My ABS-PSM Controlled Environment Agriculture Story - Alex Feldman
I originally went to Arizona State University for a Bachelor’s in computer science. I completed 2 years but was not passionate about it. I took 3 years break from university to figure out what I wanted to do. I developed a gardening hobby and discovered hydroponics. Eventually I discovered that ASU had a Horticulture degree, under Applied Biological Sciences. So I changed my major and did 2.5 more years of school go complete the B.S., earning Sustainability and Computer Science minors in the process. But I wasn’t satisfied because my interest is in sustainable urban farming, and the horticulture degree didn’t go into enough technical detail. I wanted to learn more about sensors, controls, automation, etc.
While attending ASU, I visited University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (UA CEAC) and met with Dr. Patricia Rorabaugh, who showed me the Teaching Greenhouse and the Demonstration Greenhouse. I had never seen anything like it. I knew that UA was the place to go to study hydroponics and greenhouse production in more depth.
My mother actually was the one that found the ABS-PSM CEA degree. It was not easy to find, and I was only aware of the PLS and ABE degree programs, however the ABS PSM degree program sounded a much better fit for my goals, as it is intended for students who want to enter the industry immediately.
I joined the degree and was only the 3rd student to join the program. The professors asked me what I wanted to do, and I would answer “indoor artificially lighted crop production”. But there was not a clear fit to how I could participate. The Lunar Greenhouse was the closest fit, but they did not need any more graduate students. So I took some classes and waited. Eventually, the vertical farming industry was brought to my attention and I knew that I wanted to explore that field.
During Spring 2016, and after applying for several internships in the industry and not receiving any offers, Dr. Kacira informed me that he was trying to launch a commercial scale vertical farming research facility at UA CEAC. Eventually he got it confirmed, and we planned my first internship: Developing the environmental monitoring and control system for the facility, in Summer 2016.
Also during Spring 2016, I was enrolled in Dr. Chieri Kubota’s “Plant Physiology for Controlled Environment Agriculture” course. Several visiting scholars from Japan were sitting in the lectures with us and I asked Dr. Kubota one day if there was some sort of exchange program in place, because I have an internship requirement and was interested in working in Japan. She explained that there was no funding available but that she could forward my resume to her colleagues at Chiba University Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences. Dr. Michiko Takagaki of the Horticulture department, and Professor Toshitaka Yamaguchi, Director of Japan Plant Factory Association, accepted my application to work for 7 weeks as intern in two Japanese plant factories, or vertical farms. We scheduled the internship for Fall 2016.
I spent the summer writing program code and developing the data acquisition system. By the end of the summer, we had a powerful platform to monitor the environmental variables, collect the data, control system components, and more.
Above: Screenshot of GUI developed for UA CEAC UAgFarm – Instantaneous data view
During the summer, I also prepared for the Fall 2016 internship in Japan. I launched a crowdfunding campaign on Youcaring.net and raised over $2,600 from family, friends, and friends of friends by promoting it on Facebook. 39 people donated.
Above: Crowdfunding campaign on Youcaring.net for internship in Japan.
The internship itself was incredible. The Chiba University and JPFA staff were very kind to me and made sure I had everything I needed. After a week of course work, I started working as a part time laborer in Mirai Co, a large commercial plant factory. I worked there for 5 weeks gaining experience in all tasks that are performed daily in the facility. I then spent 2 weeks working in Raise Farm, a smaller research-focused facility located at the Chiba University campus. Working in two different facilities gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast their different operational styles.
I also had the opportunity to attend a large trade show, the AGRI WORLD Tokyo Expo. Makuhari Messe, a massive convention hall, was the venue for this event. I was able to see many different products being showcased, and discover the latest technology in the agriculture industry.
Left: Full-scale vertical farming / PFAL systems and businessmen at AGRI WORLD Tokyo Expo 2016.
Upon returning to Tucson, I returned to the UA CEAC vertical farm facility, now called “UAgFarm”. I set to work preparing the facility for use. Dr. Kacira offered me the opportunity to continue working in the UAgFarm, even though I had already completed all 8 credits of Internship. He encouraged me that it would be valuable to carry out an experiment in the facility to add to my skill set and knowledge base. We began doing experiments and trials in January 2017. Stakeholders came to visit from Texas, Japan, Qatar, Germany, Mexico, and locally. We carried out two experiments with industry collaboration from HortAmericas and Civic Farms LLC, evaluating the effects of light intensity and fertilizer type on lettuce and basil crop. Along the way we worked with student workers, volunteers, and interns, creating a skilled workforce for this industry. I also had the opportunity to lead the Vertical Farming workshop at the 2017 CEAC Crop Production and Engineering Short Course, an annual industry conference with attendees from all over the world. They were very interested and excited to learn more about this new industry.
I would encourage all students in any degree program to explore their university as much as possible to discover the wealth of opportunities that exist. UA Professors are well connected in their field, all over the world. Talk to your professors, get to know them and let them know your goals! An internship abroad is an extremely valuable addition to your resume.
My next step is to return to Japan, and work for Chiba University and Japan Plant Factory Association as a research assistant and technician. I will also do international relations work attending conferences, and speaking English to an international crowd. I am very grateful to my professors Dr. Murat Kacira, Dr. Chieri Kubota, and Dr. Gene Giacomelli for supporting me in my journey.
For a recording of Alex's final Master's report presentation, click on this link https://youtu.be/1cjsnMy6VME