Research to feed growing population underway at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center
The Danville-based center helps accelerate advancements, economic development, and regional participation in the burgeoning indoor farming industry.
With a population expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, the world’s resources will need to be used in an increasingly efficient manner. Food will need to be grown near where it is needed. Space will need to be maximized.
And these challenges can’t be tackled alone.
In an effort to leverage resources, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, and Virginia Tech have partnered to form the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center in Danville, Virginia.
The center uses technology and research to accelerate advancements, economic development, and regional participation in the developing industry of indoor farming, or controlled environment agriculture, including aquaculture.
“It is imperative that we bring people together to solve these problems that require creative and innovative solutions,” said Mike Evans, director of the Virginia Tech School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and associate director of the center. “By working together across the state with members of academia, industry, and more, we can use our combined resources to lead not only the commonwealth but also the world.”
Inside the center are vertical racks that house the soilless plants and maximize growing capacity, which enables more plants to be grown in less space. These hydroponic systems provide plants with the optimal amount of water and nutrients, which can accelerate their growth. Over time, the center will expand its opportunities and facilities in aquaponics and hydroponics.
“This center is unique in the United States, in part because of the support system at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, where we have analytical chemistry, molecular biology, microbiology equipment, and researchers with expertise in each,” said Scott Lowman, director of applied research at IALR. “We want to drive the entire industry in production and innovation.”
The center was created to drive economic development in the region and to diversify agribusiness in Southern Virginia as well as increase net farm income and profitability for new and existing farmers alike. Because the model of indoor farming can be established anywhere, regardless of available farmland, it has the potential to boost local economies throughout the commonwealth.
The Danville location is a key platform of the new Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture, which is a catalyst for collaboration and connections where Virginia Tech scientists and stakeholders with diverse expertise partner to solve complex problems and help the agricultural industry adapt to emerging technologies.
Food from the source
For the growing global population, these controlled environment agriculture facilities can help make food deserts a thing of the past. Food can be grown where it is needed, whether that is in the middle of an urban area or somewhere remote. Old warehouses or tractor-trailers can easily be converted to modern farms.
This is ideal for areas that are significantly limited in traditional crop farming. It enables more food to be produced per square foot because of the stackable nature of these systems. At the center, water trickles across the roots of vertically stacked plants, with a hydra of white tubes guiding the flow. LED lights hang above the plants and the exact amount of nutrients are provided to ensure optimal plant growth.
“The closer the food is grown to the consumer, the closer you are to the grocery stores and the more a producer can save on transportation costs,” said Amy Turner, a lab research associate at the center. “The producer saves money on fuel, it’s better for the environment, and the food is healthier and tastes better.”
Techniques to feed more with less
At the center, research is conducted to find viable methods for feeding the budding population with less farmable land. One such technique is to remove plant stressors from the equation entirely.
One of the most common plant stressors is insects – to which anyone who farms or has attempted to grow a home garden can relate. And without those pesky insects going after the plants, pesticides are no longer needed, which is good for people and the environment.
Emily Zhou '19, a Virginia Tech research associate at the center, is vital to this research. Zhou, originally an engineer specializing in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning but earned her master’s and Ph.D. in horticulture from Virginia Tech, constructed the indoor hydroponic system in the greenhouse using her expertise in controlled environments.
In the research conducted so far, Zhou and the other researchers find specific conditions for each plant that enables accelerated growth, often cutting growing time in half.
“Because we control everything surrounding the growing cycle, including exposure to light, we can make plants grow continuously,” Zhou explained.
Zhou also grew micro tomatoes – a plant that is smaller than the garden-variety tomatoes in every way – something that hadn’t been done in the region before due to the size of the tomato root system compared to lettuce.
Planting density is another critical component of indoor farming since a grower needs to plant the exact number of seeds that the area can handle for optimal yield. In one experiment, Zhou researches the planting density of beets using a hydroponic technique where a very shallow stream of water containing all the required nutrients is re-circulated past the bare roots of plants in a watertight gully.
Fresh seafood … from Richmond?
The freedom from production limitations isn’t just rooted in plants. Research at the center could help provide a healthy source of protein – a vital component of the human diet – exactly where the growing population will need it.
The Virginia Seafood AREC, closely integrated with industry, is working hard to bring new industrial fish farms, such as salmon growers, to Virginia, as the industry is shifting to indoor controlled environment systems that allow for year-round production in an optimal environment.
“For example, we could have a salmon farm in Richmond producing fish for the restaurants since the farm can be anywhere as long as there’s a building, a water resource, and power,” said Michael Schwarz, director of the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “We can grow fish as well as other animals in these controlled environments, too, all close to markets and consumers, and with reduced carbon footprints. Companies are looking at localized production to reduce the need to import or transport these foods.”
To further maximize profits and the reusability of plant waste, the Virginia Seafood AREC works with the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center to find alternative uses for byproducts, such as the roots and stems of lettuce, and other unusable plant parts, and turns them into new sustainable feed ingredients for fish or other animals.
“We have emerging technologies that have the discarded vegetation go through different types of digestion or insect remediation that converts the waste into new value-add products such as proteins or lipids,” which become primary feed and food ingredients, Schwarz said.
This enhances sustainability significantly. Waste creates another feed ingredient to produce more food to grow more fish, plants, and animals to provide more with less.
Partnerships are the name of the game
Through collaborative work across the commonwealth and industry, the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center boosts economic development opportunities across Virginia’s diverse regions.
The center’s state-of-the-art facilities have led to partnerships and companies opening locations in Virginia, providing valuable assistance to these organizations with the center’s high capacity for innovative agriculture research.
For example, a partnership with AeroFarms, an indoor agriculture company, has led to a new industry coming to Danville and increases jobs and economic output in the region. AeroFarms is building their largest and most sophisticated indoor vertical farm near the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center and Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.
Other companies benefit elsewhere in Virginia, too. At Virginia Beach, Sunny Farms LLC invested in a hydroponic facility at Taylor Farms, after a collaboration with the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and the center to develop the greenhouse technology. In the New River Valley, RedSun Farms has benefited from consulting with the Virginia Tech experts in controlled environment agriculture. Up Interstate 81, Shenandoah Growers, located in Harrisonburg, has also benefited from the increased partnership with Virginia Tech and the center.
The Virginia Initiative, Growth Opportunities in Virginia, or GO Virginia, and the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission are also investing in the growth area of controlled environment agriculture. Each of these partnerships further increases fresh and local food access across Virginia to all communities.
Industry-driven research and community outreach
All the research at the center is driven by the needs and requests of local farmers with the goal of economic development in mind. In true Virginia Cooperative Extension fashion, instructional days are traditionally held to teach farmers how to achieve optimal results with these cutting-edge methods.
“Our research depends on the demand of the local farmers,” Zhou said. “If there’s a crop they don’t know how to grow in this system, such as micro tomatoes, we show local farmers at our facilities. They can come and see what we do rather than just talking about it.”
Farmers aren’t the only ones who see or tour the facilities. K-12 students take field trips to the IALR and the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center, where they can see firsthand the variety of academic fields it takes to tackle the challenge of feeding people in the future.
The future of agriculture and expanding our food supply to meet food demands relies on advanced and innovative technologies and partnerships. Virginia Tech prides itself in its ability to assemble teams from diverse disciplines and backgrounds to solve complex problems that have global-scale implications. Solutions to these complex problems can only be developed by working across the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines.
The translation of fundamental and applied research into practical, transforming uses with economic impact is part of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station mission. The Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center is one of the Virginia Tech SmartFarm Innovation Network research areas within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture.
Engineers help design and build hydroponic systems that grow healthier food quicker from anywhere. Aquaculture provides high-protein food and feed additives. Farmers grow the plants and raise livestock.
“More and more people are involved in this industry because we have to feed more people with less space,” Zhou said. “This is not science fiction — this is reality.”