“Is food manufactured?”
The average person would say that the produce or agricultural products they buy at the store are produced, not manufactured. With the growth of the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry, however, more and more food and agricultural products are actually the result of high-tech manufacturing processes. Innovations in indoor agriculture – and a related need for a skilled workforce –are growing globally and right here in Virginia.
At the request of Carroll County Public Schools, leadership of the Great Opportunities in Technology and Engineering Careers (GO TEC™) initiative developed a unique, five-week CEA module that allows middle school students to experience a full plant growth cycle. Introducing students to critical sectors like electrical engineering, quality control, automation and manufacturing engineering, the CEA module exemplifies the purpose and strategy of GO TEC: to proactively develop unique and memorable career exposure opportunities across strategic sectors.
The CEA module is now in middle schools in Carroll and Grayson Counties with the potential to move to other localities across the Commonwealth in the near future.
What is Controlled Environment Agriculture?
Often referred to as indoor farming or indoor agriculture, controlled environment agriculture is a unique approach to producing food. By utilizing technology to develop the ideal growing conditions, CEA is a way to create quick-to-harvest food products. Every variable – including soil composition, light type and exposure time, nutrients, etc. – is monitored and controlled.
There are many different styles of controlled environment agriculture, but most approaches can be classified as either hydroponics or aeroponics. With hydroponics, plant root systems live in soilless growing environments that introduce nutrients through a water-based mineral nutrient solution. Aeroponics, on the other hand, introduces nutrients through a mist.
Located on the IALR campus, the Virginia Tech-IALR Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center is a demonstration site, research hub and agricultural technology training center. The CEA Center features various hydroponic and soilless systems/production systems and facilities including indoor growth rooms, greenhouses, growth chambers and vertical growing racks. With this facility and research, the success of the first annual CEA Summit East hosted at IALR and the new GO TEC module, IALR is establishing itself as a global leader in the CEA industry.
“IALR and Virginia Tech are making major contributions to the continued development of the controlled environment agriculture sector by combining extensive and cutting-edge research capabilities with a focus on education and industry advancement,” said Dr. Scott Lowman, Vice President, Applied Research at IALR. “This new GO TEC module about CEA technologies and processes is a smart program considering the rapid growth of the industry – and corresponding need for a talented and trained workforce.”
A Five-Week Module
Through a collaborative, hub-and-spoke model that involves K-12 school systems, higher education and industry, GO TEC provides real-world workforce training and talent development. Starting in middle school Career Connections Labs and continuing through high school, dual enrollment and post-secondary programs, GO TEC engages students in hands-on learning in high-demand career pathways.
Most of GO TEC’s other modules, which include content about industries like welding, precision machining, cybersecurity and mechatronics, are one-week introductions. The new CEA program, on the other hand, extends for five weeks.
“The idea is that students can participate in a full growth cycle from seeding the nursery to harvest within a grading period of a class,” said Jake Taylor, Technical and Training Manager for GO TEC. “In five weeks, you can go from planting the seed to eating the salad.”
The project starts with students placing lettuce seeds in a small nursery environment. Approximately one week later, students prepare the nutrient solution, configure the light and pump cycles and transplant the budding plants from the nursery into the growing racks. Over the next several weeks, students learn about the importance of equipment calibration while monitoring pH and electrical conductivity levels – two key indicators of plant health and growth. Depending on the goals of the instructor, students can conduct experiments for light cycle hours and nutrient solution variations – learning about quality control in the process.
Participants learn about agricultural technology and life sciences manufacturing while seeing the connections and technological integrations with other career sectors, each of which are represented by their own stand-alone GO TEC module. Some of those industries include:
- Electrical engineering
- Quality control inspection (metrology)
- Manufacturing engineering
A growing Sector in Virginia and Beyond
Agriculture and manufacturing remain two of the largest industry sectors in Virginia, and controlled environment agriculture combines the two. Virginia leaders have championed the controlled environment agriculture industry as a target sector, successfully recruiting multiple companies to locate in Virginia over the years.
New Jersey-based AeroFarms now operates one of the world’s largest aeroponic smart farms in the Cane Creek Centre here in Danville-Pittsylvania County. The company credited the presence of IALR as one of the reasons it chose to locate in Southern Virginia. AeroFarms has announced plans to create 166 jobs and the capacity to produce 3 million pounds of leafy greens annually. In September 2022, it was announced that Plenty Unlimited Inc. would invest $300 million to build the world’s largest indoor vertical farming campus just outside of Richmond, creating 300 jobs. Other CEA companies are operating or growing in Virginia, combining technology with agriculture and creating quality jobs in the process.
While the mechanics and styles can vary from company to company, controlled environment agriculture inherently involves technology and automation – two skills that are core to the mission of GO TEC. This new CEA module exposes middle schoolers to the career possibilities – and the required skillsets – in the rapidly-growing sector, improving Virginia’s position as a destination of choice for controlled environment agriculture.
“Southern Virginia is leading an industrial revolution as agriculture and manufacturing intersect to provide opportunities for a better tomorrow through the integration of technologies,” said Linda Green, Vice President, Economic Development at IALR and Executive Director of the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance. “By combining the best of STEM training for manufacturing with general agriculture training, this new GO TEC module is a great resource for workforce development – one that I will promote to prospective companies looking to locate in Southern Virginia.”
Growing GO TEC as a Means to Nimbly Scale Talent Pathways
What started as a pilot program with just a few modules in two school districts, GO TEC has grown significantly – both in terms of location and programs – and has positively impacted Southern Virginia over the past five years.
While staff have added modules for new industry sectors every year, the creation of the CEA module demonstrated the flexibility of the GO TEC framework. After the request from Carroll County Public Schools, GO TEC staff purchased equipment, conducted tests and prepared the module between March and August of 2022. Carroll County introduced the new module in the fall of 2022, and Grayson County implemented theirs in the spring of 2023.
“This is the first example of us looking at adopting a technology, buying something, checking it out, making sure it worked, consulting with subject matter experts and then implementing it in a classroom,” said Dr. Julie Brown, Vice President of Advanced Learning at IALR.
Backed by funding from GO Virginia and other sources, the GO TEC framework continues to move into schools across the Commonwealth. Thanks to a $3.4 million grant awarded in December 2022, GO TEC staff are being recruited in other regions of the Commonwealth and Career Connections Labs are slated to be in 50 middle schools by 2025. As the program expands, the GO TEC team has learned to balance flexibility and structure, supporting standardization of the GO TEC pathways and middle school curriculum while allowing for some flexibility and regional “flavor” to meet the needs in each region of Virginia. The development of new trainings like the CEA module exemplifies that goal of allowing industries and regions to drive the program content and growth.