Virginia, Inc., to develop technology that allows for constant photo imaging of crops to monitor to-the-moment growth patterns and problems or other issues. In the future, these imaging systems will work in concert with water, air, light, and disease sensors to quickly find and rectify problems with a growing condition or an individual plant or animal, whether by robotic removal of the plant in question or by adjusting the amount of light, a certain nutrient, or airflow patterns, either manually or through digital automation.

That kind of granular light adjustment is available to CEA operations through use of LED lights. While some CEA facilities operate as a glass-roofed greenhouse, most rely on a hybrid model that incorporates LED grow lights to generate photosynthesis in plants. LED lights compensate for a lack of natural light in short-day seasons (like winter), allowing for year-round growth and production. IALR’s LED light quality research focuses on how crops respond to changes in light and how increased availability of light (and different spectrums of light and radiation) can affect the growing process.

IALR is also home to the Plant Endophyte Research Center, which studies the use of symbiotic endophytes — beneficial microorganisms that live between living cells — to enhance crop yield through stronger root systems. Potential benefits of advancements in endophyte use include chemical fertilizer reduction and soil quality improvements.

Developing the CEA Workforce of Tomorrow

While technological advancements are the main focus of entities in Virginia’s CEA research ecosystem, workforce development is another major priority. As Schwarz put it, “We are behind the 8-ball and there is a labor shortage.”

CEA is a highly technical field requiring workers with advanced knowledge of technology, robotics, and microbiology. Virginia’s research centers are developing programs — some starting as early as middle school — to foster a skilled CEA workforce, while entities as large and established as the U.S. Department of Agriculture offer funding to train workers on CEA-specific topics.

All this research is shared in a variety of ways. Virginia’s cooperative extension centers (including VSAREC) are a partnership between Virginia Tech and Virginia State University. Researchers from both universities, along with others in Virginia’s CEA industry, regularly publish findings in peer-reviewed research studies, allowing Virginia insights to reach all corners of the agriculture industry.

IALR and CEAIC also partner with the organizers of Indoor Ag-Con, one of the largest indoor farming events in the country, to host CEA Summit East, an in-person conference that brings growers, educators, scientists, engineers, technology specialists, and other industry personnel together to discuss new findings and the latest ideas in CEA research. “Everyone is doing something a little different,” said Lowman, and CEA Summit East is a chance to share and discuss information for the benefit of the industry.

At VIMS, Walton said that while his team engages in published studies and conferences, the best way to get information directly to the growers is to be a presence at their farm or growing facility and share insights face to face.

“When we pull up, they know who we are,” he said. “There is a lot of sharing research information by talking over the back of a pickup truck.” 

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