Talent in Controlled Environment Agriculture and Vertical Farming - Dr. Mark Lefsrud

In this extract from our interview with Dr. Mark Lefsrud, the GreenForges team asks Dr. Lefsrud about talent in the vertical farming and CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture) industries.

Dr. Mark Lefsrud
Associate Professor, McGill University

Talent in Controlled Environment Agriculture and Vertical Farming - Dr. Mark Lefsrud

In this extract from our interview with Dr. Mark Lefsrud, the GreenForges team asks Dr. Lefsrud about talent in the vertical farming and CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture) industries.

About Dr. Mark Lefsrud

Dr. Lefsrud is an Associate Professor at McGill University and leads the Biomass Production Laboratory. His upbringing on a farm and work in the oil fields of Alberta, Canada combined with his B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Agricultural and Bioresource Engineering and a Ph.D. in Plant Physiology gives him a very strong background in the fields of agriculture, biology, and engineering. His research program deals with the development of bioprocesses and improvements in plant growth environmental energy usage.

Ramón Pereira Bonilla
Community & Communication Manager
Jamil Madanat
Chief Technology Officer
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Overview on talent in the CEA industry

(Ramón) Q: “My first question is around talent in the industry. One of the first things you'll find when you look into vertical farming spaces is the lack of experienced or specialized talent. A lot of people come in from backgrounds that are not directly involved in CEA but are adjacent to them.

As a professor at McGill University, who teaches courses like Bio Environmental Engineering, could you share your overall outlook on the talent issue within the industry and some points of hope as well?”

(Dr. Lefsrud) A: “That's a good question. Controlled environment agriculture probably had three feeder directions, let's start off top end to the bottom end:” 

NASA / High-end

“The top end is probably NASA type research. The idea that you have to have full environmental control. You could also say Navy subs fall into the same category. So either you're deep underwater or you're up in space and you have to be able to control for all these factors. [You have to] be able to control light, temperature, humidity, et cetera. Work your way through the whole system. And so NASA funded a fair bit of this and the Air Force has done a little bit on that. They've stopped lately, but they were some of the early ones. And then the Navy did it, obviously, as part of the submarines because people would spend months down in those locations.

And then through those operations, we ended up with a few random selection places where you'd try to grow food in very remote locations, like the bottom of Antarctica or other possible places. So it was a very select group of people that wanted to get into it because of that.”

Cannabis/ Black Market

“So you had to have the NASA side, then there was the cannabis world, and predominantly that was the black market supplier. So those were self-taught individuals. They'd take some things from the NASA perspective, but it was rare that they would be trained in that.

There was a few cases of it, but I'd say it was usually more they read whatever they could. And if you went to the hydroponics or hydroponic story, you'd usually find those individuals and a few NASA people, and it was that way until about 10 years ago. And then the third kind of industry would be the ones who were doing greenhouse.”


“So that'd be the agricultural engineers or the plant scientists, horticulturalists, were the three training vectors outta that. So one's high end. Considered the top end NASA kind of research on that with a few other smatterings on that. Then there was the bottom end, and I'm not meaning bottom as in people wise. Just the industry as such didn't have training because they weren't allowed to. So it was a very hands on approach, learning it on the fly kind of thing. And then there were the two groups, usually at an Ag[riculture] University, with an agricultural engineering bend or a horticultural bend and the two sometimes interact with each other.”

Challengers in talent creation over the past few decades

“The difficulty that happened over the last 30 years, agricultural engineering and even horticulture, have been decimated from a training perspective, and nobody really wanted to go into those. And so in the horticulture world, our plant science world, they became focused on genetics and only genetics. So not production methodologies.

AG engineers predominantly designed tractor designs. But we've done things before that, that's what held us together was tractor and vehicle design. And it's been in the last 10 years that it started to come out that we move past that so that we're actually trying to expand more into the greenhouse further designs and more controlled environment, remote sensing, et cetera.

And the challenge is that when, I meant decimated… most land grant universities in the states or agricultural campuses in Canada had an agricultural engineering component and almost all of them shut the programs down. [It] started in the late seventies and walked all the way up until just a couple years ago, was when the last couple ones were shut down.”

A re-emergence of talent creation and the obstacles still present

“Now that we're seeing enrollments go back up and people actually care about these things. We're having to try to steal them from elsewhere. So then we end up taking mechanical engineers, civil or electrical engineers or chemical engineers to fill those voids, and we find that they're still lacking.They don't have an understanding of a lot of these flexibility out of the systems. And so it still is a huge issue. 

Same things happening on the plant science or the horticulture side where most people ended up going into the genetics. So their understanding of growing plants is actually quite poor.

They know what the genes are inside these things, but I won't say that they actually have a good understanding of how to grow this. There's obviously exceptions in all of these cases, and so we're finding that a lot of places are trying to rebuild these operations.” 

Efforts to grow training programs at higher level institutions

“So in the United States, there's been a big push within the Ag engineering program – but also the horticultural programs – to try to merge, not make them the same, but actually have a bridge person in between, a professor that is in charge of these controlled environments. I've been seeing a lot of universities building this up.  Originally it was a few, so here in Canada it was basically Guelph, was it?

Then I came here to McGill. So we have two for all intents and purposes now, so we've doubled. So congrats. But we used to have Laval, which was exceedingly strong, and it's dropped. It dropped off almost to zero, but now they're making an effort to try to start bringing these trainings back in and start training these [students ] up, down in the states.

You could go through the really big universities that had that:  Purdue, Rutgers, Arizona, Michigan State, probably missing a couple. More community colleges are starting to do larger training on these [things], so there is an effort underway. I will not say that we're overly good at it yet, but it takes years for this to build up to that point.

But with all these additions, outta my lab alone, I'm over 50 graduate students that have graduated masters and PhDs. And if you take the undergraduates there will be hundreds that will claim that they have this expertise because they've either worked with me or worked in my lab or did design projects on these things.

Still have a long way to go

So we are starting to bridge that. It's just we're going from where NASA needed 10, to now needing hundreds of thousands, and we just don't have that number of people. And then we run into cases where there's people who go, ‘ I'm an expert in it because I have grown plants inside of my house’ and it's not quite the same thing.

Commercial at scale, and it's the same issue that underground growers had also in the black market. They would grow 6 to maybe 30 plants in their basements, and some of these companies like Aurora or Canopy or Hexa, whoever you want to go with, they're growing hundreds of thousands of plants. So, you can't use the same techniques as you did when you were managing 30.

So it's building, it's just gonna take a while.”

Labor demand in Controlled Environment Agriculture

(Ramón) Q: “Just as a quick follow up: have you had any issues with any of your students who graduated, maybe struggling to find employment directly into the field, or was it right away, people were clamoring to be able to get access to them?”

(Dr. Lefsrud) A: “I will say that I've had 2 students come to me and say they couldn't find a job, out of the hundreds, maybe a thousand or so that we've had through our program. I thought it was amusing. I said, ‘contact anybody you can.’ They said, ‘couldn't find anybody.’  I contacted five of my contacts. Four out of the five said they're wanting to hire somebody in the next month. So demand is there. It's just, I don't think those individuals looked very hard or didn't know where to look. 

Reasons for the slow down in AgTech job creation

(Jamil) Q: “Quick follow up question on that. What do you think led to this drop that you mentioned recently in the last 10 years? Because surprisingly in the last 10 years we're seeing a huge spike in controlled environment agriculture taking off.”

(Dr. Lefsrud) A: “It was a few things. There was a short sightedness of upper administration. They thought genetics was gonna solve the world, one.  Two, for some reason, in the mid-eighties to nineties, agriculture became a, almost a derogatory term.

You're trying to describe how the world was being destroyed, and I blame it on the people who were pushing climate change narratives. They basically said ‘agriculture, cows and beef are destroying the plant. And you can group it however you want and you can narrow it down or not.

When I first got hired at McGill, I would teach about a pig barn and we'd have students come in and say, ‘I don't wanna learn about pig barns because they're destroying the planet.’

I'm like, ‘Sure. Except when you go eat ribs and then you have to have pig, I'm sorry, or bacon or whatever it is you want to eat.’ And they go, ‘I don't eat those things.’ ‘Okay, great. What do you eat?’ Then they'd list all their things, and I'm like ‘then you need to know, if you're only gonna be a vegan, great.’

How do you process soybean? That's a plant processing facility. And they're like, ‘no, that's industrial agriculture.’ I'm like, ‘Okay. There's not a tofu facility out there that doesn't use industrial scale processing. I'm sorry. You can be as vegan as you want, and it's almost impossible to make a full food stock unless you're gonna go mass production, you just can't make money on it. It's too cheap.’ And these people just didn't understand.” 

War in Ukraine and its impact agricultural importance

“War in Ukraine has been quite good for agriculture, to be perfectly honest. Not good for the rest of the world, but from an agricultural perspective, we understand that if we're killing off people and not allowing food to flow from places that are generating it to places where they needed, people starve.

It's not shocking. As soon as the war in Ukraine started, I'm like ‘the biggest consequence is [that] parts of Africa are gonna starve to death.’ They're dependent on that food and having the mechanisms to stop that just caused so much turmoil. So now people are aware that food is a serious issue and we have to take it seriously.

So agriculture has moved back up through the rankings, but for the longest time I'd almost describe it as a four letter word. If you said you were in farming, [people would] say you should get spit on and say you're destroying the planet. Not so much. I'm trying to keep us alive. So it's a shift of mindsets and a shift of perspective.”

Helping students understand the role AgTech plays in global food security

“And now students see that there's a reason to go into this. Students would come into my program, so my resource engineering at McGill and say, ‘I wanna go into soil and water because we're about to run outta water.’ My standard argument, ‘we're not gonna run outta water, we're gonna run outta water that you can drink.’ 

So you have to figure out how to treat the water and how to manage it. And that's a different issue than running out of it. But we could run outta food.You see what a famine is, that's running out of food. And they never thought that was gonna be a serious issue. But now we're running into those places where people can see this possibility.  Where we don't have the buffer we used to have, the big thing was 30 years ago we had plenty of food.

You could get anything you wanted all the time. So why did you care about food?”