I invite you to consider the following irony: Agriculture is the foundation of civilization. By cultivating plants and animals, we developed the means to grow our tribes into villages, villages into towns, and towns into cities. Historically, most of these settlements originated near the best farmland (duh). Rich soils and reliable water all but guaranteed success for the inhabitants, as long as they were able to defend them, of course. In fact, we’ve been so successful with our civilizations that we now have massive, sprawling cities incessantly shaving and paving that very farmland they were founded upon.
The legendary soils of Sugar House, named after its famed sugar beet industry, now suffocate under the weight of ever more dense development. The last few remaining farms in Lehi, a city hungry for a growing property tax base, are being sold to developers eager to help elbow out the last generation of farmers. The majority of Mormon farming towns in Utah, located on fertile soils at the mouths of canyons, marvels of irrigation and ingenuity, are now covered in big box stores and freeway overpasses.
At a time when more people are hungry for fresh, local food than ever before, the available land to produce it is evaporating. Quickly.
This dilemma has spawned the growing Urban Agriculture movement. Demand has never been higher, yet soil has never been more scarce.
This has led to a technological “land” race over the last decade, guided by new strategies aimed at producing increasingly more food per square foot than our early Mormon pioneers would have ever dreamed possible. They might have had an abundance of fertile wives and fertile soil, but we have LED grow lights, hydroponics and myriad sensors capable of sending updates to our smartphones in real time.
By developing new methods of producing food without soil, the new urban farmer is able to produce fresh, local produce with asphalt underfoot. Is this the revolution that will feed us?
Park City-based Harvest Squared thinks so, and is banking on it. Their answer to the shortage of fertile soil in urban areas is to bypass the need for soil (and sun, for that matter, too). Joining the ranks of a growing number of “portable farms in a box,” they’ve developed a modular indoor farm unit built from a repurposed 40-ft. shipping container. Completely self-contained, the unit can be dropped on any available 320 sq.-ft. area and begin growing produce immediately, in any season. I was able to tour their flagship unit recently. What I saw was an incredibly well-designed, efficient food-producing unit employing hydroponics and LED lighting
With hydroponics, plants are anchored in a soil-less medium and nutrients are delivered via a nutrient solution. Roots are exposed to air directly, or the nutrient solution is highly aerated. Hydroponics uses considerably less water than growing in soil.
With Harvest Squared’s system, it now becomes possible to stack multiple layers of planting areas above one another, resulting in at least five to 10 times the production per square foot as compared with traditional soil farming.
The ModFarm interior contains two long walls of grow racks, each with five tiers of growing space, each tier made up of five rows. Despite its modest footprint, there is space to grow 2,100 plants to maturity, with another 1,500 nursery sites available to start seedlings.
The secret to high production in these compact indoor growing operations is a well-timed rotation of plants, combined with the propensity for hydroponics to grow plants quickly. (I’ve been able to grow plants to maturity in 80% of the time in my aquaponic systems as opposed to soil). The ModFarm can produce roughly 4,000 plants a month, 12 months a year.
The container is tightly sealed and insulated, with heating, cooling and ventilation systems keeping precise control over the temperature in the growing environment, which results in consistent, reliable harvests of flawless plants. The indoor isolation ensures a naturally pest- and weed-free growing environment, eliminating the need for pesticides and herbicides.
All relevant parameters related to plant performance are monitored inside the Modfarm and sent directly to the users’ smartphone. Temperature, humidity, pH, and more are updated in real time, and the farmer can be alerted should any of the parameters fall outside of the ideal range. I was, however, disappointed in the lack of hi-fidelity speakers, as this could clearly have enhanced the plants’ (and farmers’) experience.
The creators of the ModFarm see these high-tech units as the future of farming. They’ve completed their first few rotations of test crops, and the plants look flawless. The next step is to begin intensive market trials with local restaurants and chefs, to begin to collect data and to develop a comprehensive training program for those who purchase their units.
My calculations have the ModFarm putting out the same amount of produce per year with a 320 sq.-ft. footprint as a well managed 4,000 sq.-ft outdoor plot.
Before we hop onto the tech-will-save-us bandwagon, though, we do need to consider that these types of farms require a substantial amount of materials to build and a lot of energy to sustain. Also, the nutrient solution has a limited lifespan and must be disposed of properly so that it does not enter the ecosystem as nutrient pollution. And if a natural disaster or inevitable zombie apocalypse causes the power to go out, that remarkable output drops to zero. We also need to consider the comprehensive nutritional characteristics of food growing from rich, living soils and fueled by the power from the sun, compared to plants grown in absence of the biological soil food web.
While I very much enjoy growing hydroponically, I would also like us to make an earnest effort to preserve the remaining soils and farmland we still have, and maybe even reclaim some of it.
Of course, my dear readers, all of you with garden plots in your yard, growing some of your own food, are perhaps one of the best solutions to the local food dilemma. Good job, you. Thanks for all you grow. I appreciate you.
James Loomis is a professional grower and consultant, and teaches monthly workshops on a variety of topics related to regenerative agriculture and urban homesteading. Facebook.com/beyondorganic