Controlled environment agriculture leaders see legislative updates and regulatory changes as key ways to help the expanding industry deliver local, healthy foods that also offer nutritional, environmental and economic benefits.
Every farm bill title should be evaluated for how well it addresses CEA, whether it is conservation, research or loan programs, said Tom Stenzel, executive director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Alliance.
Stenzel, the former president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, was on the front lines when fruits and vegetables wanted inclusion in the farm bill — not within Title I commodity programs, but as a recognition of the need for research and loan financing that supports the industry.
“We don’t necessarily want direct subsidies,” Stenzel said. But by evaluating how indoor agriculture can be included in the farm bill, Stenzel said Congress can invest in more research and development as well as address many pressing concerns related to improving sustainability. “Really, this is more the intellectual opportunity to look at each title and say, 'Where does indoor agriculture fit?'”
The 2018 farm bill established USDA's Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. Stenzel said the office's creation was an important first step, but more can be done as the industry gears up for the next iteration of federal support.
In a recent letter to the House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, the CEA Alliance outlined farm bill priorities including eligibility in conservation programs; increasing funding for research and extension; ensuring CEA producers are eligible for USDA Rural Development programs including loans and grants and codifying the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan program.
Stenzel said the overall cost of the industry’s requests is “not that hefty in terms of price” and they’re “not looking to take money from anybody at this point.”
Colin O’Neil, director of public policy and social impact at Bowery Farming, said codifying the COVID-inspired Food Supply Chain Guarantee Loan program at USDA would be “one kind of low-hanging fruit that we’d love to see in the next farm bill.”
O’Neil said CEAs uniquely represent the entire fresh food supply chain under one roof, doing everything from growing and harvesting to packing and shipping, which fits into the recent Biden administration focus to expand local and regional food systems.
“We’re able to ensure that more fresh food is being produced in more places all year round, which is a net benefit for the customer and the consumer, and frankly can extend shelf life, which is really important not just in building that resilience, but also addressing issues like food waste,” said O’Neil.
CEAs often locate close to distribution centers, which can greatly cut down the distance the product needs to travel. Eddy Badrina, CEO of the Texas-based vertical farming technology company Eden Green, said they’ve shrunk the distance its leafy greens travel from 1,500 miles to 1,500 feet to a neighboring Walmart distribution center. “It goes from harvest to store shelf in 48 hours,” he said, slashing food waste from 30% to 3%.
Robert Bonnie, USDA's undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation, told Agri-Pulse on the sidelines of the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting in April that the department would “welcome the conversation” to see how CEAs can fit into the conservation programs funded in the farm bill and whether regulatory changes are needed.
“There may be things that we could do with conservation dollars that could have an enormous impact on clean water and clean air. Sometimes our conservation practices aren’t tailored to be able to meet those producers' and landowners’ needs,” Bonnie of the CEA industry.
Traditional commodity producers can apply for conservation funds to idle land or conserve water, but CEAs currently don’t qualify. Badrina explained many of the goals of conservation programs are the baseline for CEAs. Eden Green uses just 3 gallons of water to produce a head of lettuce, roughly 90% less than a field-grown farm.
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“From a conservation perspective, I cannot stress enough how sustainable we are in terms of water usage and also in terms of energy usage,” Badrina said. But they can’t tap into the farm bill conservation funds to be rewarded for their actions.
Badrina added CEA takes the best parts of greenhouses, which uses the free energy of sunlight and combines it with the vertical density of an indoor vertical farm. Unlike some indoor farms that require 100% artificial light, CEAs utilize 80-90% of natural sunlight and only require complementary grow lights.
While CEA-grown produce only represents 2-3% of the entire market, Badrina sees the industry rapidly growing, especially with many of the environmental issues facing the leafy green regions of California and Arizona.
The Specialty Crop Research Initiative was an important opportunity to fund expansion of funding in recent farm bills, and the CEA Alliance wants research prioritized around innovation and new technology. By maintaining a flexible governance structure for the initiative, CEA Alliance said funding can address new and emerging challenges in the specialty crop sector.
Badrina said Eden Green does not use migrant workers, but instead has hired 50 full-time employees who have health benefits. “These are your next-door neighbors who are planting, monitoring, harvesting and packing your food that you’re going to eat in 48 hours. It’s a marked difference from what goes on in California and Arizona,” Badrina said.
O’Neil said state and local support for the industry has grown to attract CEA businesses to build locally, but he hasn't seen the same level of support at the federal level to help the industry grow.
“If we want the U.S. to remain competitive and be the global leader in fresh food production, then I think it’s high time for the federal government to put some skin in the game and be part of this conversation,” O’Neil said.
“While we are growing and scaling both as a company and as an industry, I worry that we're not scaling at a pace to keep up with the magnitude of the challenges that we're going to face,” he added. “And a lot of that results from greater uncertainty and unreliability given supply chain disruptions and the climate crisis.”
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