The rapidly evolving field of controlled environment agriculture has taken root in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Dr. Shuyang Zhen stands in a greenhouse next to tomato plants.
Shuyang Zhen, Ph.D., stands in a greenhouse with tomato plants at the Department of Horticultural Science’s controlled environment agriculture facility. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Sam Craft)

Controlled environment agriculture, which includes hydroponics, vertical farming and aquaponics under protected greenhouses and indoor structures, is a rapidly advancing field. Over the last two years, the department has invested in providing courses to teach students about controlled environment principles and methods.

Shuyang Zhen, Ph.D., was hired as a tenure track assistant professor for controlled environment horticulture by the department. She runs a new controlled environment agriculture program that finished its initial course offering covering the basics of hydroponics – HORT 489 Hydroponics and Soilless Crop Production – this past fall semester. The course is open for enrollment next fall semester.

Zhen said controlled environment agriculture is a new path for students searching for post-graduation employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in horticulture. The program is creating professionals with skills that span the technical and agricultural knowledge necessary to grow crops within controlled environment systems. 

At the forefront of the horticulture industry

The industry is growing through support by investors and federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NASA. Similarly, the industry incorporates an array of mediums, including hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics and vertical farming under artificial lighting to produce food in limited space and under controlled environments. Controlled environment agriculture is viewed as an ideal way to produce food efficiently and sustainably in urbanized areas.

The field is also incorporating advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics, she said. Professionals entering the controlled environment field are likely to work as a crop manager or skilled technician more so than a traditional farmer or laborer.

“There is a lot of momentum behind controlled environment agriculture globally,” she said. “It is still a budding industry, but there is an incredible amount of venture capital and government investment. Controlled environment production is a way for agriculture to sustain our food chain and address concerns like food deserts, food safety and nutrition.”

Amit Dhingra, Ph.D., head of the Department of Horticultural Sciences, said controlled environment agriculture will play an important role in providing sustainable, secure and nutritious food in the future. The controlled environment agriculture program’s mission is to prepare the department’s students for that future.

Agricultural sustainability includes the efficient use of resources like water and reducing the negative impacts of production in the environment, but it also requires methods be financially sound for producers, Dhingra said.

“Our main mission is to prepare people for the future, whether it’s students through the teachings within this program or producers through research and Extension,” he said. “Also, when we talk about sustainability, we are talking about the planet, reducing water use and chemical and fertilizer use, but we also need to make sure our farmers can adopt these methods in sustainable ways for their operation’s long-term profitability and success.”

About the controlled environment ag program

Zhen said there is an incredible amount of interest in controlled environment agriculture among horticulture students. Some are interested in entering the cannabis industry after graduation since cannabis is one of the most lucrative and financially viable plants being grown in controlled environment systems. However, most students have entered the program so they can prepare and get ahead of a burgeoning agricultural field.

Potatoes and mixed greens being grown in an aeroponic system.
Aeroponically grown potatoes and mixed greens are shown as part of Shuyang Zhen’s, Ph.D., research. Plants in aeroponic systems receive nutrients directly via mist rather than sitting in water like hydroponic systems or being planted in traditional soil mediums. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Sam Craft)

The program is teaching cultivation practices that can be applied to any crop, she said. The hydroponic course introduces students to basic principles like plant nutrition and physiology and how the plants grow outside traditional mediums.

The program started with 15 students. The course was taught in the program’s 2,000-square-foot facility where students learn the basics and intricacies of the major hydroponic systems being used in commercial grow facilities, Zhen said. The systems are scaled-down versions, but they allow students to apply the curriculum in a hands-on, interactive way.

Students are learning the principles of managing crops from seed to harvest without soil and under LED lights. They learn to manage environmental factors like light intensity and spectrum, temperature and plant nutrient requirements all according to the plant’s growth phase. So far, they have grown vegetables like lettuce, kale, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers.

“There is incredible interest in the course,” she said. “The students almost never miss a class or lab. They all show up, and they do their work. I think they’re interested in sustainable agriculture, but they’re also motivated to learn these new methods and technology.”

The course also includes guest lecturers like Joe Masabni, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service small-acreage horticulturist, and Genhua Niu, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research professor of urban agriculture, both located at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas. Zhen also hopes to engage controlled environment agriculture operations near Bryan-College Station for facility tours, interactions and instruction growers.

There is room to expand the grow facilities, and Zhen hopes student interest will continue to spur the program’s expansion to meet increased demand. Both Dhingra and Zhen believe the College and Texas A&M AgriLife are committed to leading Texas and the U.S. within the field.

“It is an exciting time to be involved with this new program,” Zhen said. “The industry continues to progress, and there is room to grow and for the program and our students to be part of that momentum.”

The future is bright for controlled environment agriculture

As of right now, energy costs remain a major hurdle that research and advancements in technology are expected to bridge in the future, Dhingra said. But some commercial vegetable producers are having success with greens and specialty crops destined for restaurants and direct-to-consumer sales.

Producing reliable food, especially for urban and suburban populations, is becoming increasingly important as recent and ongoing disruptions to the food supply chain have revealed the fragility of the logistical movement of produce, Dhingra said. Whether the logistical disruption is man-made or natural, reducing the distance between products and consumers increases food supply reliability.

Reducing that distance also increases nutritional value of the product, and controlling the environmental factors removes some food safety threats, he said.

Consumer demand and industry advancement will propel the field, Dhingra said. He does not expect controlled environment agriculture to eclipse traditional methods in the near future, but he does believe operations will deliver scalable food production results that complement and meet local demand for a range of agricultural products.

Dhingra is excited about collaboration opportunities across Texas A&M AgriLife and other institutions as well as with partners like entrepreneurs, investors and the government.

“These are relatively new technologies and agricultural mediums with enormous potential, and I believe the department has an opportunity to lead and help the industry innovate and ultimately succeed,” he said. “At the same time, we will also be producing next generation horticulture students who will support and sustain this field’s success.”


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