Friday, March 14, 2008

New Farming Technologies Key To Our Food Future




The recent debates regarding the applicability of ethanol as a fuel because the corn used in the United States as a source of energy is corn taken away from the food supply has prompted me to do some key research on alternative farming techniques.

The recent price increases for commodity grain products is being caused by the increase in demand around the world with a supply that is far short of this current demand. This is not going to change until more supply is brought onto the market. When we add the variable of food transportation costs it is clear that there needs to be LOCAL solutions to the food production problem. It makes little sense to transport American grain over to China or African nations because their local production is short. If this is done on a routine basis rather than in response to some exceptional condition - clearly this is a gross market inefficiency.

As I evaluated the two leading options for alternative farming - hydroponics and areoponics I was given a further set of constraints in the debate. Others were critical about the water and energy that is used in farming. Hydroponics requires that the plants roots be submerged in large tubs of water throughout the process. This might be a violation of the constraints to both not use an oversupply of water and to be able to deal with areas around the world where water is scarce.

This constraint has led me to focus on aeroponics which seemingly use less water. With aeroponics - the plants are suspended in air with their roots exposed. The water and nutrients are sprayed into an enclosed chamber as a fine mist. This allows the water droplets to penetrate into the innermost roots that might be mangled together in a mesh. This has proven to be an effective means of producing crops. This technique is surely used for plant cloning as part of scientific research.

I did note, however, that corn, the initial subject of my research does not appear to be a lead corp for hydroponic/aeroponic farming. I would assume that the long stalk of the corn plant is problematic and no doubt would need to be supported in two or three places along the stalk to be grown. Most of the plants that I have seen - tomato, lettuce and peppers - are shorter, bush-like plants by comparison.

I will continue my research. I have committed that for the summer I will augment my usual crops of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers grown on my rear deck with an aeroponic contraption of some type so that I can conduct my own research on the matter. At minimum the enclosure will keep my dog from eating my crop as he did before I roped the area off from his access.

Today my deck - tomorrow some part of Africa that is in need of agricultural innovation!!

2 comments:

Chris said...

I truly applaud your efforts in developing new farming technologies- for the life of me I still can't understand why it's taken us so long to only get where we are now.

I'm not familiar with aeroponics, but I do want to say that hydroponics, as an industry, should not be discounted because of it's water use. Compared to traditional farming/gardening methods, hydroponics uses 70%-90% less water because the water goes to exactly where it needs to be and isn't wasted to sustain weeds. Additionally, fertilizer isn't being lost due to run off, which eliminates the potential pollution of lakes and streams.

In extreme areas where water is scarce I can see the appeal of aeroponics, but I imagine even greater babysitting would be required to produce consistently successful crops. This is not a big deal if machines on timers are available to do this, but when funds and technology are in short supply, human vigilance would be required to pick up the slack. Quality and quantity of aeroponics workers, depending on the size of the crop requiring attention of course, might become a problem.

Constructive Feedback said...

Chris:

From my research it seems that hydroponics is actually the way to go. Aeroponics is best for incubating small plants. It did not seem to be as efficient or cost effective with adult sized plants.

In addition where as I had assumed that hydroponics required a large and permanent pool of water - the hydroponic store that I visited showed me that the water can actually be stored in a bucket, pumped up into the potting container via a timer and then the water being allowed drain back down into the bucket for use in another group of plants. The water requirements are far less then I thought. I got my assumptions after seeing a lettuce farm that was hydroponic and they used a large amount of water for their production. Their scale was far larger than I plan at this time.

At minimum I will grow a batch of hydroponic tomatoes this summer, replacing or supplementing my normal back yard crop.