Kennett Township >> The Southern Chester County region has officially been found to be an ideal location for a center of excellence for indoor agriculture.
“Indoor agriculture,” also known as indoor farming and vertical agriculture, is simply the large-scale growing of food plants indoors.
This is a burgeoning trend around the world, but it’s long-familiar thing to area residents. Every time you drive past a mushroom house, you’re seeing a place where indoor farming happens.
Michael Guttman, director of Kennett Township’s the office of sustainable development, noticed this and wondered if the infrastructure and knowledge the mushroom industry had to offer could be used to make the region a center of indoor farming for a wider variety of crops.
Part of the ongoing effort to explore that idea was the presentation at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors of a study done by Eric W. Stein, president of the Media-based Barisoft Consulting Group, that looked into the feasibility of establishing a center of excellence (COE) in the area.
As Stein explained them, centers of excellence exist in many industries and play many roles. They provide typically provide leadership and advocacy for the industry, identify best practices, offer services, do applied research, workforce training, and keep track of information in the field.
The township voted a year ago to contribute $13,383 to the cost of the feasibility study, and New Garden Township and the borough of Kennett Square contributed to it as well, in the end paying a total of about $18,000.
Stein said the study involved interviewing stakeholders, reviewing more than 60 survey responses, collecting data at indoor agriculture conference and meetings, and analyzing a wide range of other reports and studies.
According to Stein, broad trends in agriculture favor the development of indoor farming. Trends in population, water use, availability of usable land, costs to grow food and climate change all will contribute to price rises and scarcity, he said.
Traditional or “open-field” farming is reaching its production limits, according to Stein, and has drawbacks such as release of pesticides and other pollutants into the environment.
Indoor farms have taken advantage of advances in lighting technology, environmental controls, robotics and other factors. The food grown can be pesticide-free, organic, free of the disruptions of climate change, droughts, and other problems with outdoor farming. The farms can be located closer to population centers, reducing transportation costs, and premium quality can raise profits to where indoor farmed produce can compete with traditional organics.
Stein said the study showed Kennett Township was “one of the best places to to put the center of excellence.” There’s a 100-year-old industry here based on it, local and state governments are supportive, numerous colleges and universities offer expertise.
Once established, Stein said, a COE could serve as an international hub for indoor agricultural training, research and development, investment, and advocacy. It could also serve as a knowledge base for the industry along with colleges and universities in the area.
A COE could promote economic development generally in the region, and in particular could help mushroom growers diversify into other areas.
Stein said if local officials wanted to organize a COE for indoor farming in the region, the next steps would be to develop a communications plan about it, work on the design and implementation, attract supporters, and begin developing related businesses.