Teaching the Next Generation of Urban Indoor Growers
by Scott Matus
The indoor farming industry is growing larger every day, powered by visionary entrepreneurs and community leaders who want to make year-round fresh local produce a reality. Gotham Greens, one of the movement’s pioneering companies, recently announced that they raised an additional $29 million to expand their urban greenhouse operations into new cities across the United States.
But despite the industry’s large potential and continued growth, urban agriculture still faces many challenges.
One of the larger and perhaps less discussed challenges right now is a lack of indoor agriculture training programs for newcomers hoping to enter the space and operate farms. Outside of formal education programs in select universities, it can be very difficult to find indoor farming courses that give growers the basic tools they need to manage commercial hydroponic systems.
All the urban and peri-urban farms in the world won’t make a difference if there aren’t enough trained people to successfully operate them.
To address this void in the industry, Yevul Academy founders Tamir Levy and Stéphane Razzon have created a week-long Urban Farmer Program to train the next generation of indoor urban farmers. According to the founders, the idea behind the program is to take all the indoor agricultural knowledge that has been gained over the past decades and to synthesize everything down into a concise curriculum that gives farmers the most relevant tools they need to succeed.
The goal of the program is to give newcomers in the space the skills they need to then return home and start growing hydroponically, and to spread their newfound tools and knowledge to others as well.
The latter idea is particularly important to Tamir and Stéphane, who envision their program reaching farther than the students who come attend the courses in Israel. “Success to us isn’t just as simple as whether our students enjoy the course,” explains Stéphane. “We want our students to return home and be ‘the urban farming person’ – to be ready to disseminate their new knowledge back to their community.”
Tamir, who is a lawyer by training, was thinking about starting a farm of his own when he and Stéphane first made contact online a few years back. At the time, Stéphane was interning at German indoor farming company Infarm and volunteering at the Association for Vertical Farming in his spare time. The two made plans to meet in person once Stéphane was back home in Israel.
Shortly after returning home, Stéphane and Tamir met in person in Tel Aviv and started brainstorming ideas. According to Tamir, after their first time meeting each other it became immediately clear to both of them that they had good working chemistry and should collaborate.
Tamir still had dreams of starting an indoor farm, but as the two chatted they became hooked on the “huge problem in this industry of an untrained workforce and a lack of training programs,” said Stéphane. Tamir had experienced this problem first hand in recent years as a lawyer with no formal training in hydroponics. “It’s easy enough to buy a ready-to-go hydroponic system these days,” he explained, “the hard part is actually operating it well.”
Stéphane and Tamir knew that all the informational, physical and human resources needed to train indoor growers were available right there in Israel, and so they created Yevul Academy to harness those resources and become a one-stop shop for anyone looking to start a career in indoor urban agriculture.
At its core, the Yevul Academy Urban Agriculture Program’s intensive curriculum is built around three parts: theoretical education, hands-on experience with hydroponic systems, and a networking component that includes guest lectures, farm tours and meetups with AgTech entrepreneurs in the surrounding area. “It’s a first of it’s kind course,” explains Tamir, “meant to deliver the most comprehensive curriculum possible all within a week.”
The academy is situated in the city of Rehovot, where the program is able to take advantage of the city’s vibrant and modern agricultural scene.
The theoretical portion of the program takes place at the Hebrew University’s Rehovot campus and is taught by a team of agronomists, all alumni of the Hebrew University. Lodging for the entire program is also included at the University’s campus.
The practical hands-on portion takes place at the nearby Rehovot Science Park, which is home to some 40+ FoodTech and AgTech startups. According to Tamir, “what stands out in these practical workshops is not only do students get this hands-on experience, but they also do so in a startup ecosystem as part of a coworking space where there are a large number of AgTech startups that they get to share ideas with and network.”
During these practical workshops, Tamir and Stéphane want to make sure that students learn how to both construct and adapt different forms of hydroponic systems, as well as deal with common issues that might arise as they manage similar systems in the future. To accomplish this they’ve integrated the latest technologies into their hydroponic systems to jumpstart their students’ journeys towards urban farming careers.
“We provide DIY systems with all the materials needed for participants to build their own systems,” explains Stéphane. “Once students have them up and running, we provide them with real-life problems that growers face around pH, temperature and other variables. Essentially, we want to take what would be a year's journey in hydroponics and make the same lessons accessible within our short time frame.”
The first week-long course is set to begin towards the end of this December. “We’ve already received some requests,” says Stéphane, “but there are still spaces available.” Stéphane and Tamir are looking to have between 20-30 students in total, so that they can keep the class and workshop sizes small.
Interviews will be held with prospective participants before the course to ensure that those entering are ready and serious about urban farming. In addition, Stéphane and Tamir plan to provide students with a free year-long consulting program after they finish the course in December. “We think this continued assistance and feedback is really important for people to grow both personally and professionally,” they explained.
Looking ahead five years from now, Stéphane and Tamir have a simple goal: make indoor farming more accessible. And a lack of available education, as they see it, is a major impediment in the way of achieving this.
“In the nexus of education, workforce training and vertical farming, there's a huge gap to fill that we've experienced numerous times first hand,” says Tamir. “The labor issue is such a major problem, and we know there's a tone of work that needs to be done.”
For the time being, Yevul Academy’s Urban Agriculture Program will take place in Israel and it will be up to students to take what they’ve learned back with them wherever home is. But in the not so distant future, Stéphane and Tamir envision bringing their program with them around the world.
“We see ourselves eventually venturing outside of Israel and conducting these courses and workshops globally, and tailoring them to the needs of the local community,” explained Stéphane. “To generate a long-lasting impact, there have to be guiding hands in communities around the world.”