The progression of modern gardening from a home-based, hobbyist pursuit to full-scale commercial agricultural can be attributed to several factors. For starters, rapid technological advancements in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) equipment are making large-scale crop production possible for the first time, on both logistical and economic fronts. Secondly, facets of the CEA movement—such as urban agriculture—infuse farming operations with both societal and environmental awareness. It goes without saying, notions of “sustainable agriculture” are popular for political, moral, and ecological reasons. Finally, the USDA’s proposed “Urban Agriculture Act” not only legitimizes CEA in the eyes of the mainstream, it sets forth to subsidize and support the industry in a way that stimulates rapid business development.
As the CEA industry continues to grow—as seen with the multi-million dollars deals being struck with such company frontrunners as Plenty—it brings with it the need for qualified employees. However, due to the novelty of modern gardening on an industrial scale, as well as the industry’s roots in the shady confines of hobbyist indoor growing, there is a slim talent pool available for CEA businesses. Moreover, those traditional farming professionals who are adept at mono-crop, large-scale field growing have a hard time transitioning into the technology savvy, specialized arenas of modern gardening.
While several highly accredited universities such as UC Davis, Purdue University, and Cornell offer intensive coursework in CEA, only a couple offer specific CEA degree programs (including The University of Arizona and Santa Fe Community College). To help us get a better understanding of what exactly a dedicated CEA program entails, Maximum Yield reached out to Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) for insights into their two-year associate's degree program. Professor Charlie Shultz, a highly-accomplished aquaponics horticulturist and head of the SFCC CEA program, addressed several poignant issues relating to education and the burgeoning CEA industry.
How long has the SFCC CEA degree program been in place and what was the motivation for starting it?
The program at SFCC has been in existence for five years now. The program name, originally called Greenhouse Management, was changed in 2017 to Controlled Environment Agriculture. The motivation in creating the program was to address the community demand for year-round food production. With our program, we offer specialized training for food production facilities, which addresses regional food security while producing safe food products.
What is the primary emphasis of SFCC’s CEA education?
The primary emphasis of the program is the production of both food and medicinal crops using soilless culture techniques (hydroponics and aquaponics). Also, workforce skills training is the focus of the certificate or associate degree paths we offer our students. Our program is designed to collaborate with other sustainable technology programs within our school to address food, energy, and water issues as they relate to agricultural production.
Of the many facets of the CEA industry, which would you say is lacking the most in professional help?
Systems training. CEA professionals need to have hands-on experience using a variety of systems commonly operated in urban and vertical farming. As such, the ability to troubleshoot and solve problems as they arise are unique skill sets for newly-trained students. With SFCC’s well-developed internship program, our students work as independent contractors at SFCC as well as with local industry partners, giving them real world, hands-on experience with CEA systems.
What sort of jobs are your students attaining upon graduation?
Our students have been gaining employment with greenhouse produce growing facilities, as well as medicinal crop cultivation companies. However, some of SFCC’s graduates have started their own urban agriculture businesses and a small percentage pursue higher education at Universities.
How important is technology to the CEA movement and how is the CEA program at SFCC addressing this notion?
Students need more than just a green thumb to participate in this growing field. They also need to be technically inclined. For starters, HVAC skills will continue to be in high demand. Also, research will continue into energy and water conservation, with new technology being developed to help lessen carbon footprints from the intensification of food production. At SFCC we are currently running two models that utilize vertical space in shipping containers—using both aquaponics and conventional hydroponic systems. These operations give students some good experience with current CEA technologies pertaining to lighting, air quality, and fertigation systems.
Would you say the program at SFCC is more involved with community-based agricultural efforts and programs than larger universities?
Yes! Our mission is to “Empower Students and Strengthen Community.” To this end, we work with indigenous communities and schools to promote CEA awareness for entrepreneurship and food security purposes. Also, we are in the process of developing a continuing education program revolved around all aspects of CEA for the local agriculture community. Finally, SFCC is partnered with community organizations to develop food initiatives based on an open door policy for our operations in the spreading of CEA awareness.
How would you say the degree program at SFCC promotes notions of environmental awareness that comes hand-in-hand with urban agriculture?
SFCC is involved in environmentalism through our CEA coursework with emphasis on sustainable agriculture, as well as community and state outreach programs. To illustrate, populations of New Mexico, like most states, are concentrated in urban centers. As such, most food in Santa Fe is imported from long distances—oftentimes from ecologically unsustainable farming operations. SFCC’s CEA program trains students to produce food in sustainable fashions directly within urban centers, such as Santa Fe. Since the program was established in 2013, many local urban agriculture businesses have opened both in greenhouse and indoor environments. Moreover, SFCC’s program has been deeply involved in the development of Santa Fe city policy as it relates to urban agriculture.
How important is CEA production to the food supply in the Santa Fe region?
It is very important. CEA crop production gives us the ability to work around environmental constraints in the procurement of fresh food. Living at approximately 7,000 feet of elevation creates a limited growing season in Santa Fe without CEA controls in place. Also, poor soils and lack of clean water obstruct food production in this region, as well as many places in the US. To this end, CEA ensures clean, safe food products that more consumers are demanding. On a larger scale, as climate change patterns impact regions negatively, less and less land and water will be available for food production in open systems. CEA will continue to be used to address and overcome many of the food security issues we are currently experiencing.