Education: Florida Small Farms Conference, Part III

In the article Education: Florida Small Farms Conference, Part II, I was writing about the classes I took and I ended my article in the middle of the hydroponics class. I did this because I felt like the presenter Tim Blank and his hydroponic system deserved quite a few words.

The most interesting presenter in the hydroponics class, with the most stunning hydroponic growing systems was a former Epcott employee, Tim Blank. His company Future Growing, Inc., makes and sells hydroponic systems for residential and business users. He specializes in consulting, and creating custom fitted systems. His display garden is a rooftop complex of indoor and outdoor systems. What I most liked about his approach was that he had giant rain catch storage tanks or cisterns for his water resource, and he used fish tanks to create the fertilizer for his hydroponic systems which is called Aqua Dynamic Farming. It is a closed growing system in which food crops and fish are produced. The water with fish wastes is somehow sterilized, and then pumped to the plants for water and nutrient. His is the only hydroponic system I have yet seen that wasn’t using synthetic nutrients for the plants. I imagine that if the fish water was run through an ultra violet filter system it would be fine to use on even the leaf vegetables we eat raw, but he did not say how he sterilized the fish wastes, only that he did, and I didn’t learn if the water once run past the plants roots went back into the fish tanks, but I suspect it is so. In a previous article Food Supply Crisis I wrote about a student who had won an award for designing a new way to feed the masses using rooftop hydroponic gardens. I wonder if Tim Blank was that student.

I like that with a hydroponic system it is possible to bag an entire head of lettuce with its roots intact and even in a little water so that the crop is alive at the market, alive on the consumer’s kitchen counter, or still alive to take to the next market. Now that’s fresh!

Because the hydroponic systems are off the ground and often vertical more crops can be produced in far less space. This is a great vibe for the future of grocery stores in large urban areas. Grocery stores could employ people to grow in their green houses on the grocery store rooftop and the produce would only have travel a few hundred feet at the most to get to the store shelves and without taking up any expensive real estate.

One thing I don’t like about this for a small farm operation is the cost, these systems are wicked expensive, and not only to buy. Unless the water is stored rain water there is an energy cost for pumping the water out of the ground, or buying it from a utility, and water is an exhaustible natural resource. It takes a good bit of energy to move and cool the water that nurtures the roots of the vegetables, as well as the energy costs for maintaining the indoor environment of the greenhouse. I also don’t like that the nutrients for these hydroponic systems are synthetic chemicals, and finally in Tim Blank’s Future Growing System, this rooftop vibe with every green option being pursued, including a retractable greenhouse roof for temperate days, there was this unnatural sterility to it. The chefs who came there to harvest for their restaurants each day washed up to the tops of their arms, donned long gloves, booties and hair nets to cut vegetables for their cooking. Something about that hit me wrong. While rationally I can see what’s excellent about this new style industrial food production system it is another INDUSTRIAL FOOD PRODUCTION SYSTEM! I suppose it is far better than the model we have now, and perhaps done the way Tim Blank has done this it could be called sustainable, and perhaps this is the wave of the future for feeding the masses.

I think there is still a place and an important need for under the sky in the soil sustainable farms. I believe the growing of plants in the soil and livestock on grass is key to not just feeding us, but also to saving the earth’s ecology. Sustainable outdoor farms are necessary for more than just food production. They serve several important needs. Sterile rooftop hydroponic food factories may very well be necessary to help feed the worlds cities, but we are done for if all we have on this earth is cities.

Cooperative urban and suburban community gardens as well as small farms, and homesteader’s mini farms and gardens growing to supply local green markets are an important part of community life. We have all of this land at our disposal. It is time to reevaluate the practice of cultivating a front yard full of grass, while depending on the the local grocery store to supply us with stale produce grown thousands of miles away. If hydroponic rooftop gardens can supply our grocery stores with something better than what they have now I think that is a big step in the right direction. We still need sustainable small farms and ranches to grow food that nurtures our humanity, and strengthens our relationship with the land the environment and each other.