September 6, 2005

Non-Profit Takes Over Greenhouse

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Last Thursday morning, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in Dryden to officially turn over the operations of an 8,000 square foot Cornell Hydroponics Facility to workers with Challenge Industries, an Ithaca-based not-for-profit organization established in 1968 that helps disabled individuals find employment.

The greenhouse, which began operations in 1998, produces over 6,000 heads of lettuce a week at full-capacity and employs a dozen laborers through Challenge.

Patrick J. McKee, president of Challenge Industries and a speaker at the event, said the facility is a “great place for our clients to work, and great for local produce.” The lettuce is sold directly to retailers such as Wegmans and PNC Foods under the Finger Lakes Fresh brand.

Curi Holcomb, a client and peer leader with Challenge, described her work at the greenhouse as “quiet, peaceful, and fun.”

Though the turnover to Challenge, as well as the addition of a new delivery truck, mark a transition from research to business venture, Prof. Lou Albright ’62, biological and environmental engineering, stressed during the ceremony that the “facility is a plant production system, not just a lettuce factory,” describing it as a “bridge” between campus research and local commerce.

Albright developed the greenhouse’s unique computerized lighting system which allows the plants to receive the same number of photosynthetic photons every day. According to Albright, this system allows the plants to thrive in much the same individuals would if they took in a consistent, proper number of calories every day.

Combined with a hydroponics system that grows plants in nutrient-rich soil, the controlled environment agricultural design produces four times the output of greenhouses of its size, according to an estimate by Greenhouse Manager Bob LaDue ’93.

With the ability to produce during every season of the year, the facility yields 20 times the rate of California lettuce fields.

Initial efforts were supported by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, along with New York State Electric and Gas, which still leases the land under the Cornell-owned facility, as well as Niagara Mohawk and Agway Country Products Group, Syracuse, N.Y.

The research behind the facility began in 1991 as part of the University’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

According to a University Press Release, Cornell will provide Challenge with an operating subsidy of $112,000, as well as $16,000 for facility improvement, and $50,000 capital investment during the second year.

McKee noted that Challenge and Cornell still view the greenhouse as a research facility that is “still connected with CALS and Albright.” Further work with spinach and carbon dioxide controls may appear in the greenhouse in the near future.

In fact, initial results with spinach have been encouraging. Albright described the quality of it as “marvelous” and added that during 26 years with occasion to bring work home to eat, it was the one thing his wife ever asked seconds for.

Other speakers at the ceremony included Susan Henry, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Jean McPheeters, president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce and emcee of the event.

Archived article by Brian Kaviar
Sun Staff Writer