Ag Alert: Dirt not needed to grow veggies

Farming enterprises, especially in other parts of the world, are proving that soil is not necessary to produce vegetables. COURTESY OF PIXABAY

It may be a stretch to call them farmers, but some enterprises, particularly in the arid Middle East, are producing vegetables, notably the leafy greens, without soil. Even water is force fed, and sales are brisk.

The indoor production facilities more closely resemble warehouses than typical farms, with plants growing on vertical racks extending toward the ceiling. Lines carrying nutrient-rich water and powering high intensity lighting are prominent substitutes for soil and sunshine.

One of the major Mideast airlines operates such a high-production facility, even providing its competitor airlines with quantities of the output. Passengers seem content with the robust nature of the salad vegetables they consume as air fare. A few ground-based shoppers are enjoying limited supplies of the factory-produced greens.

Producing crops without soil seems to have been a long-term challenge for food producers. Hydroponic production has been practiced in California at varying levels from backyard hobbyists to full-scale commercial producers for many years. With roots immersed in circulating liquids which are stabilized at controlled nutrient levels, plants are projected to thrive. If not, the mixture can be adjusted, even for temperature.

But none of the indoor production activity is threatening California leafy greens producers. They grow and ship to market 75 percent of all the lettuce, broccoli, kale, endive and a half dozen other greens that are sold in America – and the volume has increased each year.

They do admit, and lament, that a truck loaded with their products requires four or five days to get close to major consumption areas of the country. Although carefully iced and packed, the tender greens can show some wear in that time. And, of course, the determination of handlers at the market end is always an issue with fresh produce. The airline in Dubai has neither of those concerns.

But not all potential competition for California’s soil-based producers of leafy greens is as remote as the Middle East. One company is operating a vertical farm near Boston, and plans to open another soon in Connecticut and a third in Texas this year.

Oasis Biotech held a grand opening recently of its farm in Las Vegas, and plans to deliver to its first customer this summer. Oasis intends to be more than a grower, offering equipment for vertical farming, and designing and building indoor farms for others.

While the concept of farming without soil is not new, recent developments such as improved LED lighting advance the possibilities further. Its claim that full production can be achieved while using 99 percent less water than conventional growing methods broadens its appeal.

However, constructing a no-soil facility is expensive, and maintaining and staffing it demands additional resources. Operating personnel usually requires extensive training, and salaries dwarf those of conventional farm workers, their supervisors and equipment operators.

Even so, investors seem to be attracted to the concept. A recent start-up in South San Francisco attracted $200 million, and says it intends to establish several vertical indoor farms near major cities throughout the world. Enthusiastic promoters can envision the vertical facilities as attractions for homes, businesses and other facilities as neighbors. They are basically odorless, dust-free and quiet.

Experimentation is expected to continue to explore production of edibles beyond the leafy greens profile – root vegetables such as carrots, beets and potatoes. Somebody is bound to experiment with corn and, of course, beans. Until then, count on Castroville for artichokes, several California valleys for onions and garlic, and conventional growers for leafy greens.