Urban farming is on the rise. More than 800 million people practice some form of urban farming, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2017, the World Health Organization predicts that the majority of people around the world will call a city their home. In fact, the U.N. further predicts that by 2050, urban populations will increase by 2.5 billion people. With significantly fewer people living in rural areas, the demand for urban-produced food will become heavier and heavier. And with more people moving into a smaller living area, a pressurized space crunch seems fated.
On top of that, more consumers are hungering for locally produced food. Customers want to know where the food is coming from, how it got to them and how it was grown. That renewed focus on shipping and growing methods has led to a significant uptick in the production of local food.
What does this all mean for agriculture?
It means Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) in urban areas is going to be of tantamount importance. One of the companies currently pushing the envelope of urban CEA is BrightFarms, a New York based growing operation with facilities operating or planned in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Oklahoma, Illinois, Washington D.C. and New York.
Graham Tucker is the Director of Agriculture for BrightFarms a position he has held for about 18 months. He is currently located out of the Yardley, Pennsylvania facility where he oversees the entire production process.
I am responsible for assuring that all crop cultural requirements are attained, or maintained, to maximize crop quality, yield and ultimately revenue. I work closely with the BrightFarms growing team to achieve our collective goal of maximizing yield per square foot of greenhouse production area. I am also constantly looking out for potential new product lines that can benefit our production processes, promote quality or provide our clients with new product options,” Tucker says.
BrightFarms’ clients are supermarkets. Most of the facilities the company constructs, and then operates, are growing produce for companies like Schnuck Markets (St. Louis, Mo.) or Giant Food Stores (Washington D.C.). Because BrightFarms is growing in different geographical regions, with different pest problems and climates, each facility has to be customized to its surrounding environment. The greenhouses are designed around a single model which can then be altered to accommodate structural changes.
For Tucker, that means he’s constantly facing a new problem. His focus has to alternate between the macro (how to develop a standard greenhouse system which can be easily altered for drastically different environments) and the micro (monitoring day-to-day production in a facility).
“My typical day involves: handling the day-to-day production and growing responsibilities for our Pennsylvania facility, to working with our development team to design a standard production model for future greenhouses. In short I get to observe and direct the daily growing for a first of its kind, highdensity production system for hydroponic baby greens production as well as work with the BrightFarms team and dedicated vendors to hone our existing system and design a better system for the future,” Tucker says.
He adds that his job is “fast paced and exciting.”
Looking back, moving forward
Tucker has been growing professionally for 17 years. He received a degree in Entomology and Plant Pathology from the University of Delaware. He then spent about ten years working near Cleveland, Ohio, growing annuals and perennials. Tucker also spent time working in Buffalo, N.Y. growing hydroponic tomatoes. When the opportunity arose to move closer to his family, while getting back into strict food production, Tucker leapt at the opportunity.
“As I spent more time in floriculture, I saw the need of our world changing a bit, shifting from flowers to food. The move made perfect sense to me,” he says. “When BrightFarms came along, I was very aligned with what they were trying to do. I believed in their direction. It was a good cultural fit.”
Making the jump from floriculture to agriculture was surprisingly quick for Tucker. The facility where he worked in Cleveland was heavily automated, which gave him experience with advanced growing technology. That experience aided his transition because BrightFarms employs mostly cutting-edge growing systems and technology.
“The fundamentals of growing vine crops are altogether similar to what you see in the floriculture world,” he says. “You have to figure out the nuances: how to irrigate, how frequently to irrigate, crop maintenance issues. But pest management is very similar, using a biological base in an IPM program. You’re applying similar concepts across both worlds.”
Tucker believes that field production of agriculture will never be totally replaced by Controlled Environment Agriculture, but CEA could supplement traditional production in a myriad of exciting, and necessary, ways.
“I look forward to expanding into new crops for hydroponic production. I see tremendous potential for local year round produce production using CEA techniques in untapped markets. I look forward to being a part of that development,” he says.
Over time, he says, CEA will prove to be a more sustainable production system. He believes that CEA will be implemented in different tiers, though. In areas that are particularly inhospitable, CEA will be tech-heavy by necessity. Growers will need to control, with more precision, all of the aspects of growing including temperature, light needs and pest control. In areas that sport more welcoming environments the need for control and technology will occur on a smaller scale.
“I see CEA growing," Tucker says. "It’s the way of the future.”