UW Complements State’s Investment With Controlled Environment Agriculture Center | News

February 2, 2023

In this photo taken in February 2012, Nate Storey examines lettuce growing in his startup company’s patented vertical towers inside a UW greenhouse. Today, he is the chief science officer of Plenty Inc., which is partnering with UW’s new Controlled Environment Agriculture Center and preparing for expansion in Wyoming. (UW Photo)

The University of Wyoming has joined with other public and private partners to further advance an innovative, growing industry with roots at the university.

UW’s new Controlled Environment Agriculture Center will conduct research and develop a workforce for the vertical farming company Plenty Inc., which is expanding its Wyoming operation with a $20 million grant from the state. One of Plenty’s co-founders is Nate Storey, who pioneered vertical farming technology as a UW graduate student and entrepreneur a decade ago.

“This is an exciting new industry that has tremendous potential to boost Wyoming’s economy, diversify the state’s important agriculture industry and drive job creation and innovation,” UW President Ed Seidel says. “Our new Controlled Environment Agriculture Center is poised to become a destination for research, training and workforce development in this rapidly growing sector in the fresh produce industry.”

“We are proud to be a part of helping Wyoming play a leading role in advancing a new field,” says Storey, Plenty’s Laramie-based chief science officer who got his start at UW’s business incubator after winning a startup challenge competition in 2011. “ The work we’re doing here will help accelerate indoor farming and its contribution to the increasingly constrained global food supply. The University of Wyoming will be a valuable partner in the next frontier of our controlled environment agriculture research as well as a pipeline for top-notch talent as we expand our work in Laramie.”

Controlled environment agriculture requires finely controlled environmental parameters such as humidity, light, temperature and carbon dioxide to create optimal growing conditions for maximum yield. While Plenty is having success with a new commercial farm in California and plans additional indoor vertical farms across the country and internationally, the industry’s future will depend upon research advances in plant science, artificial intelligence, process engineering and supply chain analytics to reduce production costs and energy use.

“Wyoming’s investments to expand Plenty’s research and development facilities in Wyoming create a unique corporate sponsorship opportunity for UW in research and workforce development,” says Parag Chitnis, UW’s vice president for research and economic development. “UW’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center leverages the state’s investments in our Science Initiative and Tier-1 Engineering Initiative, our strong tradition in plant sciences and our emphasis on interdisciplinary research. It will draw on expertise from academic units across the campus, including the College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources, the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, and the College of Business. The center will work with existing academic programs to train students in controlled environment agriculture in collaboration with Plenty — graduates who will be prepared for immediate workforce needs in the research and production operations of Plenty.”

In addition to providing seed grants for research and supporting graduate studies in controlled environment agriculture, the new center aims to develop certification and microcredential programs in the field; conduct summer school courses with a focus on vertical farming; and lead research workshops and lectures. There is potential for an interdisciplinary graduate major in controlled environment agriculture, along with the creation of new faculty positions and acquisition of high-tech instrumentation.

The many areas for potential study include plant nutrition and physiology; breeding and selection of plants; plant-microbe interactions; fresh produces safety; robotics and automation; sensors and imaging tools; engineering for light production; supply chain management; and economic analysis for profit maximization.

“Controlled environment agriculture operations are complex, automated and produce enormous amounts of data from sensors and digital imaging,” Chitnis says. “Artificial intelligence-based decision tools are essential for supporting these transformations.”

The center will have a strong virtual component to allow collaborations with researchers at Wyoming’s community colleges and around the state, as well as other locations outside the state.

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