The public reception was warm Friday night for Empire State Greenhouses, a giant vertical farming project in development to be built on SUNY Cobleskill farmland.

Partners from Chobe Advisors, a New York City-based consultancy overseeing the Start-Up NY project, visited campus to offer an overview and answer questions.

The nearly 300,000-square-foot project is in design and fundraising stages, and will have a total cost of about 75 to 80 million, according to the partners. ESG was awarded a $5 million state Regional Economic Development Council grant in December. The partners also said the project is eligible for USDA loans.

Start-Up NY allows new and expanding businesses to operate tax-free for 10 years on or near eligible university or college campuses in New York State.

“This community seems to be a perfect fit with what ESG will be doing,” said college president Marion Terenzio. The company has promised the creation of about 90 jobs, as well as internship, job and and research opportunities for students studying science and agriculture. The college has agreed to lease part of 80 acres on its farm.

The aeroponic systems to be housed in the three planned greenhouses will produce organic cops year-round, recycle water and be powered by solar energy, with backup energy provided by a large bio-gas digester that will convert manure into fuel, according to partners Louis Ferro and Boris Taylor.

“If we can upfront the cost of the energy we’re at a huge advantage,” said Ferro. “If we can grow locally it will last longer.” The goal is a zero net energy operation. ESG will also have on-site processing and packaging to ship the produce around the East Coast. Sysco Corporation has agreed to purchase everything they produce, the partners said.

Ferro emphasized that ESG would not compete with local farmers, but grow out-of-season produce and invite area farmers to sell to their distributors. With climate-modified insulation on the industrial greenhouses, a range of about 50 crops can be grown and rotated quickly, Taylor said.

One attendee objected to collecting manure from farmers without paying them to use in the digester, but Ferro and Taylor contested that new environmental regulations for manure storage are hindering dairy farmers, who have manure to spare.

School officials said there will be additional opportunities for public comment on the project in the coming months. Chobe said it would like to break ground in the spring or summer.

Erin Jerome, staff writer, may be reached at (607) 441-7221, or at ejerome@thedailystar.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DS_ErinJ .

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