UA Alum Banks on Indoor Agriculture

Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Brian Caplan found his passion at the UA's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

Brian Caplan worked in corporate banking on the East Coast for two years before deciding to make a life change. When he learned about UA’s master’s programs and the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, he said “it all clicked for me.”

Caplan earned his Master’s degree in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering in 2018 and now works as an assistant grower at Gotham Greens’ 75,000 square-foot greenhouse near Chicago.

While working on his master’s, Caplan was on a team of five students from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering, who won a contest to design a new rooftop greenhouse at the Student Union Memorial Center. The greenhouse, completed in 2018, now helps stock the Campus Pantry.

What brought you to the UA to study indoor agriculture?

I got my degree in applied mathematics from Robert Morris University (Pennsylvania) and got a job in corporate banking. But it was unfulfilling, just moving papers around and helping a large entity make money. My wife had been working on a project and brought up vertical farming, I’d never heard of it. But as soon as I looked it up and researched it, it all clicked for me. That’s what I want to do with my life. Arizona has the best program, a lot of (indoor agriculture) square footage and is a big player in urban ag, controlled environment.

How did you get involved in the rooftop greenhouse design contest?

Given our experience in greenhouses and controlled agriculture, it made a lot of sense to use a design that demonstrated that even in greenhouse and controlled ag and it made sense to use a design to show that even in such a small space we could produce a whole lot of food, as opposed to a raised bed without covering. A greenhouse (at the Student Union) is perfect; why not be able to produce throughout the (school) year and provide food for the pantry.

There were a lot of creative projects, but we knew we were in contention for sure. Not to say we’re experts but we were pleasantly surprised to win. I thought it was going to end there. I commend (Arizona Student Unions Director Todd Millay) and thank him for following through and actually constructing it all. To be able to leave my mark on campus is amazing. It’s a great feeling knowing it’s there. I wish I could see it in production now; I will at some point.

Why is indoor agriculture important?

I’m an optimist, but a realist, and absolutely we have issues with our food production system currently. It’s something that out of necessity humans have to move toward. Controlled environment gives you opportunities to have food closer to where the populations are; why not be able to grow food in the city and have food travel shorter distances? People are more aware of food now and what’s being put in food and the importance of knowing how your food is produced. As climate change happens; drought, flood, crop loss, it should really push us toward controlled environment ag, and year-round production without those threats. But it’s not perfect, the barrier is the high start-up cost.

What is your role at Gotham Greens?

Everything I learned at UA and especially the CEAC (Controlled Environment Agriculture Center) prepared me for my position here, from the chemistry of what plants need to just the experience of hands-on growing food, not just (classroom) learning. Gotham Greens started out small in New York and now has expanded to three, two in New York and one here in Chicago. It’s amazing to see. We’ve been able to be profitable and expand. I’m just to grateful to UA and CEAC, I learned everything I needed to. I had a great experience.