Optimism, questions over greenhouse plans


By Patsy Nicosia

Optimistic and cautiously optimistic.
That sums up much of the local reaction to plans to build an $80 million vertical greenhouse on tax-free land owned by SUNY Cobleskill on Mineral Springs Road.
Code Enforcement Officer Mike Piccolo, who coordinates the Village of Cobleskill’s economic development efforts; and Alicia Terry, who heads Schoharie County’s Office of Agricultural Development, are in the optimistic camp.
Cobleskill Supervisor Leo McAllister, who also chairs supervisors’ Economic Development Committee; and former Farm Bureau President and dairy farmer John Radliff are in the other.
“It’s a great concept,” Mr. McAllister said of the Chobe Company’s plans to build a 300,000 square-foot state-of-the-art greenhouse, biodigester, and packing facility at the former Coby Farm, “but we still need the specifics.
“I see a lot of potential and I’m absolutely in favor of the idea. But dollars and cents will determine whether this happens.”
Chobe’s Louis Ferro and Boris Taylor detailed the project for about 35 people in an information session at the college two weeks ago.
It’s designed as a closed system net zero-energy facility, Mr. Ferro said, producing all of its own power through solar panels and the biodigester.
What’s being called the Empire State Greenhouses will be available for college classes, internships and jobs and local farmers will be able to take advantage of on-site food processing and packing facilities, he said.
Ms. Terry pointed out that farmers have always been the first to embrace the efficiencies technology offers and she sees ESG’s plans as a good mix of traditional and newer farming techniques.
And while there are other examples of large indoor greenhouses across the state and country, Ms. Terry said the fact that this one plans to make all of its own energy makes it unique.
Mr. Piccolo said he’s interested in the fact that the project’s developers are promising good jobs and though $80 million is a lot of money, he believes Chobe is the kind of company that can raise it.
“Remember the fish people? Remember the IT people?” he said of proposals floated over the years for the former Guilford Mills.
“These guys are talking about a different kind of farming for the future. And they sound like they know what they’re talking about.”
Mr. Radliff agrees that there’s a growing trend toward growing vegetables under some sort of cover, whether in greenhouses or high-wind tunnels, and said water conservation will only become more critical as the world’s population grows.
But if the ESG project gets off the ground, he wants it to be something practical and affordable that small farmers can use and apply—whether here or in the Third World.
“We [small farmers] are not going to be able to get $5 million grants and align ourselves with the college,” Mr. Radliff said.
“The idea may be a good one, but for me, the question is: What are the deliverables?”
Empire State Development has designated the former Coby Farm as a tax-free zone and ESG hopes to be able to take advantage of tax breaks available through START UP NY; that application process will take a couple of months to complete and the process will allow for additional public feedback.
SUNY Cobleskill President Marion Terenzio said a partnership between Chobe and the college could contribute to sustained economic growth here.
“We believe in our responsibility [to] contribute to regional-local economic and community development in as many ways as possible,” she said.
“Shepherding new business entities into the local community through START UP NY is one such approach.”