The Future of FarmingMay 2022
Studying the Benefits of Indoor Agriculture
Agriculture has long played an essential role, not only as part of the culture in the Suwannee Valley, but also in the local economy. It generates about $123 million annually in the four counties SVEC serves, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now, research at a new indoor facility is exploring the potential to grow large-scale crops throughout the year and how that could shape food production as well as the use of valuable resources. In fact, compared to traditional farming, indoor agriculture can use significantly less water while growing more produce per square foot.
The heart of the local effort is happening at the University of Florida North Florida Research & Education Center-Suwannee Valley, where a 40-foot-long temperature-controlled shipping container is equipped with plumbing and energy-efficient lighting. The goal of the effort is to test farming methods like hydroponics — where plants are grown in a mix of nutrient solutions rather than in soil — and the use of artificial light to grow plants efficiently indoors. The produce grown will be donated to the Florida Gateway Food Bank in Lake City.
The project is supported by Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative, Seminole Electric Cooperative, the Electric Power Research Institute, and the University of Florida North Florida Research & Education Center- Suwannee Valley.
“Because of the importance of agriculture in our area, we were grateful for the chance to play a role in bringing this project here,” says Mike McWaters, CEO of Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative. “While it’s true that indoor agriculture will never take the place of traditional farming methods, it may prove to be a way to raise crops that ordinarily could not be grown here, certainly not on a year-round basis. That could prove to be a boon to local farming families, many of whom are members of our cooperative.”
Looking to the Future
One goal of the project is to further the understanding of the operational, technological, economic, sustainability and environmental characteristics of this type of farming. Also, the research will evaluate indoor agriculture’s potential impact on the electric grid. For example, the project will study the use of LED lights in shipping containers to grow food and how that correlates to energy efficiency.
Indoor farming can offer healthy, locally grown produce year-round in any community, including disadvantaged neighborhoods, while increasing yield, decreasing the amount of energy required for transportation, and using water more efficiently, says Rob Chapman, senior vice president of Energy Delivery and Customer Solutions for the Electric Power Research Institute.
“We’re proud to participate in this project, working with collaborators, the local community, and the next generation of farmers to improve sustainability efforts,” he says.
Bob Hochmuth, assistant director at the Research and Education Center and regional extension agent for the University of Florida, says the new indoor agriculture facility is the southernmost of 15 scattered across the country.
Hochmuth grew up on a farm in Maryland. He began his extension career 40 years ago and has spent 34 of those years working in the South. When the opportunity to work with commercial vegetable crops arose, he jumped at the opportunity and relocated to Florida. This new project allows him to continue his efforts to benefit the region’s agricultural community.
“I’m able to work directly with farmers to help them implement practices to improve their operations,” he says.
The research project is funded by Seminole Electric Cooperative and a grant from the Electric Power Research Institute. The life of the grant is 18 months, after which the University of Florida will be able to find other uses for the facility.
“We may change things up and experiment with light, temperature, and other kinds of produce,” Hochmuth says.
The initial crop will be kale, which was selected because it’s relatively simple to grow and more resistant to disease than other crops.
“We have a much better chance to grow the product without any other horticultural problems,” he says. “We are excited to host the facility here and SVEC has been an excellent partner to work with.”