The Value of Controlled Environment Agriculture Training 

The modern gardening movement is experiencing radical growth. This progress has led to the genesis of a novel industry that operates under the umbrella term “controlled environment agriculture” or CEA. Within the field of CEA are a number of sub-categories: urban agriculture, vertical farming, indoor gardening, aquaponics, and greenhouse cultivation. Controlled environment agriculture training and jobs generally applies to all of these verticals.

controlled environment agriculture training, greenhouse

The progression of modern gardening from a home-based, hobbyist pursuit to full-scale commercial agriculture jobs can be attributed to several factors. First starters, rapid technological advancements in CEA equipment are making large-scale crop production possible for the first time. Secondly, facets of the CEA movement—such as urban agriculture—infuse farming operations with both societal and environmental awareness. It goes without saying, notions of “sustainable agriculture” are popular for political, moral, and ecological reasons.

The growth of the CEA industry is explicit with  multi-million dollars deals being struck with companies like Plenty This industry expansion brings  jobs. These jobs bring the need for qualified employees with controlled environment agriculture training. However, there is a slim talent pool available for CEA businesses. Moreover, those traditional farming professionals who are adept at mono-crop, large-scale field growing have a hard time transitioning into the technology savvy, specialized arenas of modern gardening.

Interview about Controlled Environment Agriculture Training with Charlie Shultz from SFCC

controlled environment agriculture training, greenhouse

A number of highly accredited universities such as UC Davis, Purdue University, and Cornell offer controlled environment agriculture training. However, only a couple of schools currently offer specific CEA degree programs aimed at specific jobs. The University of Arizona and Sante Fe Community College are among these. To help us get a better understanding of what exactly a dedicated CEA program entails, we reached out to Sante Fe Community College for insights into their two-year, Associates Degree program. Professor Charlie Shultz is the head of the SFCC CEA program. Shultz is a highly accomplished aquaponics horticulturist. Here is what he had to say:

How long has the SFCC controlled environment training program been in place and what was the motivation for starting it?

Shultz: “The program at SFCC has been in existence now for 5 years now. The program name, originally called Greenhouse Management, was changed in 2017 to Controlled Environment Agriculture. The motivation in creating the program was to address the community demand for year-round food production. With our program, we offer specialized training for food production facilities. This practice addresses regional food security while producing safe food products.”

What is the primary emphasis SFCC’s controlled environment agriculture training?

Shultz: “The primary emphasis of the program is the production of both food and medicinal crops using soilless culture techniques (hydroponics and aquaponics). Also, work-force skills training is the focus of the Certificate or Associate Degree paths we offer our students. Our program is designed to collaborate with other sustainable technology programs within our school. These programs address food, energy, and water issues as they relate to urban agriculture production.”

Of the numerous facets of the CEA industry, which would you say is lacking the most in professional help?

Shultz: “Systems training. CEA professionals need to have hands-on experience using a variety of systems commonly operated in greehouse and vertical farming. As such, the ability to troubleshoot and solve problems as they arise are unique skill-sets for newly trained students. With SFCC’s well-developed internship program, our students work as independent contractors at SFCC as well as with local industry partners. This gives them real world, “hands-on” experience with CEA systems.”

What sort of jobs are your students attaining with controlled environment agriculture trainicontrolled environment agriculture training, greenhouseng?

Shultz: “Generally speaking, our students have been gaining employment with greenhouse produce growing facilities as well as medicinal crop cultivation companies. However, some of SFCC’s graduates have started their own urban agriculture businesses and a small percentage pursue higher education at Universities.”

How important is technology to the CEA movement and how is the CEA program at SFCC addressing this notion? 

Shultz: “Students need more than just a green thumb to participate in this growing field, they also need to be technically inclined. For starters, HVAC and greenhouse skills will continue to be in high demand. Also, research will continue into energy and water conservation, with new technology being developed to help lessen carbon footprints from the intensification of food production.”

“At SFCC we are currently running two models that utilize vertical space in shipping containers. These use both aquaponics and conventional hydroponics systems. These operations give students some good experience with current CEA technologies pertaining to lighting, air quality, and fertigation systems.”

Would you say that the program at SFCC is more involved with community-based agricultural efforts and programs than larger universities?

Shultz: “Yes! Our mission is to “Empower Students and Strengthen Community.” To this end, we work with indigenous communities and schools to promote CEA awareness for entrepreneurship and food security purposes. Also, we are in the process of developing a Continuing Education program revolved around all aspects of CEA for the local urban agriculture community.  Finally, SFCC is partnered with community organizations to develop food initiatives. This program is based on an “open door” policy for our operations in the spreading of CEA awareness.”

How would you say that the controlled environment agriculture training SFCC promotes notions of environmental awareness that comes hand-in-hand with urban agriculture?

Shultz: “SFCC is involved in environmentalism through our CEA coursework emphases on sustainable agriculture as well as community and State outreach programs. To illustrate, populations of New Mexico, like most States, are concentrated in urban centers. As such, the majority of food in Sante Fe, NM is imported from long distances. This food is often times brought in from ecologically unsustainable farming operations. SFCC’s CEA program trains students to produce food in sustainable fashions directly within urban centers, such as Sante Fe. Since the program was established in 2013, many local urban agriculture businesses have opened both in greenhouse and indoor environments. Moreover, SFCC’s program has been deeply involved in the development of Sante Fe city policy as it relates to urban agriculture.”

How important is CEA production to the food supply in the Sante Fe, New Mexico region?

Shultz: “It is very important. CEA and greenhouse crop production gives us the ability to work around environmental constraints in the procurement of fresh food. Living at approximately 7,000 ft of elevation creates a limited growing season in Santa Fe without CEA controls in place. Also, poor soils and lack of clean water obstruct food production in this region. To this end, CEA and greenhouse growing ensures clean, safe food products that more-and-more consumers are demanding. On a larger scale, as climate change patterns impact regions negatively, less-and-less land and water will be available for food production in open systems. CEA will continue to be used to address and overcome many of the food security issues we are currently experiencing.”