New Mexico State University is partnering with Tri-State Generation and Transmission to join the Electric Power Research Institute’s National Demonstration and Monitoring of Indoor Food Production Facilities research project to explore indoor agriculture concepts.
The project will use a container-based farm to study the energy, water and sustainability impact of indoor farming, as well as explore opportunities to foster workforce and economic development in Cibola County, N.M.
Working with NMSU Grants and NMSU’s Center of Excellence in Sustainable Food and Agricultural Systems, Tri-State and EPRI will install an energy- and water-efficient shipping container-scale farm on the Grants campus to identify value-added alternatives for sustainable agriculture production in the region.
Created in 2019 by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislature to drive innovation and build closer links between research, communities and industry, CESFAS will direct the project’s research efforts with an interdisciplinary team of faculty members from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, College of Engineering and NMSU Grants.
Container farms enable food production in small, tightly controlled environments and provide a solution to food deserts – areas that grapple with limited access to affordable, nutritious foods. They also offer the potential to promote the integration of clean and energy efficient technologies for an historically energy intensive industry. The farm has the capability to produce lettuce, kale, arugula herbs, flowers, carrots, radishes and other crops.
“Indoor farming offers the year-round ability to produce healthy food for the community while using water and energy in a more efficient manner,” said Rob Chapman, senior vice president of Energy Delivery and Customer Solutions at EPRI. “EPRI’s indoor food production research offers numerous educational opportunities for project collaborators, university students, the local community, collaborating utilities and the next generation of farmers to enhance food availability.”
Tri-State is providing the funding for this EPRI container-farm project. Tri-State also is providing a one-time grant that will cover costs associated with the indoor food production system and related analysis.
“Tri-State is finding innovative ways to leverage our relationship with EPRI to benefit our members’ communities,” Tri-State CEO Duane Highley said. “Programs such as Farm in a Box bring new educational and economic opportunities to New Mexico communities, including those impacted by the energy transition.”
The 40-foot container, valued at approximately $150,000, is equipped with energy efficient LED lighting, efficiency cooling, integrated climate control and plumbing infrastructure needed to grow crops inside the container on a year-round basis. Since 2015, EPRI has been examining the operational, technological, sustainability and environmental characteristics for indoor agriculture by installing container farms across the United States and assessing their performance with local electricity providers, academic institutions and other community organizations.
Once in operation, the container farm will provide educational opportunities for NMSU students in disciplines that include horticulture, engineering and business. It also will generate fresh produce for residents of Cibola County, where 29 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We’re looking forward to working with Tri-State,” NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu said. “They will be an important partner in our efforts to look for new options in both energy efficiency as well as economic development for our state.”
Over a three-year research period, the project will address issues related to food security, workforce development, job creation and economic development.
“This project will establish a container farm on the NMSU Grants campus that will empower students to grow food for their communities, benefit from experiential learning and curricular enhancement, and gain supervised work experience,” said Jay Lillywhite, CESFAS co-director and NMSU professor.
The research team will spend the first year of the program learning the operations of the container farm, which features an energy efficient vertical hydroponics system. The team also will develop specific knowledge in the areas of efficient operation and production protocols for the container farm.
During the second year of the project, the researchers will examine potential advancements in food crop selection, technological advancement in sensor technology and additional workforce development opportunities. In the third year, they will then focus on the economic sustainability of container farms, the integration of solar energy and battery storage, and improving container farming economies of scale.
“The project has excellent potential to address social, environmental and economic facets of sustainability and become a resource-efficient model for urban agriculture, provided that renewable energy can be incorporated from the beginning,” College of ACES Dean Rolando A. Flores said.