3rd Generation Farmer Shares His Thoughts on Next Generation AgTech and Greenhouse Vegetable Production – Urban Ag News

Chris Higgins and Michael Del Ciancio discuss the importance of ag-tech in shaping the next generation of family farms. 

Urban Ag News is extremely grateful that Michael Del Ciancio of DC Farms based in Ruthven Ontario, Canada, has agreed to discuss his thoughts on new ag-tech trends with us.  A third- generation farmer, Michael grew up working on the family fruit and vegetable farm with his father and grandfather. After completing his Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture at University of Guelph, Mike went on to work in music marketing for a brief period managing a metal band in the Toronto area. Eventually Michael returned home to put his wide array of skills to use at DC Farms.

DC Farms is still a family-owned business that has been operated by Ernie and Mary Del Ciancio since 1972. Originally founded as a 22-acre fruit and vegetable farm, DC Farms converted to greenhouse Roma tomato production in 1995. In 2012, DC Farms introduced mini cucumbers in addition to the Roma tomatoes. In 2020, DC Farms switched from mini cucumbers to mini eggplant; still growing the Roma tomatoes.  All of DC Farms products are sold and marketed by Mucci Farms. 

We feel his experiences, the experiences of his family and the size of his marketing partners puts Michael in a very uniquely qualified position to share his thoughts and ideas around how ag-tech will  change the shape of the industry going forward.

Chris Higgins (CH):  The controlled environment agriculture industry (which includes greenhouse production and vertical farming) has been receiving a lot of attention over the past few years.  The industry is being positioned to lead the next major tech revolution in agriculture.  As a multi-generational, family-run commercial greenhouse grower, what areas do you see controlled environment agriculture having the biggest impact?  And what do you think needs to happen before those changes can occur?  

Michael Del Ciancio

Michael Del Ciancio (MDC): Agriculture has definitely shifted over the years.  Traditional field farming is obviously still a necessary option, and will always have a place on peoples’ plates. However, a shift to other forms of food production is necessary as society shifts with the times.  For a few brief years in my early 20s I lived in Toronto, which is Canada’s biggest city.  Now I go back maybe once every few years for concerts and to visit friends.  Every time I drive in on the highway, I’m in shock at how much it has changed, how many massive skyscrapers have populated the downtown core, and I wonder who is living in all these buildings.

The world is growing. It is estimated that within two to three decades the world’s population will hit nine billion people.  (And then drastically decline, but that’s a conversation for another time).

Counter to the above example, driving around my home towns of Kingsville and Leamington, an area which is essentially the greenhouse mecca of Canada and possibly North America, I see acres upon acres of greenhouses being built. I can’t help but wonder, who is eating all these vegetables.  It’s quite simple–people need to eat, and we need people to grow the food for people to eat. The comparison doesn’t stop there however. Skyscrapers are common practice in major cities because quite simply you can fit more bodies on less square footage of land.  The same applies to greenhouse acreage. Approximately one acre of peppers or cucumbers is equal to 20 acres of field-grown.  I see that as the biggest impact. The sheer fact that we will be able to grow more food on less land.  It’s a beautiful thing to be well prepared to feed your own country.

Now, I don’t work on the sales side of things, but one would hope that this should keep marketers and retailers in check while still being profitable for farmers and help keep the price of food at least mildly stable, due to the geographic location being much closer which aids in everything from better shelf life, to a lower carbon footprint affecting the grocery store shelves.

Another area I believe needs focus is the proper governance in areas where these farms will be constructed.   The adjacent communities should understand how modern day agriculture grows safe food, with far less pesticides, and as I stated earlier, with far less square footage. At the same time, the greenhouse itself can be a challenge.  There is an adjustment that takes place when farmland gets covered in 24-foot high glass structures.  With proper communication, and the right leadership, problematic issues can be avoided, and a plethora of great opportunities can be found for many.

One opportunity that stands out is the start of making farming appealing to the younger generation through technology.  I can count on one hand the amount of times in my life met someone under the age of 20 who said “I want to grow up and be a farmer.”  The simple fact is the tradition of generational farms where knowledge and passion are handed down from generation to generation is dying.  Also, modern living has glamourized white collar work, which has driven would-be farmers to live in the aforementioned skyscrapers.  With advancements in tech across the entire industry, and AI in the growing specifically, I believe it’s only a matter of time before young people see a golden opportunity.  A push to educate the youth at a young age, and change the stigma associated with farming will help grow this movement at the grass roots. 

CH:  WOW!  There is a lot to unpack in there.  We might have to split this into two articles.

(I want to know more about your thoughts on the social and environmental impact of nine billion people, but I will save that for the second article.)  Lets focus first on your environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) comment.  I have spoken to many ag-tech investors interested in controlled environment agriculture that see it as an ESG investment as well. Which do you feel is true, new ag-technology (products and services) are allowing greenhouse growers to be ESG compliant or greenhouse growers have always always operated with a focus on the environment and proper stewardship?  Can you give us specific examples to support your answer.  

MDC: Interesting question, my opinion is solely based on my vast experiences being an operator of a family farm for many years. I acknowledge that I may be missing some fundamental points that could alter my stance.  Although I can agree on paper that ESG seems like a beautiful thing and all businesses should make it a focus, I’m quite skeptical that it produces the impact that we want to believe.  Giving a score to a company based on a few selected focal points, on issues that are very much complex, is no easy task, and can very easily be manipulated.  I’ve had enough experiences witnessing new government regulations being put into place as well as speaking with investors to know that much of this seems like marketing and profit generation under the veil of Mother Earth’s preservation.    

All that being said, I do believe the majority of farm businesses are compliant whether intentional or not.  For instance; for years, we have been heating our crops with a hot water heating system, and recapturing CO2 off the boiler to prevent it from entering the atmosphere and putting it right back into the plants to absorb it to aid in photosynthesis.  Installing farm specific grow systems for more uniform irrigation and the ability for water leachate recycling systems to ensure we are creating a closed-loop system with no water leaving the farm or polluting the waterways.  Installing energy curtains to prevent heat loss and drastically lowering gas consumption.

These are just a few major examples of how our industry is attempting to do our part. What makes it so great is that not only are they “green” they are also great business decisions financially.  It’s a win-win and I believe our industry is continuing down this path with artificial intelligence (AI) for example, helping fine tune operations and create more efficient growth.  LED lights allow for much less hydroelectric and gas consumption, and increases production locally which then cuts down the carbon footprint from needing more trucking.

To summarize, I fully agree with the concept of sustainable business/farming, and am excited about the future and where it leads.  However, I don’t agree that more convoluted manipulated regulation (which is silently killing family farms across America) is the proper way to go about it.  We live in a world of convenience and doing this to appease investors makes me extremely uncomfortable.  We are talking about food and land here, the essentials of survival. This is not widgets. We all need to be very careful about how we proceed. Putting all the onus on the hard working farmers who typically care more about the land then most is going to have drastic consequences for all of us in the not-to-distant future.  It already has. 

CH:  The next question is what skills do they need to enter into the space and be successful quickly.  Are “growing” skills needed?  Or will AI handle that and is it more important for them to have skills in coding, physics, biology etc.?

MDC:  Entry into the greenhouse world can come in a wide variety of ways.  Sure, the love of plants is probably the most ideal. However, there are other skill sets that can transfer well into a career in growing.

An engineer’s mind brings complex problem solving skills and logic, which is an asset as there are so many moving parts to a greenhouse operation.  Someone with a fine arts or photography background brings the ability to pick up on visual details within the crop itself through scouting, disease, and growth fine tuning. With AI and tech gaining a stronger presence in greenhouses by the day, of course, a tech and coding background would be tremendously valuable.

CH:  It sounds like you are looking for renaissance minds?  

MDC: As a rising tide lifts all boats.  Having the ability to capitalize on past, current and future data points could be very powerful.  AI, in theory, should make medium (skilled) growers good, and good growers great.   With or without AI, being a grower in a large greenhouse operation brings with it a tremendous amount of responsibility.

If you’re looking to be a grower, it’s best to start with something that gets you in the crop like scouting or maintenance work. Even if you are not directly involved with growing, it is crucial to be in the greenhouse to see the day-to-day operations and get a basic understanding of the flow and environment.  The exposure will help train your mind to recognize patterns in plant growth and environmental conditions throughout the year. It will also show you how this fast paced industry works at different levels, and how there is a physically demanding side to it that can’t be ignored. 

I truly feel that this industry is primed for fresh blood, as I stated earlier farming is not typically framed as a sexy industry for the youth.  If you want to find a middle ground of office work and physical work, this industry may be for you.

It can be challenging at times no doubt about it, but the payoff of working around plants, constant innovation, beautiful weather all the time, diverse people, and the simple fact you are creating food for the world are just some aspects of the career that can create an extremely fulfilling life.  If you can make it in this industry, dealing with the fast pace of a highly perishable item, with highly sensitive plants, unpredictable weather patterns and highly ambitious companies, then you can make it in any industry, and there is a certain power in knowing that that makes you feel empowered. 

CH: I think it’s safe to say that Heraclitus was and will always be right,  “The Only Constant in Life Is Change.”  Our industry is in the middle of what feels like a cataclysmic shift to many of us.  Many of us are hoping these changes will lead to improvements in the quality of food we produce, the quality of life we create as well as improve our ability to steward the environment we so greatly depend on.  Thank you Micheal for taking the time to share your thoughts and insights from a third generation farmer who has earned the right to have an opinion.

To learn more about Michael Del Ciancio and DC Farms, click here.

To learn more about Environment, Sustainability and Governance (ESG), click here.

To learn more about Chris Higgins, click here.

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