ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Fresh, locally produced vegetables will soon sprout from hydroponic beds in an enclosed, converted shipping container parked at New Mexico State University’s branch campus in Grants.
The 40-foot “Farm in a Box” will provide hands-on education and workforce training for local students and others interested in studying the emerging science of “indoor agriculture” as a new, potentially sustainable, enterprise that could offer fresh economic development opportunities and job creation in an area hard hit by the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
NMSU, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and the national Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) are collaborating on the project.
It’s one of several initiatives under development with local, state and federal backing to diversify economic activity in Cibola, McKinley and San Juan counties, where coal-fired power plants and associated mining have provided a financial mainstay for workers and communities for decades.
Both Cibola and McKinley counties are reeling from last year’s shutdown of the coal-fired Escalante Generating Station near Grants, plus closure of Marathon Petroleum’s oil refinery in Gallup, which together eliminated hundreds of stable, high-paying jobs in those northwestern communities.
Unemployment hit 10.8% in Cibola County in December and 10.2% in McKinley County, according to the state Department of Workforce Solutions. That compares to an 8.2% average statewide unemployment rate.
To ease the impact of Escalante’s closure and assist in transitioning local communities, Tri-State provided $5 million in grants in January to four local economic development organizations. It is also now sponsoring the Farm in a Box initiative, providing $250,000 to set up and equip the high-tech container unit that houses the indoor agricultural operation, with forthcoming grants for NMSU faculty and student assistants to work on the project.
“We realize that closing such coal facilities as the Escalante plant that have traditionally employed significant workforces creates very difficult challenges for local communities to replace those jobs,” Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said. “Our goal is to find opportunities in support of economic development with new technologies when we can.”
Tri-State permanently closed the 253-megawatt Escalante power plant in Pruitt last summer as part of the association’s long-term plan to completely withdraw from coal generation over the next decade. It laid off about two-thirds of the plant’s 107 employees, Stutz said.
TriState also plans to close a much larger, 1.3-gigawatt coal facility in Craig, a municipality in Moffat County, Colorado, where the company sponsored another Farm in a Box project that EPRI set up last November.
“We don’t want to just walk away from these communities that we’ve been a part of for decades,” Stutz said.
EPRI has set up similar Farm in a Box projects in 13 states, said its principal technical leader Frank Sharp, project manager for the institute’s indoor agriculture-and-lighting research efforts.
It’s part of an emerging concept of indoor farming for urban areas and isolated rural communities where food could be grown year-round right where it’s consumed. It could lead to huge energy and water savings through efficient, high-tech growing processes, contributing to carbon reduction by using electricity rather than fossil fuels in agricultural operations and by eliminating long-haul transport of produce to market.
For economically stressed communities such as Cibola and McKinley counties, it could be scaled beyond shipping containers to retrofit under-used or abandoned buildings and to construct new facilities, such as greenhouses, on empty plots, Sharp said.
“It all translates into community impact, job creation and beneficial use of electricity,” Sharp told the Journal. “Vacated buildings with the infrastructure already in place can be retrofitted, with opportunities to also build new facilities.”
Research is still needed to maximize efficiency and production, measure benefits, make contained farming systems profitable, and train the workforce. That’s where NMSU comes in, said Jay Lillywhite, agricultural economics professor and co-director of NMSU’s center of Excellence in Sustainable Food and Agricultural Systems.
NMSU faculty and students will study the entire container system, which includes vertical, hanging plastic enclosures to grow crops connected to a closed-loop plumbing system to recycle all water. Researchers will monitor all energy and water use, plant productivity, the impact of red and blue LED lighting spectrums on plant growth, and the economics of the whole operation, Lillywhite said.
“We’ll record everything and transmit all the data wirelessly to EPRI,” Lillywhite said. “It needs to be profitable. Indoor agriculture has had mixed reviews in terms of profitability, so we’ll look at a model that makes sense for New Mexico and the Southwest.”
Opportunities extend into many disciplines beyond agriculture, including electrical engineering focused on energy efficiency and renewable generation as alternative systems, such as solar panels, are added to indoor operations, said Rolando A. Flores, dean of NMSU’s College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
“The project has excellent potential to address social, environmental and economic facets of sustainability, and become a resource-efficiency model for urban agriculture, provided that renewable energy can be incorporated from the beginning,” he said.
State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Grants, said indoor agriculture can offer significant opportunities alongside other initiatives to diversify the local economy.
Lundstrom sponsored legislation last year that now allows counties with coal plants that are closing to set up special economic districts with bonding and taxing authorities to invest in infrastructure, business recruitment and retention to create jobs and promote economic development.
That led to the launch in December of the McKinley County Electric Generating Facility Economic District, which is focused on converting the Escalante site in Pruitt into a new industrial zone to recruit more businesses to the area.
“Value-added agriculture is one of the opportunities we can work to develop there with help from the partners on this project,” Lundstrom said. “It can have a significant impact as we work to recruit new, sustainable industry to the local community.”