Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Huge greenhouse may be farming's future

CAMARILLO, Calif. -- On a coastal plain not far from a Navy base and an outlet mall, the future of California farming is taking shape.
Rising out of verdant acres of strawberries and artichokes are two mammoth, high-tech greenhouses.
Climate change is a serious threat to California's $36 billion agricultural economy. The farming company behind this $50 million complex sees it as insurance against perpetual drought, volatile fuel prices and resilient pests.
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.
This fledgling movement to grow food in closed, sustainable environments could become as revolutionary to farming in the 21st century as California's development of massive farms was in the 20th, agriculture experts say.
"We are doing all of this not only because it will be good for our business but because it will be good for everyone else," said Casey Houweling, president of Houweling Nurseries, the Canadian farming company that is cultivating tomatoes at the facility, which will be fully operational in June.
The son of a Dutch immigrant farmer, the 51-year-old Houweling has helped build his family's agricultural business into one of the largest greenhouse-based growers in North America. But the California facility is no ordinary hothouse.
On a recent afternoon, he was eager to show visitors clusters of plump, sweet tomatoes hanging overhead from vines that reach high into the rafters. This arrangement allows the farm's 450 permanent employees to climb ladders to pick the fruit instead of stooping. The plants, which are fed individually through tubing, produce 20 times more fruit per acre than conventional field production.
Virtually nothing is wasted here. Workers have dug a 4-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 in conventional field cultivation. Fertilizer use has been halved. 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. The two systems generate 2.1 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1,500 homes.
"We believe this is the first greenhouse in the world that is energy neutral," Houweling said.
Houweling envisions a day when greenhouses dot California's lush coastal plains, taking advantage of the abundant sunlight to grow thirsty crops such as lettuce and strawberries, using renewable energy to reduce their burden on the environment.
Until recently, that was a pipe dream. The cost of heating and cooling these structures was prohibitive for all but the most high-value specialty produce. The U.S. grows less than $1 billion worth of greenhouse fruits and vegetables annually.
But the rising expense of traditional farming is narrowing the cost gap. California farmers are coping with years of drought and fighting water wars with cities. They're also grappling with land degradation, an unstable migrant workforce and rising shipping costs.
"We are closer to parity than we have ever been," said Gene Giacomelli, a professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Still, a shift to more greenhouse farming will be slow.
"Houweling is doing the demonstration," Giacomelli said. "He is going to have to prove to himself and his banker that this is the way to go."

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