After three years of development, a seven-acre greenhouse facility operated by Bayer just outside of Marana is expected to begin operations this week, with plans to begin heading toward full capacity in March. The facility will produce genetically modified corn.
Bayer, a multi-billion-dollar multinational company, divides its business into three categories: pharmaceuticals, consumer health and crop science. The local facility falls under the crop science designation.
The facility broke ground in March 2017, and was originally operated by the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto, which Bayer acquired in 2018. Even before Monsanto broke ground, local environmental and farm groups resisted the project.
“There were a number of residents who were somewhat to very upset that Monsanto was coming to town,” said Matthew Lingard, site lead for the new facility. “We’re here because of the innovation economy in this area; we very much want to be here.”
The facility is located on a 155-acre plot just north of a Tucson Electric Power solar farm. The site will focus on seed production and agricultural innovation, and will use automation to optimize plant density and workflow. At full capacity, Bayer expects the facility to average three to four crop cycles per year. Half of the corn grown will have specialized traits due to biotechnology, and half will not.
“[The University of Arizona] likes to talk about the fourth industrial revolution, and that has a lot to do with sensors and AI, and that’s a lot of what we’re doing here,” Lingard said. “We’ve never grown corn like this, and we’ve never had a greenhouse like this… Speed is the name of the game.”
The facility is expected to create a $284 million economic impact by 2025, and contribute $1.5 million in taxes annually. Bayer has invested roughly $100 million in the facility already.
As the greenhouse’s environment is controlled, the facility will be able to recycle roughly 90 percent of its water, and use only a fifth of the water normally used on an open cornfield. According to Lingard, although the facility is only seven acres, Bayer purchased 155 acres for the water rights and associated wells, but did not provide a specific number on how many gallons of water the facility would use annually.
“We need to change the way we think about growing food,” Lingard said. “We have to use natural resources more efficiently and responsibly… Our goal is to grow as much high-quality corn as possible.”
The facility will provide multiple products for farmers to purchase, including herbicide- and insect-resistant plant seeds, herbicides and conventional seeds without GMO traits. Lingard said Bayer’s patented seeds should be viewed similarly to software products, in the amount of time and effort they put into developing them.
According to Bayer’s plans for the facility: “State-of-the art climate systems will be installed to manage tight temperature and light parameters in the greenhouses. All in-bound and out-bound air is filtered and controlled, so we can govern humidity and climate as well as contain pollen.”
The corn will be grown above-ground in planters filled with specialty soil shipped in from other Bayer-affiliated facilities. After the soil is used, it will be distributed throughout the unused land on the 155-acre plot.
“When people see it, one of the main things people think we’re growing here is marijuana,” Lingard said. “And while I’m happy for marijuana farmers, Bayer is not interested in that; the only thing we’re growing in this greenhouse is corn.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2019 approximately 80 percent of corn acres were planted with seeds genetically engineered to be resistant to both insects and herbicides. In the year 2000, this number was nearly zero.
In the years leading up to opening, Monsanto and Bayer formed several partnerships in Pima County, such as with Sun Corridor, the Town of Oro Valley and the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Lingard said the facility is interested in partnering with the Pima Joint Technical Education District, because “farming is now a STEM field.”
Bayer expects the location will employ more than 100 people. Positions are currently open for agronomic research specialists, safety coordinators and more.
Once the facility is operational, Bayer plans to provide tours of the greenhouse. But for the time being, they say they still have a lot of work to do.
“2018 and 2019 were long, trying years, and candidly, I don’t think 2020 will be any easier,” Lingard said. “There’s still a lot to be done… It will likely take us the majority of 2020 to reach full capacity.”