Cornell CALS – The Future of CEA and Urban Farming

Neil Mattson, CEA Director & Associate Professor, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University

As we gear up to the second Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit on June 19-20 in New York, we found out what the summit’s Research Partner Cornell University has been working on, with insights from Neil Mattson, CEA Director & Associate Professor, School of Integrative Plant Science.

What’s been your focus this year about CEA and Urban Farming?

A key project has been a collaboration between our CEA group and Cornell economists Charles Nicholson and Miguel Gómez. Together we’ve produced a report focused on the economic and environmental footprint and viability to scale urban farming.

We looked at scenarios of producing leafy greens locally in New York and Chicago. For each city our three scenarios were:

  1. Field production in CA and shipping to the city
  2. Greenhouse production in a hypothetical facility with 1-acre crop canopy
  3. Vertical farm production in a hypothetical warehouse facility with 1-acre crop canopy

In the New York City scenarios we considered CEA production in the middle of the city and, in the Chicago scenario, peri-urban CEA production about 50 miles outside the city.

The comparison led to some interesting discussion points around bottlenecks and priorities for the sector to scale. I’ll share more on that below, and in my presentation at the summit.

Aside from that important study, from a plant-science standpoint, Cornell CALS has also continued its work to improve energy-efficient leafy greens, tomatoes and strawberries using LED lighting strategies and CO2 enrichment to photosynthesize through its Greenhouse Lighting and Systems Engineering (GLASE) research efforts.

We’re also collaborating with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to understand the nutritional content of CEA-grown kale vs field-grown kale.

How do Greenhouse and Plant Factory compare economically with open field farming?

In terms of economics, our study found it was cheapest to produce in a field and ship thousands of miles with a landed cost of $3 per kilo of lettuce. The New York city greenhouse scenario cost $8 per kilo, including production and short shipping distance. Plant factory was slightly cheaper. In peri-urban Chicago, with cheaper land rates, greenhouse production gave a cost of $7 per kilo. Again, the plant factory cost came in slightly cheaper.

The lower plant factory cost in both scenarios unlocks potential opportunities in urban areas where a high land cost is a significant contributor to the overall cost. Plant factory is more efficient use of land due to its vertical stacking, with a smaller footprint overall.

Labor costs are a significant 50% of the high cost in our un-automated CEA scenarios. As a follow up to this study we’re looking at a scenario with automated production for seeding plants, moving channels through the greenhouse and harvest. We can reduce labor cost by two thirds to three quarters, bringing us much closer to field production costs overall.

Another option is to move to cheaper land within a couple hundred miles outside the city. In this scenario we can reduce cost of production by a further $1 per kilo. Taking automation and site selection into account, CEA greenhouse production down to $4 per kilo may be possible, which is very close to field-grown and cuts 2,800 miles from transportation.

In all scenarios, CEA was much more water-efficient than any other field, of course really important in this time of climate change. Hydroponic systems are far more water-efficient by design, with water recapture and reuse.

Any surprises in the report?

Field production remains the most inexpensive way to grow crops, around half the cost of indoor even with shipping included. Grown close to the consumer in the right market the economics of urban farming makes sense, but if the goal is simply to create the cheapest produce then the field is still the way to do that.

One surprise was that in field production, transportation costs are more expensive than the actual growing and harvesting of the produce in the field. This is where CEA has the potential to make an impact, if we can overcome the other barriers.

Another pleasant surprise was that for the greenhouse scenario in New York, its energy demand and global warming potential was very close to that of field. For this scenario we were buying electricity and gas direct from the grid, not using any self-contained renewable energy source. So this is really promising, to see the impact of technology (for example energy efficient lighting) and suggests greenhouse operations using renewable energy, combined heat and power, or waste heat may already have a lower carbon footprint than field leafy greens.

Which crops will be next for indoor?

Currently, successful plant factories mostly produce leafy greens and herbs – these are highly perishable items so consumers place a higher value on freshly harvested local products. These products have quick turns with many production cycles per year and a higher yield per square foot.

There’s definitely opportunity for more CEA produce in a food supply chain where field crops are at risk of disruption for weeks at a time due to weather events or food safety issues like we had with field Romaine lettuce last fall.

I do think it will be a challenge to move past leafy greens, although there is nice research coming through on tomatoes and strawberries. Currently we can’t match the same productivity of lettuce with strawberries so these will stay a premium priced product for a while yet. Before we start to see fruiting crops I think we’ll see a wider variety of leafy greens – kale, arugula, mustard etc – and growing consumer interest in a more diverse selection of leafy greens.

What barriers or bottlenecks did the study highlight for the industry to overcome?

For me as a researcher it’s really useful to spotlight where we need to focus time (and investment) to improve CEA efficiency. The good news is that energy is becoming less of a bottleneck, thanks to positive advances in this area.

Labor is now the major bottleneck, so the work being done currently in automation is really on point. CEA requires a trained workforce of highly skilled master growers and directors of production, and there we have a shortage. There are simply not enough people with the right mix of academic background and real-world experience so currently indoor operators rely on scavenging of workforce from other sectors.

Cornell and other institutions are making advances in understanding this need. At Plant Science at Cornell we’re seeing a 50% increase in Plant Science students in the last 5 years with a great diversity and gender balance within that too.

The Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit is next week on June 19-20. What will be your main objective at the meeting?

Firstly, insights. As a researcher I need to be ahead of the cutting edge with the questions we ask, so it’s important to see industry trends and the technologies being used, thoughts around new genetics and technology to make improvements faster, automation and reducing labor cost as priorities, and to hear what other people see as the priorities and key areas of progress.

And then of course, to expand our network and opportunities for collaboration. The type of research we do, it really helps to ground it in real world production, doing research to help more efficient development of the industry and expand that Rolodex of indoor ag colleagues to pick their brains as we progress our findings.

The study discussed here is a chapter in the forthcoming book Food Supply Chains in Cities: Modern Tools for Circularity and Sustainability, (E. Aktas and M. Bourlakis, eds.), Palgrave Macmillan. A condensed version of the findings are available online at:

Neil will be hosting a roundtable discussion on ‘Economics of Scaling: How can we overcome the bottlenecks to scale up indoor farming?’ and will join the panel discussion on ‘discuss ‘The Economic Footprint of Scaling Urban Controlled Environment Agriculture’ on June 20 at the Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit in New York.

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