Raytheon gets bigger. Caterpillar comes to town. Amazon to build and hire thousands. Southern Arizona isn’t doing too bad lately in the big-name department.
Another big name bringing major economic impact to the area has done so more quietly after purchasing a large chunk of land (over 150 acres) along Twin Peaks and Sanders Road in the Marana area with the intent to build a 7-acre, under-glass greenhouse and seed production facility to produce the next generation of corn.
Project construction for the Monsanto facility is nearing the halfway point on the 30-foot-tall steel and glass edifice in the desert. On a recent visit, 160 area contractors were hammering and welding under a $125 million construction contract (in addition to the $4 million it took to purchase the property itself).
“We’ve already got over 200,000 worker hours into the project,” said construction manager Tim Dacey. “By the time we finish, we’ll have over half a million labor hours invested.”
Stefanie Boe, Monsanto Community Engagement and Site Enablement Lead, called the greenhouse “a marvel of architecture.”
In total, the initial build will be a compact 40 acres on one corner of the property, occupied by the massive greenhouse, a retention basin, pads for building mechanicals and a parking area. That leaves 115 acres of open space without a designated purpose. Boe said the company is working with a community advisory panel to figure out what to do with the rest of that land.
This project represents a huge investment in the future for Monsanto Corporation, acquired earlier this year by Bayer CropScience of Germany in a $60 billion deal (one which made Bayer the world’s largest supplier of seeds and pesticides for farmers). Monsanto’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant, speaking in part about the greenhouse northwest of Tucson, called corn a growth driver in announcing plans to upgrade its germplasm in next-generation trait platforms—the mission in Pima County.
Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” noted: “There are some 45,000 items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.”
Monsanto has quietly been around town for several years already, working with the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center in its Roger Road greenhouses performing corn research. The company has a presence in other parts of Arizona, too, like the GMO cotton operations in Casa Grande and Eloy.
“They chose us,” said agricultural center project coordinator Gene Giacomelli, Ph.D. “They presented an opportunity to do corn seed research and we began growing under their out-of-town instructions by telephone and e-mail. When they finally arrived here and saw all the healthy plants, they said, ‘Let’s continue,’ and we began working on a series of crops.”
Giacomelli said the pressure was on to perform, and they did. By utilizing 6,000 square feet of existing greenhouse space, Monsanto had an efficient way to test out some of its research theories and obtain data, all at minimal effort.
Now, it’s time to move on to seed production at their own location, but it won’t happen overnight. First, the greenhouse has to be completed, a target calendared for first quarter 2019.
It’s designed as a marvel of efficiency, and although human employees will be present to perform some of the critical tasks, automated intelligence overseeing a small army of robots will handle the day-to-day—the planting, watering, tending and monitoring of temperature and humidity and carbon dioxide levels. All before bins with potted plants are sent to human technicians to be hand-pollinated.
“Our investment in Arizona is in an area where we see steady growth and a need to upgrade the germplasm,” said Monsanto Corporate Media Relations Coordinator Christi Dixon. “This site is an advanced germplasm development facility supporting the production of new corn inbreds which will eventually be marketed to farmers.”
Boe said the work represents the great, great, great, great grandparents, because they’re six generations away from the seeds that will be in a bag available to farmers.
“We’ll go through six iterations of planting and harvesting,” Boe said. “As a company, we run about 10 years ahead of what farmers are indicating they need and we’re shortening that timeframe here to six years or less.”
Once the doors are open—or in this case, closed in order to maintain required environmental levels—the robots will be put to work.
Pointing out several pluses of the developing site, Boe said: “We’ll recapture and reuse nearly 100 percent of our water.”
Giacomelli has seen the plans for the Seed Corn Project, and said that the greenhouse system will recycle all irrigation water and nutrients for seed corn production, requiring only 20 percent of the total amount that would be used in open field production. Because of that recycling, there is no environmental discharge of wastewater or plant nutrient. Giacomelli added that the closed environment also makes Integrated Pest Management highly effective for pest and disease control, “effectively eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.”
Through previous research and development, today’s corn (second only to wheat in acreage planted) produces ears about the length of a forearm with more than 700 kernels. Monsanto would like bigger and better, larger ears with more kernels—more seed to sell.
With the anticipation of more than half a million corn plants being grown and processed annually under Monsanto’s new glass-covered fields, that dream could become a reality.
Depending on a lot of variables that are still to be determined, the site could employ between 50 and 100 humans to keep the robots and the corn in line.
Economic development agency Sun Corridor Inc. conducted an economic impact analysis on Monsanto’s arrival to the area. They placed a 10-year impact value at $284 million.
Lee Allen is a Tucson Local Media freelance reporter.