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Chester County Press

Group developing initiative to locate global indoor ag center in Kennett Township

02/21/2017 10:59AM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

Last year, on this side of the world, several Kennett Township residents were in the beginning stages of forming the mission of the township's new Sustainable Development Office (SDO), intended to provide the township with economic opportunities, while maintaining responsible growth.
At about the same time, in another part of the world -- Dubai, India, to be precise -- the Pegasus Agriculture Group, a world-wide leader in hydroponic [indoor] agriculture, was looking to enter the U.S. marketplace by announcing its intention to support a major public-private initiative to develop a global indoor agriculture production, research, training and innovation center on the East Coast.
How these two factions connected was the merging of like-minded ideas, and what they expect to create together, with the help of area colleges and universities -- may someday bring the indoor agriculture industry -- and the world -- to Kennett Township.
Last month in another part of the world, they came together.
On the heels of strong support from the local mushroom industry and local leaders, SDO member Michael Guttman -- who heads the township's indoor agriculture initiative -- gave a presentation on Jan. 25 at the second annual Indoor Ag-Con in Japan in Singapore that offered Kennett Township as a logical choice for that planned center to be located.
The numbers Guttman provided at the conference clearly support such an initiative. The mushroom growing industry is not only the key economic driver of the local community, but some would say it is its lifeblood, and for good reason: southern Chester County is the largest indoor agriculture center in the United States; it produces 50 percent of the annual mushroom crop in the United States; and it distributes 1.5 million pounds of product across the nation every day, and more than 500 million pounds of produce a year. Translated to dollars and cents, that's a $500 million-a-year industry, with a local, yearly impact of about $2.6 billion.
Mahmood Almas, Pegasus' founder and chairman, called the township's initiative to develop a world-class indoor agriculture hub "visionary, but eminently practical."
"That's because Kennett, unlike most other areas, can leverage the extensive infrastructure of its historic indoor agriculture industry," he said. "That makes all the difference to Pegasus."
The first conversations that ultimately led to the township's potential partnership with the Pegasus Group began in two places: on the township's drawing table for its future, and in New York City. In its discussions of future economic development in the township, the SDO realized that it needed to develop a new economic model -- one that explored ways of bringing in business opportunities along the Route 1 Corridor that would steer away from stale initiatives that would spawn even more suburban sprawl.
Guttman also attended an Indoor Ag-Con conference in New York City last fall with local mushroom industry leaders Chris Alonzo and Michael Pia, Jr., where they first began to see the potential for Kennett Township to be a world leader in the indoor agriculture market. 
"We asked, 'How do we leverage what we already have?'" Guttman said. "We have the physical infrastructure, the utilities, the zoning codes, the land use regulations, the construction and the maintenance, the cold storage, the customer relationships and the distribution," Guttman said. "It has also been proven in research and statistics that our local mushroom industry is twice as efficient as any other mushroom-growing region in the world."
Almas said that Pegasus was attracted to Kennett Township because of its proximity to world-class agriculture, engineering and business schools. On Jan. 31, deans from Delaware State University, Lincoln University, the University of Delaware, the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore and Penn State-Great Valley were invited to the township, in an effort to partner with the township on its commitment to indoor agriculture.
Pegasus is just one of many private and public entities that have expressed interest in participating in the initiative. With "Turn on the Light and Grow Green" serving as the presentation's slogan, the event introduced deans to the idea of transforming the Kennett Square area from the mushroom capitol of the world to the global indoor agricultural hub of the world. The presentation also included a site visit to Pietro Industries' state-of-the-art mushroom-growing facility in the township.
Among the many talking points discussed during the presentation was the possibility of using the planned research center as a springboard to diversify into the year-round growth, marketing and distribution of niche products, such areas as vegetables, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals, as well as the potential of producing "super food,"  that may be cultivated to provide more nutrients.
"Even if we limited our vision to bringing in one niche market product, that becomes an economic growth path for the entire community," Guttman said. "Route 1 could become an indoor ag corridor with a research center, with production facilities for various niche products. Right now, there is no center for this, and if anyone's going to develop it in the United States, it's going to be Kennett Township. It could create a critical mass for pushing forward technology, standards, and marketing, and building on the infrastructure we already have."
For now, the concept of establishing an indoor agricultural center in Kennett Township remains merely a great idea for now, but Guttman said that the township is continuing to work with Pegasus to move from ideas to possibility.
"We very much appreciate the active and public support of Kennett's initiative by Pegasus, a highly respected global leader in indoor agriculture," Guttman said. "In particular, we appreciate how our initiative ties in with Pegasus's global vision of creating a world-wide network of environmentally and economically sustainable indoor agriculture communities to ensure food security.
"Working with Pegasus and our other partners, our initiative can hopefully serve as a blueprint for developing a network of similar indoor agriculture hubs all around the world."
To learn more about Kennett Township's commitment to indoor agriculture, e-mail [email protected]., or call the township's Sustainable Development Office at 610-388-1300.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected].