Manhattan-based Chobe Advisers are working with SUNY Cobleskill to build nearly 300,000 square feet of greenhouse facilities on college land near I-88.
The project is the first development the finance, commodities, and renewable energy consultants plan to own and operate outright. Utilizing renewable energy and high-efficiency water systems, the developers are making use of various state and federal incentive programs to establish themselves as large-scale growers of produce that qualifies as local, with the goal of providing that produce to large Northeastern markets, including New York City.
Two of the firm’s partners, Louis Ferro and Rob Parker, were interviewed when they were in Cobleskill for meetings earlier this winter. The following has been edited for clarity and length:
Q: Tell me about your company, Chobe. Is this the biggest project you have going now, or do you have other projects like this?
Louis: This is the biggest project we’ve got going right now.
Rob: We had some other more prominent things going… really once we sat down with the university, this one moved to the front of the pack.
Q: Walk me through what it will look like, what will make it special, what types of technologies will be employed there?
Louis: The best way to describe this is going to be commercial-scale, organically-grown greenhouses utilizing vertical agriculture and leveraging renewable energy. There will be net-zero energy, using a combination of solar as well as a biogas digester and geothermal. The idea really is to grow organic food on a very large scale and get it out to the metropolitan area of New York City and the Northeast, usually through large-scale distributors. We are not going to be going direct-to-consumer, and we’re also going to be focusing on working with the state of New York in terms of selling food to SUNY or many other state agencies. The long-term goal is really to provide organic food -- healthier food -- to as many people as possible at a lower cost.
Rob: We can grow roughly up to 50 different types of crops. We have the ability to rotate those to take advantage of some seasonal price spikes. One of the advantages to that is we are not competing with any of the local growers. If something is in season, it makes more sense for us to provide facilities for them for packing and processing, while we are growing something else. Between that and the waste-energy solution… we think that will be a nice asset for farmers in the local community.
Q: So you will be able to provide services to local farmers?
Rob: If they are interested. We will be selling to larger wholesalers and distributors, so we are happy to provide that as a conduit, and/or just through the packing facilities.
Q: People will be able to bring their waste to you?
Rob: Most farmers already have to use spreaders and other services to process (waste)… instead of having to do that or build six months worth of storage on their farm, yeah, it can be trucked into our facility, and we get energy and natural gas, and they will get some fertilizer in return.
Louis: For example, the college produces roughly 10 million gallons of waste on an annual basis, and so from our perspective having the biogas digester there, that amount of waste is probably equivalent to five or six truckloads a day of waste that the college produces and there are many other farms, the dairy farms in the region, that produce a bunch of waste that right now are stuck… so we would be helping provide a solution to that particular issue.
Q: And that’s the source of your energy?
Louis: Yes, that’s one of them, one of the three sources of net-zero energy. The biogas digester essentially just converts the waste or any organic matter into methane gas, and we use that for our purposes to power the greenhouses and operations and whatever extra we convert to natural gas that can be sold back into the market.
Q: What are the actual products that will be produced? Lettuce, tomatoes, what?
Rob: The four categories are fruit and crops, leafy greens, herbs and medicinals and mushrooms. In the winter, we might grow fresh tomatoes. During the summertime, we might be growing things that are less seasonal. We grow off-season: it’s more profitable for us. We have enough crops to vary that around, and it makes sure that we won’t disrupt the markets for any of the local farms.
Louis: That’s one of the things we are aware of. We don’t want to compete against the local farmers, so because we can grow different types of crops, and the crops are growing 24 hours a day, we are able to ensure we aren’t competing against the local farmer.
Q: What markets are you eyeing?
Rob: Our customer is really about a wholesaler, food distributor. They are going to come and pick up the product, and if their customer is a grocery store in Albany or a distributorship nearby… or if their market is New York City, (that's where the produce goes).
Louis: One of the key things to consider is some of the basic elements of the food-supply chain right now. Typically you buy an heirloom tomato in California, usually that heirloom tomato actually may have originated in China, it’s flash frozen and sent by vessel. It arrives in California… We are going to be able to ship it from Cobleskill, say, down to New York City same day that it’s picked, so you have an extra week, week-and-a-half of shelf life for a product, which we think is really important.
Rob: It gives us some ways to carve out some of that margin, still charge good prices and have good-paying jobs in the process of having good margins.
Q: It’s going to be three separate facilities built over a period of time?
Rob: There are three individual units within one overall structure. Each unit is essentially modular; it can start producing on its own. Hopefully, if we stay on our schedule, we should have the first unit complete toward the end of 2018. And while completing the second and third units, the first unit can be growing and generating crops and some revenue.
Q: What is the ultimate volume of production or potential volume of production?
Louis: I think the way to look at it is, in order for us to achieve our goals, to be able to sell to the large distributors that are out there, we want to be producing roughly a container a day -- a truckload, which is roughly 25,000 pounds of product. That’s usually what large-scale wholesale distributors require in order to actually do business with them. So that’s what our target ultimately will be: to produce that volume on a regular basis. It’s going to take us a while to scale up to that, obviously, but the capacity will be there.
Q: Will you need local contractors?
Rob: We don’t plan on trucking in construction crews from out of state or anything like that. Some project managers or perhaps some of the design engineering will be more foreign, but on the construction side, we anticipate mostly local unless there is some need.
Q: How did you come to the Cobleskill area?
Louis: We actually were looking at several locations initially that met our overall criteria for locally grown. In the last three years, as we have been developing this project -- we’re New Yorkers, we live in New York -- and we realized that New York was a great place for us to develop a public-private partnership.
Rob: We had been looking at other parts of the country.
Louis: We also realized that we had an opportunity to work with START-UP NY program, which is a huge advantage. We actually originally looked at Cornell as being one of the possibilities, being an ag school, Cobleskill being another. Cornell did not have the available land. About a year ago we reached out to Cobleskill, and they were really receptive and willing to work with us. We just felt it was a really good fit all the way around.
Q: Is a project like this viable without all the different incentive programs?
Rob: It is but because there are a lot of different moving parts, it makes it a lot easier. None of what we ware doing is new but integrating and scaling them in the way we are is pretty innovative, and its tougher to be first in a lot of things, so having that type of support at various levels makes a different. But it would be viable regardless… we are cutting out a lot of the embedded costs that get added as a lot of produce makes it way to the northeast. For most crops, roughly 90 percent of it comes from the southwest and Latin America.
Louis: It makes perfect sense to be able to locally grow produce and be able to distribute it locally and have it that much fresher the next day it’s available.
Rob: With the declining costs of renewables, even with paying strong wages across the board, our margins will be solid regardless of whether these subsidies are there or not... But without a variety f the state and federal incentive programs it would be tougher to pull off.
Q: Walk me through the different types of jobs there will be once operating?
Louis: You start out with truck drivers who will be driving trucks, particualrly for the digester. You are going to have some managerial positions, some project managers.
Rob: Some scientific-based positions, biologists, chemists, technicians. The rest is growers and greenhouse technicians of various levels. It’s a pretty wide spread, we think all are regular jobs, full-time, benefits and it’s one of those things as we move it forward, some of it will evolve on different things, what products we are growing. We plan on being here for a while so we expect them to be pretty steady jobs. For the jobs that require more skills… some it will require training, the university is a good partner on that…. I know the university is going to be a great source of potential employees but as well as other people from throughout the region.
Louis: We also plan on working closely with the college to possibly tailor or create some courses around what we are doing, incorporating internships maybe even some classroom lectures. Both Rob and I are adjuncts, so we certainly embrace the whole idea of working closely with education facilities like SUNY-Cobleskill, and it’s something we’ve actually spoken to the school about.
Rob: And we benefit just from the expertise of the university faculty as one of the leading ag schools in the country, so that’s an asset for us definitely.
Q: As net-zero are you off grid?
Rob: We could be but it’s a grid-tied system. It’s just easier from a variety of standpoints, there is storage, energy storage is part of the mix, but for the excess natural gas we are producing it’s a lot easier to be tied into all of the grid systems for that. One of the programs we’ve been accepted to is Recharge New York, that gives us seven years of discounted power prices. Obviously, once we are fully operational, we should be pretty much set, but while the building is under construction and while we begin our operations some crops are more energy intensive than others, it gives us a nice fall back to make sure that we get that mixture right… It gives us the ability to keep our costs low while the project is in development.
Q: How does the water system work?
Rob: Once the tanks are filled, it exceeds 95 percent water efficiency. It’s using technology like micro-targeted misters, so when water is delivered to the different crops it’s done as efficiently as possible. There have been a lot of advances in those technologies over the last few years, so it enables us to be that much more efficient with our water use, which is good for the environment and good for our bottom line.
Q: Do you see this as the direction in which agriculture is heading?
Louis: There is already a movement to locally grown around the country. The problem is in the northern climate where you have harsh winters, the traditional greenhouse model doesn’t work, because of the energy usage the costs are too high. We do think that being able to leverage renewable energy is one way to deal with this issue. We do think this is going to set forth a new trend where other states, other locations, and not just in northern climates… those areas that have issues with water, this types of solution is a huge advantage for them… We hope this is going to be a long-term trend in agriculture, at least on the produce side.