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Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouses
And Vertical Farming

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 19, 2006

A very difficult, but very important thing to do is to look at the industry not only as it is, but also as it could be. When I proposed that the industry push a guest worker program that would phase out over 40 years, it was a way of looking at the situation and saying that while we may need this solution today, we can change and do things differently so we won’t need the same solution in 40 years.

Politically these things are difficult to get through because the future has no political constituency. But the future has the Pundit on its side:

So, as soon as the spinach crisis broke, we asked about the viability of greenhouses right here. Then Lou Cooperhouse, Director, Rutgers Food innovation Center, helped us further the discussion here.

Now Marvin N. Miller Ph.D., market research manager, Ball Horticulture Company sent on some additional information:

I forwarded news of your hydroponic story to a friend at Cornell University who I knew had worked on hydroponics for some time. He passed on my email to another professor, Louis Albright. Though they are not growing hydroponic spinach, they have been successfully growing hydroponic lettuces at the edge of the Cornell campus in Ithaca, NY, for many years.

You may want to check out http://www.fingerlakesfresh.com/ for more information about their project.

A hat tip to Marvin for passing this one along. It is a fascinating project. Begun as a research project for Cornell University, the greenhouse is now operated by a non-profit corporation that employs disabled people. Production has increased sufficiently that they explain they are now able to not only sell locally but into the regional distribution centers for Wegmans, Price Chopper and P&C.

But Marvin wasn’t done. He also passed along a note from Bob Langhans with this explanation:

Bob Langhans is a Cornell professor that I’ve known for years through his work on Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). Though a floriculturist by training, his last years at Cornell before retirement were largely involved in hydroponic systems for greenhouse vegetable production. The CEA approach determines optimal conditions for maximizing plant production and then supplies them, whether that means augmenting light, temperature, fertilization, carbon dioxide or whatever is needed to achieve maximum growth. Though Bob is retired and spends part of each winter in Florida, he returns to Ithaca for most of the year and works with Lou Albright on the CEA approach.

Below, you will see an email from Bob. My back and forth yesterday got him excited and his comments clarify some of yesterday’s discussion.

Indeed they do. Bottom line: they believe they can commercially produce spinach and other field greens and: “We can produce crops without the inherent dangers found in fieldgrown crops.” Here is Professor Langhans’ note:

I noted in one of your emails to your friend Jim Prevor, you indicated we are not growing hydroponic spinach. We are and have been doing so for the past 6-plus years.

We felt it was the next crop for us to research after our success with lettuce. Spinach is an excellent product for our system and a very popular product with consumers, because of its high nutrient value.

We first started to grow spinach using the lettuce system, ie., producing heads. Head spinach is the low-value part of that market and is centered in Texas and Colorado.

Baby leaf spinach was just starting along with mixed greens for salads. Vegetable growers in the Salinas Valley started to grow Baby Leaf Spinach and production grew rapidly. Now there are literally thousands of acres of this crop. Production is highly automated and the system does a very commendable job.

That is until E. coli showed its ugly head. They are always going to be vulnerable to this problem, especially if the dairy industry is located right next door. Cows fed grains are real manufacturers of E.coli.

As a side issue re: E. coli, Maurico Salamancia, a graduate student in the 90’s, was interested in food safety with CEA. He preformed a challenge test to demonstrate E. coli does not do well in a CEA hydroponic system. A sterile nutrient solution was added to a petri dish and nutrient solution from an existing lettuce solution (i.e., with all its micro-flora) was added to a second petri dish. He added a known amount of E. coli to each dish and inspected in 10 days. E. coli in the sterile nutrient solution was still alive. In the solution with existing micro-flora, E. coli was no longer present. We were very elated with this result.

We were able to grow spinach with little cultural problems, however, we had a major problem with disease. Pythium was the culprit. Pythium is a water mold and very happy in a hydroponic nutrient solution. It is spread by a special organ called zoospores. These small few-celled organs are produced by the millions, have small tails and move through the solution quickly to infect the whole root system. When we first discovered this problem, it was clear we needed to solve it or there was not going to be a commercial application of our CEA system. It was a potential “Show Stopper”.

Leslie Katzman, another graduate student, studied pythium and produced a thesis on the subject. We learned a number of important things about the life cycle of the disease.

A parallel research program was continued to study “baby leaf” production. Great success here under the efforts of David de Villers and graduate student, Tim Shelford. They were able to produce plants large enough to harvest in 14 days from seed, using CEA technologies. Disease was quickly their limit that prevent commercializing this technology.

They used knowledge learned from Katzman’s work and developed a simple solution (not using any pesticides). We can produce “baby leaf spinach” continuously in the same solution, i.e., have a unit produce a crop every day of the year, with no down time or need for sterilization, etc. The system is commercial.

We are looking for funding to support a commercial demonstration of this technology. A grant has been submitted to NYSERDA.

This comes at a opportune time. We know we can obtain HACCP approval for this process. We can produce crops without the inherent dangers found in field-grown crops. This technique will also work for most other leafy greens. As you know, this product has become a very important part of the vegetable industry. This latest scare does not help.

In addition to all of the above, we are extremely productive. We can produce orders of magnitude greater tons per acre more than the best fields in California. CEA does have large costs; however, CEA avoids the large transportation costs and gives the consumer about as good a product as can be produced (fresh, long lasting, safe, and nutritious). From my perspective, it can’t get much better and everyone wins — the grower, retailer and consumer.

It is time growers on the West Coast begin to talk to us, if they are interested in their future. Their time is limited. Land values are rising, water quality is poor, safety problems will continue, government will get involved and transportation will continue to rise.

You probably got more information than you bargained for, but you asked.

Basically the professor is saying that the higher costs for growing in CEA, or Controlled Environment Agriculture, may be offset by higher yields and reduced transportation costs as growing facilities can be located near the point of consumption. I agree that the big players should be talking to the professor. Although they have applied for a grant to prove the commercial viability of the project, maybe a private sponsor would like to get in on the ground floor.

And I literally mean the ground floor because the whole talk of greenhouses and hydroponics brings to mind Dr. Dickson Desponmmier, a Professor of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences and Microbiology at Columbia University. He has been working on a project called “The Vertical Farm Project: Agriculture for the 21st Century and Beyond,” and it is fascinating stuff. His basic thesis:

The Problem
By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth’s population will reside in urban centers. Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?

A Potential Solution: Farm Vertically

The concept of indoor farming is not new, since hothouse production of tomatoes, a wide variety of herbs, and other produce has been in vogue for some time. What is new is the urgent need to scale up this technology to accommodate another 3 billion people. An entirely new approach to indoor farming must be invented, employing cutting edge technologies.

The Vertical Farm must be efficient (cheap to construct and safe to operate). Vertical farms, many stories high, will be situated in the heart of the world’s urban centers. If successfully implemented, they offer the promise of urban renewal, sustainable production of a safe and varied food supply (year-round crop production), and the eventual repair of ecosystems that have been sacrificed for horizontal farming.

Here is what the farm might look like

Or like this:

Check out The Vertical Farm Project website right here.

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