Efficiency is the key to a resilient future

Departments - Edible Insights

Meet the advocacy and consulting group that is driving sustainable agriculture advancements at the grower level.

January 21, 2022

Photo: ©master1305 | adobestock

This summer, after delivering the keynote speech at the inaugural Women in Horticulture Luncheon at AmericanHort’s Cultivate ‘21 show, I had the pleasure of meeting many brilliant women working in the horticulture industry and allied sectors. One of the important connections I made that day was with a representative from The Resource Innovation Institute (RII), an organization that just happens to serve resource efficiency needs for controlled environmental agriculture (CEA) and greenhouse food and floriculture producers. It was a bit of an out-of-the-box connection, but a fortuitous one that rarely manifests unless you actively network.

After meeting and speaking with Gretchen Schimelpfenig, RII’s technical and operations director, about the organization and its mission, we made plans to follow up with one another in the fall to discuss potential collaboration. I then dug a little deeper into the organization and what it had to offer our industry.

After a follow-up discussion with Schimelpfenig, I accepted her invitation to join the Leadership Committee of RII’s Technical Advisory Board for 2021. Now that I’m on board as a volunteer advisor, I thought I would take the opportunity to introduce you to Schimelpfenig and what the RII can potentially do for you and your growing operation.

Gretchen Schimelpfenig

Who is RII?

RII was originally founded in 2016 specifically to serve the emerging cannabis market in Oregon. The organization quickly evolved to engage with a wider variety of agricultural food and ornamental producers to address growing efficiency needs.

In 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) awarded RII a Conservation Innovation Grant for a three-year project titled ‘Data-Driven Market Transformation for Controlled Environment Agriculture.’ “The first objective in the project,” says Schimelpfenig, “is to characterize the market to inform the development of a strategy to transform the market toward efficient cultivation practices and thus enhance the competitiveness of farmers, while advancing energy savings, carbon emissions reductions and more resilient communities.”

With a focus on efficiency and energy savings for growers, Schimelpfenig’s first on-the-job project after joining RII in 2019 was to create the first peer-reviewed and brand-agnostic best practices guides for LED lighting and HVAC for cannabis cultivation. As a licensed professional civil engineer (PE) with a background in energy-efficient building systems, sustainable design and construction, commissioning and efficiency program design and implementation, she was particularly qualified to take on the task.

When I asked Schimelpfenig about specific RII resources available to growers and the public, she pointed to their existing peer-reviewed reports and webinars (check out their catalog and upcoming webinars at bit.ly/rii-resources).

“This year, we have produced a CEA market characterization report, our first version of our market transformation and implementation plan and launched benchmarking services for CEA producers,” says Schimelpfenig. In 2022, they will launch a continuing education curriculum and a credentialing program for CEA design and construction professionals for members.

“In 2023, we will provide a roadmap to a certification program for CEA facilities using standardized key performance indicators for energy, water and emissions,” she adds.

There is a serious need for quality training and certification in the industry right now, so I am excited to see what they have on deck.

So, what’s the hook for produce?

Last summer, RII also launched PowerScore for CEA, expanding their PowerScore platform to cover all crops grown in greenhouses and indoor farms. PowerScore is RII’s not-for-profit benchmarking platform that provides facility-level performance assessments based on industry-standard key performance indicators (KPIs) on energy, emissions, water and waste.

According to the EPA, benchmarking your operation can result in serious energy savings. There is a free-to-use version of PowerScore on the RII website and a pro version for members. “Our first rounds of producers participating in the USDA project are getting free key performance indicators, comparisons of year-over-year performance and insights on opportunities for reducing operating costs and improving resilience,” says Schimelpfenig.

Of course, RII membership does have its benefits. According to Schimelpfenig, members benefit from four key areas of service.

“Education and training, data and analytics, thought leadership, and market access and networking,” she says. “Members can join our Technical Advisory Council Working Groups, access members-only curriculum and training, and use PowerScore Pro to build and analyze portfolios of CEA facilities.”

You can learn more about membership on their website: bit.ly/RIImembers.

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is if RII only works with cannabis producers. While RII has worked with cannabis growers and partners for more than five years, they currently support all growers operating facilities growing any crops under protection, including food and floriculture crops, with CEA projects starting in spring of 2021. So far, the focus has been on vegetables, herbs, berries and mushrooms, in addition to hemp and cannabis.

Growers are often hesitant to invest in energy-efficient lighting or HVAC upgrades due to high initial investment costs and a lack of tools with which to best quantify or maximize the ROI. But when we think about how to create sustainable agricultural environments and outputs, and we remember the resilience of our industry, energy efficiency is a non-negotiable piece of the puzzle.

If you’ve got energy efficiency on your 2022 New Year’s resolution list, organizations such as RII and collaborative USDA grants can lend a helping hand.