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May 14, 2009

Tomorrow's Greenhouse Today!

Via Natasha Chart at change.org we get this glimpse in the LA Times of a potential future for sustainable ag -- the closed-loop greenhouse:
Rising out of verdant acres of strawberries and artichokes between Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean in Ventura County are two mammoth, high-tech greenhouses.

...The facility generates its own renewable power. It hoards rainwater. It hosts its own bumblebees for pollination. And it requires a fraction of the chemicals used in neighboring fields to coax plants to produce like champions.

...Virtually nothing is wasted in this ecosystem. Workers have dug a four-acre pond to store rainwater and runoff. This water, along with condensation, is collected, filtered and recirculated back to each of the 20-acre greenhouses. That has cut water use to less than one-fifth of that required in conventional field cultivation. Fertilizer use has been reduced by half. There are no herbicides and almost no pesticides, and there is no dust.

Five-acres of photovoltaic solar cells supply much of the electricity to run pumps and climate controls. Thermal systems collect solar heat and warehouse refrigeration exhaust to warm the greenhouses on cool evenings. Together, the two systems generate 2.1 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1,500 homes.
This all sounds very high-tech and exciting. But despite the legitimate hoopla and the shiny, state-of-the-art solar PV cells, this facility has a long line of predecessors (and I'm not talking about Biosphere 2). Indeed, Gary Hirshberg, CEO of organic yogurt king Stonyfield Farms, started his career decades ago as an ecologist working at the New Alchemy Institute, a research facility studying "renewable energy, agriculture, aquaculture, housing and landscapes" on Cape Cod. This Mother Earth News article from 1980 describes the Institute's so-called "bioshelters:"
Inside, the best of ten years' worth of ideas have come incredibly close to producing an energy-balanced shelter. Within the translucent walls, enough vegetables can be grown -- using wholistic [sic] methods -- to feed a family of four with greens all year round. A half-dozen tilapia ponds collect the heat of the sun and provide a regular supply of protein. And -- between the solar ponds and the ark's rock storage bed—an adequate reserve of sun heat is stashed away to maintain comfortable temperatures through New England's infamous inclement periods.
Year-round food production on Cape Cod back in the 70s? Not bad. And while the LAT article does suggest the future of urban farming may be found in this style of closed-loop hothouse production, it also tries to maintain the fiction that even with all these advances, year-round food production in northern climates is impossible.

Someone really needs to tell that to Will Allen of Growing Power whose Milwaukee and Chicago-based urban farms (relatively low-tech at that) already grow vegetables and fish year round in greenhouses warmed by compost. This is stuff we know how to do.

I'm not suggesting that cities will grow all their own food in the future and I'm thrilled that California producers are experimenting with this kind of sustainable model. But let's not pretend that this is something largescale American producers are developing whole cloth or even are rushing to embrace. The operation behind the California greenhouse is, ironically, Canadian -- with a Dutch pedigree (the Dutch being experts at hothouse agriculture). If and when this style of greenhouse agriculture goes mainstream, the growers who adopt it will be standing on the shoulders of hippies, the Dutch, and people of color. Let's not forget that.

Photo by jeffcouturier used under a CC license

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Blogger jazma said...

But I ask where are the Monsanto employees and the presidents and the elite growing their Organic Crops????

All of us against non organic, gmo crops need to link together now and start a huge movement ...before its soylent green ...for us.

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