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Plants growing in a greenhouse. The $9.95 million dollar grant will help researchers study controlled environment agriculture, including greenhouses and high tunnels.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.— Alabama Cooperative Extension System specialists David Cline and Jeremy Pickens are part of a team receiving a $9.95 million grant, recently awarded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Cline and Pickens will join seven other Auburn University researchers as they seek to strategically transform controlled environment agriculture (CEA) in a low-carbon world. Additional co-investigators hail from Michigan State, University of Florida, Tuskegee University and the University of Georgia.

NIFA’s Sustainable Agriculture Systems program is awarding approximately $70 billion to sustainable agricultural projects that integrate research, education and Extension efforts. According to a USDA press release, the goal is to establish robust, resilient and climate-smart food and agricultural systems.

Alabama Extension Director Mike Phillips said it’s very exciting to see Auburn University’s proactive engagement in CEA studies.

“There are many benefits associated with CEA, from reducing the carbon footprint in the environment, addressing food insecurity throughout the year, and introducing consumers to the many fields associated with CEA,” Phillips said. “These fields include plant biology, computer science, horticulture, biosystems engineering and economics.”

Controlled Environment Agriculture

CEA is the production of food crops in greenhouses and indoor spaces—including high tunnels. This agricultural production method is facing a five-fold market size increase in the next 10 years. However, with some infrastructure improvements, it is a viable option in the continued fight to feed a rapidly growing world population.

Brendan Higgins, the project’s primary investigator and an associate professor in the Auburn College of Agriculture’s Department of Biosystems Engineering, said his initial motivation came when he saw the massive energy footprint of greenhouses and other CEA spaces.

“We hear about CEA in the news and how it is sustainable, high tech and the future of food,” Higgins said. “It is really good at a lot of things, but its massive energy use is hard to ignore. I really do hope we move the needle on that as we engage in this project. We have a lot of diverse people taking very different approaches to lowering energy use or reducing the carbon intensity of that energy use.”

Higgins said he is looking forward to seeing how these different approaches interconnect.

“From an extension point of view, I’d love to see actionable things that we can share with both growers and also with greenhouse and equipment vendors,” Higgins said.

Applicable Research

Pickens, an assistant Extension horticulture professor, said the research conducted over the next four years will make a difference for many growers in the Southeast.

“People come to me as they are considering building greenhouses and high tunnels,” Pickens said. “Right now, we make recommendations that work in other areas of the country. Through our research, we should be able to determine the most energy-efficient greenhouse systems and structures for growers in our region.”

Pickens said he is looking forward to passing that knowledge along to individuals he works with on a regular basis.

Cline, an associate Extension aquaculture and fisheries professor, said his project focus will be developing and refining modules to educate high school students about controlled environment agriculture.

“My role will be to help develop and refine education modules to train high school students and producers about various aspects of CEA,” Cline said. “I am most excited about the creation of virtual teaching products including interactive teaching modules, a virtual greenhouse tour and a gamified greenhouse management simulation that incorporates research data generated throughout the project.”

CEA Objectives

The team’s long-term goal is to transform CEA strategically, managerially, technologically and socially. This will position it as a viable food production system capable of producing sufficient and nutritious foods within the low-carbon economy.

Long-term project objectives include

  • Reduce the demand for heating and cooling in CEA
  • Improve efficiency of CEA climate control
  • Lower the carbon intensity of resource inputs
  • Shift consumer and producer behavior surrounding CEA products and practices

“These research investments will help transform the U.S. food and agricultural system to increase production in sustainable ways, as the United Nations project a world population of 9.8 billion by 2050,” said Acting NIFA Director Dionne Toombs. “These visionary projects will improve the supply of affordable, safe, nutritious and accessible agricultural products, while fostering economic development and rural prosperity in America.”

More Information

Learn more about USDA’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems program area at www.nifa.usda.gov/. Learn more about Alabama Extension researchers and their ongoing work at www.aces.edu.

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