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Growing Up

Recently, while at an event during sustainability week at UC Santa Barbara, I got to chatting with some students about sustainability and the future of our food supply. Being in the agricultural distribution industry, I often find myself in conversations such as these. That day, my eyes were opened to things I did not know and it left a big impression on me. I learned that by the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth’s population will reside in urban centers. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use. This prompted me to research on the subject; what can be done about this? What are our options? Some experts say there is a possible solution: indoor farming, or more precisely, viable, vertical farming.

Greenhouse growing has been around for years, but using greenhouse methods to grow in levels vertically, as opposed to horizontally, are more recent and provide a much more efficient use of space. Some say that in the years to come, this will be the prevailing method for farming. I figured that since I am in the produce business, I better know where we are headed!

Although we are lucky to live in a region where the sun shines almost 300 days a year and produces the best produce in the world, we are still subject to Mother Nature. Weather dependent crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers simply, will not grow in the soil here, year round. Lucky for us, enter the hydroponic, hothouse grown versions. In the winter, when our customers lament about the pale, tasteless tomatoes, I always recommend hothouse grown. The industry has gotten so good at producing these, that you almost, can’t tell the difference. In fact, some customers prefer them to the farm grown. Another bonus is that we are only a stone’s throw away from many of these growers; among them, some of the most famous for the living lettuces seen everywhere.

I recently toured a butter lettuce facility and was blown away by their operation. They turn out millions of heads of beautiful butter lettuce a year, using a completely closed system. What takes 30 days to grow in the field, takes them 15 days, using 95 percent less water, about 50 percent less fertilizer, and zero pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. As a reference to the popularity, The Berryman sells over 80,000 heads per year. The current technology allows for pretty much anything to be grown hydroponically, from potatoes to melons to corn. But is that what we want? Is farming indoors a betrayal to traditional farmers?

In short, vertical farming is just traditional farming, with a substitute for the soil and sunlight; moved to a warehouse with nutrient fortified water and wired with LEDs.  I must admit, I feel a little funny supporting a concept that deviates from the story of the farmer and his fields. To me, the latter is a much more romantic story of nature; stewarding the land, the sun rising and setting on Nature’s majesty. The alternative sounds like a chemistry lab with its bright lights and closed environment, but isn’t that something we should get our heads wrapped around, considering we are heading for some serious issues with no apparent solutions using traditional methods?

What will be the fate of the soil farms? Will they be a thing of the past? Will we lose our connection to nature by growing and consuming food grown in controlled environments? The answer is: probably not. The current technology for indoor farming is still costly. It’s an environmental solution, but still has its drawbacks. Certain crops are simply too expensive to be grown indoors, i.e., it would cost $25.00 worth of light and energy resources to produce enough wheat indoors, to make one loaf of bread.

Could there be a place for both? In my estimate, yes—they can co-exist. Vertical farming can ease the burden on nature’s land scarcity by growing crops that can thrive indoors, and if we continue to grow crops in nature that are best suited to soil growth, such as wheat, rice and corn, we can have the best of both worlds. It may take some adjusting to change that we might not like, but perhaps it’s time to open our minds and expand our view as we watch farming, ‘grow up!’