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Chester County Press

Kennett area could be home to future indoor agriculture center, presenter says

06/12/2018 12:03PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

In a presentation before the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors on June 6, Dr. Eric W. Stein, the chief executive officer of the Barisol Consulting Group and an associate professor of business at Penn State – Great Valley, encapsulated the findings of a recently-completed feasibility report that supports making the Kennett Square area a prime candidate to be the home of a world-wide center of excellence for the study and implementation of indoor agriculture, a method of growing crops and plants entirely indoors through the use of hydroponics and artificial light.

During a 40-minute synopsis of his 200-page report, Stein discussed world trends in indoor agriculture; the feasibility of creating indoor farms, both world-wide, across the nation and regionally; their economic impact on global trends in population; and the steps needed to be taken in order to create a center for excellence in southern Chester County.

The study stems from Kennett Township's early research in indoor agriculture, begun two years ago, that explored how growing produce indoors could be leveraged against its existing indoor growing industry, as a way to position the area as a national – and potentially world-wide – hub for Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA).

“One of the things we noted was the similarity that indoor agriculture has to adapt to the mushroom industry,” said Michael Guttman, director of the township's Sustainable Development Committee and a member of the township's Indoor Agriculture Committee. “We began to think about how these two industries might come together, and particularly, how we might be able to diversify the economic base of the community, by leveraging the natural advantages we have of already being a center for the distribution and production of indoor produce.”

Guttman said that he met Stein about a year ago, and discovered that he was also studying the economic viability of indoor agriculture, which ultimately led to appointing Stein to write the feasibility study.

Combining the mushroom industry in Chester County with the idea of developing indoor agriculture is a natural partnership, Stein said.

“We saw the biggest synergies between the biggest form of indoor agriculture in the world, and what now has become a burgeoning industry in the growing of leafy greens, which are being grown indoors,” he said.

Exploring the concept of making the Kennett Square area a world leader in indoor agriculture takes a backseat to using the method to feed a growing world population. Increasingly, the future of food production, Stein said, hangs in the balance of being able to solve current and anticipated problems, chief among them finding a way to feed the 9 billion people who are expected to live on the Earth by 2050.

Stein also pointed to the impact that climate disruptions such as droughts and flooding has on growing seasons, as well as ever-increasing dilemma of getting access to land, energy and water – all of which have become increasingly fragile to environmental factors.

“We need to be more efficient and sustainable,” Stein said. “We need to maximize the use of existing space. Production can be localized in urban and peri-urban areas, and we can start to grow food with less water and no pesticides. Technology is making it possible for us to do that more effectively.”

The advantages of indoor agricultural growing centers, Stein said, are many: They use no pesticides and only 10 percent of the water that is used in conventional farming; it is resilient to climate change; its presence is stable and it can offer premium pricing, comparable to organic produce; it allows for the use of organic seeds; it prevents ecological damage, such as nitrogen discharge that is found in conventional growing practices; and more plants can be grown per foot indoors than on open-field farms.

While the chief costs of indoor agriculture is seen in lighting, HVAC labor, indoor vertical farming can yield as much as 100 times the profits than can be made from produce grown on a traditional outdoor farm. The vertical growing concept has already drawn major interest and funding, Stein said.

“Over one half of a billion dollars has been invested in this industry in the last seven years,” he said. “A lot of folks with a lot of capital behind them are putting money into his industry. It's not just a blip or an oddball thing.”

Stein said that establishing Kennett Square as a home for a center of excellence is a “potent way to bring knowledge together” that can be used for research, infrastructure technology, establishing partnerships with universities; linking with the engineering, manufacturing and computer science industries; creating opportunities for leadership and advocacy; exploring market analysis and studying methods of improving business operations.

The Kennett Square area, Stein said, is in the right place at the right time.

“The infrastructure of cold storage, packaging and distribution of the mushroom industry is already here and steeped in the culture of the region, as well as an extensive network of roads and rail, with close proximity to urban centers and airports,” he said.

“The concept of the center of excellence hinges on the idea of bringing minds and knowledge together to accelerate growth in the field. Although there are several centers of excellence in agriculture, there is no one particular center for excellence for indoor agriculture. Hence, there is an opportunity here for us. We see this as an excellent opportunity for the industry, and for the region to brand itself as the center for this kind of knowledge.”

The feasibility study included 35 hours of interviews with local stakeholders whose ideas will be crucial to the potential center of excellence project; visits and presentations at several indoor agricultural conferences; speaking with mushroom growers and agricultural professors at nearby colleges; and distributing an online survey that gathered more opinions about establishing the Kennett Square area as a center of indoor agriculture.

Stein will also make the presentation to the Kennett Borough Council and the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors, municipalities who, along with Kennett Township, have also lent their support to the feasibility study.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].