Nearly a decade ago, the cutting-edge research at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) caught the eye of Dr. Tim Durham, Associate Professor of Crop Science at Ferrum College. At that time, he vividly recalls social media posts about IALR’s research involving the use of drones in agricultural production and monitoring.
Several years later, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his planned yearlong sabbatical at the Virginia Tech-IALR Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) Innovation Center. This academic year, however, Durham is leveraging an internal fellowship as plan B. A course release allows him to work one day a week at the CEA Innovation Center, where he assists with research projects and general operations.
“I greatly value the opportunity to work with esteemed experts in this up-and-coming field. The CEA Innovation Center is laying the groundwork for the future; I want to be inspired, to try and mirror that body and ethic of work at Ferrum College. So many stakeholders benefit – firstly my students, but also the community at-large, including teachers seeking a year-round plant curriculum, and farmers eyeing a CEA pivot.” — Dr. Tim Durham, Associate Professor of Crop Science, Ferrum College
A jack of all trades who grew up on a vegetable farm in New York – with extensive experience in agronomy (crop science) and horticulture, Durham isn’t entirely a stranger to the CEA industry. Through a grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Durham constructed a small greenhouse hydroponic lettuce system for Ferrum College students to complete practicums and learn the basics of CEA. With student help, he also sells lettuce to the campus cafeteria.
“I basically went into the hydroponic endeavor blind,” he said. “I had always been a decidedly field guy. But I found that many of the varieties and practices used in CEA were actually translatable to growing in the field. There’s a lot of surprising similarities.”
Meant to bring together academia with producers and industry, the CEA Innovation Center is a demonstration site and agricultural technology training center jointly operated by IALR and the Virginia Tech School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in partnership with the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center of Virginia Tech. With multiple greenhouses, an indoor vertical farm and hydroponics growing systems, the goal of the center is to conduct research and develop educational and extension programs to advance and promote the CEA industry.
“A couple major focus areas of the CEA Innovation Center are to advance the industry, serve as a hub for research and education and promote workforce development within the CEA sector. Using the center to provide an educator and collaborator with hands-on experience that will influence future classroom content certainly ties into those goals.” — Dr. Scott Lowman, Vice President of Applied Research at IALR
At the CEA Innovation Center, Durham is assisting staff with a variety of projects, processes and research, including preparing, maintaining, and reporting on experiments in the vertical farm and greenhouse hydroponic systems. He is also active on the outreach front. For example, Durham participated in the second annual CEA Summit East in several capacities, including: moderating a CEA in the classroom panel and serving as a graduate poster competition judge, among other duties.
Durham has also served as a co-author on a research paper published by the CEA Innovation Center team.
“The Virginia Tech-IALR CEA Innovation Center is working to identify and address the needs of the CEA industry in VA and beyond by serving as a hub for building collaborations in research, extension work, and education. Part of the Innovation Center’s outreach and education programming is to serve as a demonstration site and training center for students and professionals. Dr. Tim Durham has helped us in moving forward with our mission in all areas.” — Dr. Kaylee South, Assistant Professor of CEA at Virginia Tech
So far during his fellowship, which will continue through May 2024, Durham has already learned a lot about the “broad-based applicability of CEA.” And the knowledge he’s gathering will not only help prepare the students studying horticulture and plant sciences at Ferrum, but could be helpful for his family’s vegetable farm in New York. He makes a pilgrimage every summer to return to his roots and work in the fields. Durham’s family is exploring the addition of a small hydroponics lettuce system to diversify and provide supplementary off-season income.