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Hicks' Viewpoint: Despite setbacks, controlled environment agriculture still appetizing

Lately, I have been reflecting on the enduring proverb “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” especially with regard to the faltering field of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA).

With the recent shuttering of multiple vertical farming operations at state and national levels, there have been many discussions in local business and food production circles about this sector’s uncertain future. When Florida’s Kalera filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in April, followed by New Jersey’s AeroFarms in June, these developments fueled speculation that CEA in the U.S. is doomed to be an unviable option for sustainable local food production.

However, I believe investors have been misled to think CEA has no future in Pittsburgh or in other parts of the country. That’s because indoor food growing is part of a much larger menu of options that can still be profitable within the precepts of environmental sustainability. The companies that have so far fallen short in this space were missing an essential element in their business planning: The free use of natural sunlight to grow plants in a much less costly manner than the industry’s typical dependence on LED lighting.

Artificial lighting is by far one of a CEA company’s largest operating expenses and often a key contributor to long-term financial struggles. By contrast, large, modern greenhouses that utilize sunlight are successfully growing food at a profit around the world. It is even happening in areas at much higher latitudes than ours, and it has been happening for decades. These facilities are often able to save on heating costs as well, given the ability of sunlight to assist in heating a greenhouse on cold winter days.

The numbers and facts don’t lie regarding how unsustainable our current global food system model is, especially considering the severe impacts of climate change on America’s farms. The top five U.S. states in fruit and vegetable production are California, Washington, Florida, Arizona and Georgia — none of which are near Pennsylvania. As a result, the use of fossil fuels to transport food across the U.S., often for hundreds of miles, emits over 817 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. The related rise of extreme droughts, flooding, cold snaps and heat waves is also causing increases in crop diseases and pests, all of which can destroy entire fields and harvests. These nationwide challenges are leading to rising grocery store prices and reduced access to healthy produce right here in Pittsburgh.


But what if cities were to invest in growing food locally year-round, thereby removing a large percentage of their reliance on transportation from faraway farms? If Pittsburgh relied on modern greenhouses for more of its food production, we would eliminate much of the unpredictable weather variable in our risk models while simultaneously developing a skilled workforce whose expertise and insight can lead the way in this vital field during the coming decades.


Over the past five years, staff members of Bidwell Training Center’s Horticulture Technology program and our social enterprise, the Drew Mathieson Greenhouse, have been working diligently to plant the seeds for these kinds of sustainable solutions across western Pennsylvania. Our research and experience has cultivated partnerships to foster the growth of a local food economy that is inclusive of indoor food production, as well as a workforce trained to support its ongoing development and dependability.


Here at Bidwell Training Center, we are adding a new Urban Food Production program to train the next generation of food producers on how to grow food effectively and sustainably in both indoor and outdoor environments in our region. We are renovating our greenhouse so we can feed our community by producing high-quality, high-volume hydroponic vegetables, and we will sell this produce and other locally grown and value-added food items at our new Bidwell Urban Farm Shop. Our collaborative efforts to bolster our food system through food production and workforce training are designed to have a positive impact on our region and also to serve as a blueprint for a better way forward for sustainable agriculture nationwide.


My final takeaway for investors and policymakers in our region is simple: Not all indoor models are a financial risk. Whatever you may think of the early failures of LED-dependent CEA business models, don’t automatically decline when the next person serves up the opportunity of sustainably growing food indoors in western Pennsylvania. The fragility of our global food system is continuing its downward spiral, and it’s up to local leaders and innovators to bring new ideas to the table that will meet the food needs of our fellow Pittsburghers — especially if they’re fueled by sunlight.


Molly E. Hicks is senior director of horticulture and agriculture technology at Bidwell Training Center.

This article also appeared in the Pittsburgh Business Times.

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