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Details, design, dollars firmed up for SUNY Cobleskill greenhouse project

Details, design, dollars firmed up for SUNY Cobleskill greenhouse project

$83M project at SUNY Cobleskill to employ scores, be "game changer" for Schoharie County
Details, design, dollars firmed up for SUNY Cobleskill greenhouse project
Nearly 300,000 square feet of greenhouse space is planned to be built on SUNY Cobleskill land
Photographer: Peter Barber/Gazette Photographer

COBLESKILL — The company planning to build an $83 million greenhouse complex at SUNY Cobleskill has updated and detailed its plans as it continues to line up its funding.

Chobe Advisers met the community Friday at SUNY Cobleskill, which will be the host and landlord for the project, even as it benefits from and contributes to it.

Empire State Greenhouses is designed to be a high-tech, high-yield indoor farm producing hundreds of pounds of food each day, while creating minimal waste and much or all of its own electricity. Projected employment is the equivalent of more than 90 jobs.

Louis Ferro, a partner in Chobe, said he was expecting three or four dozen community members to attend Friday’s presentation, but twice as many showed.

“It was fabulous,” he said Tuesday. “The community as a whole was very welcoming; obviously the college has been phenomenal.”

SUNY Cobleskill President Marion Terenzio said the project has been well-received, though with some trepidation.

“What I sensed from the community members is that they’ve seen so many projects come and go, they were most concerned if this is going to last -- are they here for the long run? I said, ‘absolutely.’”

The greenhouses will include a vertical stacking system, maximizing growing space within the roughly 300,000-square-foot complex. 

The conceptual drawings that presented Friday are not the final design — that should take shape next month, after Chobe meets with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to discuss requirements to qualify as Net-Zero, so energy-efficient that it generates as much or more electricity than it uses.

“Until we know that, we can’t start toying around without how it looks,” Ferro said. However, he added, the basic format in the drawings — three connected greenhouses — will remain the same. “You’re not going to see a big glass box at all.”

He hopes for a late-spring ground-breaking.

Some other details:

  • There will be a 2.5-megawatt solar array on-site and a 1.8-megawatt digester to convert manure to electricity.
  • Large-scale rainwater collection and filtration will provide much of the water needed.
  • The facility will reuse 95 to 99 percent of its water.
  • Food will be produced to a higher standard than Certified Organic, with no pesticides or chemical fertilizers anywhere in the process.
  • LED lights will stimulate growth for up to 24 hours a day.

The features, particularly water recycling, are designed to demonstrate ways to produce more food with less environmental impact under challenging conditions, Ferro said. 

Upstate New York has no shortage of water, but electricity is expensive, and sunlight and warmth can be in short supply through the winter. The system will provide a model for desert environments, Ferro said.

The world will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than in the preceding 8,000 years, he said, citing an oft-quoted metric of population growth. “And we’ve got to do it with less fresh water.”

The model being created in Cobleskill is currently too expensive for adoption in the regions of the world where the food supply is most tenuous, Ferro acknowledged, but he said the cost will come down.

Chobe is in line to get millions of dollars in public assistance to build the project, led by a $5 million state grant announced in December. Additional assistance is expected to include money from NYSERDA for being Net Zero and START-UP NY tax breaks for being sited on the campus of a participating New York college.

Terenzio said Tuesday that the partnership between SUNY-Cobleskill and Chobe works on many levels: The college’s students will gain income and experience at the Empire State Greenhouses, and the company will gain a workforce; the college faculty will lend its expertise to Chobe; the college will be able to maintain its teaching farm, despite leasing two-thirds of the acreage to Chobe; and the project sits squarely in a region with a deep knowledge and appreciation of agriculture.

“What’s more important to me is this is going to enhance the agriculture industry here,” Terenzio said, noting that SUNY Cobleskill has an economic development role through its Institute for Economic Vitality. “It’s a game changer for Schoharie County.”

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